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Whither Professional Cuddling?

The industry is thriving, but some businesses are blurring the line between snuggles and sex work

“Hug me, I’m 18,” the t-shirt in the photo reads. It clings to the torso of a young woman sporting a come-hither look.

This may be a cuddle-for-hire website, but it’s not extolling the restorative power of platonic touch. Unlike the Snuggery, which has the soothing color scheme of a therapist’s personal blog and says it aims to “make the world a gentler place, one cuddle at a time,” Cuddle Time Agency is all about the women, with photos of cuddle babes lying in bikinis on yachts and scrunching their boobs together in grainy webcam shots.

“I need one [of these women] in Orlando,” a would-be customer writes below a photo on Facebook. “Here’s our new Chi town girl,” the agency posts in response, along with a photo of a young, curly-haired woman posing at a party. “Oh if only she was in Orlando,” the man responds, wistfully.

Richard Banach, a New York-based mortgage auditor, is the founder of the agency and his business practices don’t sit well with pro cuddlers who have made it their mission to desexualize connection via human touch.

“These businesses are atrocities,” Samantha Hess, who has provided more than 100,000 minutes of paid cuddle sessions, says. “Anyone who uses the platform of platonic touch to promote sexual intention is abusing people in the worst way.”

“People seek this out instead of sexual services because they want to feel secure, not used,” she continued.

This schism over the future of for-profit cuddling has been long in the making. Ever since cuddling emerged as a trendy news item, new cuddling services have attempted to capitalize on the buzz, often with little thought to their approach. Cuddlr, an app which launched in 2014 to widespread press, was quickly pulled from the App Store after refusing to ban users who tried to hook up with their cuddlers.

Similarly, Cuddle Time seems primed for creating uncomfortable moments. It doesn’t help that Banach refers to his cuddlers as “soft escorts” and compares them to literal pieces of meat.

“[Customers say] ‘I would like number five, or number eight… it feels like I am running a Chinese takeout restaurant,” he said via email.

While most professional cuddlers are loath to associate sex with their profession, Banach doesn’t seem to care. “One of our better ad headlines is ‘Cuddle with a College Cutey!’” Banach says. “Heck, I would pay the $95 to have one of these dreamy college girls in my bed for an hour.”

His marketing methods are equally unconventional. Instead of framing cuddling as a type of physical therapy for the lonely and touch-deprived, Banach advertises his services on Craigslist and in the back pages of alternative newspapers. He used to stand outside Madison Square Garden handing out glossy fliers while sporting a t-shirt that read “Cuddle Women!,” but people thought he was promoting a strip club because the visuals he used were so graphic.

Blurring the line between cuddling and sex work can lead to dangerous scenarios. Some have quit the profession altogether after realizing how many clients wanted more than just to be the big spoon.

“I stopped working at Cuddle Buddies because I no longer felt comfortable going into other people’s homes,” wrote one former cuddler in a Reddit AMA. “Overall it was a very safe job but after one particularly pushy client and hearing some other stories, I realized that even if I could handle a sticky situation (mace is a girl’s best friend), I didn’t want to have to.”

Others have complained about wandering hands and uncomfortable come-ons during sessions gone awry. In an essay about her experience, one former cuddler recalls attempting to disentangle herself from a particularly grabby customer. “His scratchy, gray mustache drags itself up my neck and his nostrils wheeze as they fill with the scent of my hair. ‘You smell so good,’ he whispers, his sticky breath hot in my ear.”

This isn’t how it’s supposed to go down. Jean Franzblau of the Cuddle Sanctuary says the whole point of cuddling is to detach touch from titillation in order to provide real healing. Franzblau teaches her cuddlers how to give and receive consent, which can be complicated. Certain positions, like spooning, are more advanced, so she starts slow; sometimes all she does is gaze into a client’s eyes for half an hour, which makes her feel “honored, touched, moved; I feel compassion and love coming through me.”

“Spooning is heavenly, but it’s an advanced position,” she explained. “If people connect sexually to cuddling then of course, when they’re spooning, their bodies are going to be like, ‘It’s sexy time!’ In these situations, I just adjust positions so that clients can move their energies from erotic to platonic.”

Hess, meanwhile, has devised a 40-hour training session for those who wish to learn how to cuddle in a way that won’t make their clients aroused, or cause them to become romantically attached. It’s not always simple to avoid boner contact, but she knows exactly how to do it.

In contrast, the only training provided by one of the largest cuddle websites, “The Snuggle Buddies,” is a book called the Cuddle Sutra, which includes poses like “Cheek to Cheek,” “Come to Papa,” and “Sardines.” Hess points out that the book is meant for people who are romantically involved.

Snuggle Buddies’ sister site is foot fetish service called Touch Feet. Some women are listed on both sites — a detail that hasn’t escaped Hess. “It’s (excuse my language) fucked up,” she said via email.

Scrolling through Snuggle Buddies, most of the profiles you see feature women; founder Evan Carp told me he only caters to male customers now. Indeed, the struggle to find female customers could help explain the rise of agencies like Cuddle Time. “There’s already a culture for men to pay for services that involve touch,” Franzblau says. “They’re able to advocate for that need.”

After looking at the website for Cuddle Time, she was disappointed to see a lot of sexualized images of young women. “It’s not a direction that I will be taking in my business,” she said. “But their site is pretty smart business-wise because it gives men a pat on the back for using their services. Rather than being something to be embarrassed of, the site makes you feel like you’re shopping for porn or an escort.”

Still, Franzblau says she would rather market her services as being akin to visiting a luxurious spa. “That strategy feels more in line with my values.”