When the moment arrived, I guided Madison into my bedroom and we sat on the edge of the bed, laughing a bit nervously. “So … what do we do now? How does this start?” I asked.
“Well,” Madison answered in her soft voice, “I usually suggest we can start out by spooning. … I’ll be the big spoon.”
“No!” I said, sweating slightly with alarm.“Maybe you can start by just playing with my hair?”
I lay with my head on a pillow on her lap.“I can tell your mind is racing,” Madison said, her fingers in my hair. “Was it a difficult day?”
“This is me every day,” I said. But, admittedly, my mind was racing more than usual.
I had invited a professional cuddler into my house and now I was trying to “have a cuddle.” I could already tell it was going to be a disaster.
I had the tunes going (a little minimalist Icelandic electronica), the lights down low (no candles – too romantic), the dog curled up with us. Everything was in place and I wasn’t able to relax. I was going to squander my precious $35 half-hour with glowing, earnest Madison, who had changed into non-restrictive clothing just for the occasion. I wasn’t able to perform! Frankly, I’d been dying for a cuddle. I didn’t care what faces my friends and co-workers made when I told them – they seemed to regard cuddles-for-pay as faintly obscene or pathetic. I was going for it completely unironically. What kind of monster doesn’t enjoy a cuddle?
Of course, almost everyone does. Touch is both a human need and a pleasure. It releases oxytocin, a hormone that Stockholm physiologist Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg has studied for more than 30 years. She has observed that the hormone is present in us continuously but spikes in situations where a person feels especially safe, especially when skin-to-skin contact is involved.
“We know that breastfeeding does it, labour does it, sex does it. Full sensory input that has a warm, touching quality can contribute to oxytocin release,” she says. With increased oxytocin comes reduced blood pressure and stress levels, and an improved capacity of the body to heal.
Or, as Marylen Reid, a professional cuddler who runs the Cuddlery, puts it, “Oxytocin is called the ‘cuddle hormone.’ It’s a really easy way to get happier.”
Uvnas-Moberg feels that culturally, we are touch-deprived, overall. While a life partner and/or children (or even a dog or cat, in a pinch) can fulfill our needs quite naturally, “There are periods in life when you may not have somebody there,” she says.
Recent census reports have shown that Canadians are marrying and having kids later than ever before (only 18 per cent of Canadians age 18 to 34 are married with children, in contrast to 42 per cent in 1971). In the meantime, an unprecedented number are living alone.
This shift coincides with the rise of “cuddle culture.” Last year, an app called Cuddlr was launched that paired would-be nuzzlers at Cuddle parties – events where friends gather and make like it’s a sleepover – are having a resurgence after peaking in the early 2000s: Organizers in Vancouver say they’ve been holding up to seven parties a month.
Cuddle-for-pay companies are on the rise: Samantha Hess, owner of the high-profile Portland, Ore., business Cuddle Up to Me, held a CuddleCon last month. And in January, two new companies, CuddleMe.ca and the Cuddlery, Madison’s employer, announced they’d be opening in Toronto.
Reid has run the Cuddlery out of Vancouver for three months. Formerly a lawyer, she came up with the idea four years ago, after moving back to Canada from Europe. “I was in a really competitive field and my affection needs were not fulfilled,” said Reid, who now has cuddlers in six Canadian cities. “I thought that if I needed this service, probably other people needed it, too.”
Cuddlers make both in- and out-calls, but all clients have to sign an agreement that blatantly states that the service is not sexual. It also stipulates that every session will be taped (without sound) to protect both parties from allegations of misconduct.
Madison was not overly concerned for her safety, although she acknowledged that other people (including me) worried for her. “I like to think the best of people,” she told me. Gentle, non-judgmental and holding a BA in sociology with a minor in gender, sex and culture, Madison was someone for whom, it seemed to me, cuddling was a life calling.
“It’s something that’s always come really naturally for me,” she said. “Growing up as someone who has a mild disability, touch has always been something that’s been really healing for me and a really great way for me to connect to people.”
Connecting by touch is something that we are not great at in North America. In the 1960s, Sidney Jourard, a Canadian-born psychologist, did a famous (informal) study of how often people in different cultures touched.
Whereas an American couple in a restaurant were seen to touch twice in an hour, the number in Paris leapt to 110 times; in Puerto Rico, it skyrocketed to 180. “I talk to a lot of immigrants that are from Latin America [about living here] and they think it’s really hard,” said Reid, who is from Quebec.
In Sweden, another low-contact society, some schools have implemented a Peaceful Touch program, which focuses on pairing up children to practise light massage above the shoulder, and “touch games.” “If you do that repeatedly, you get very clear effects,” Ulvas-Moberg said. “You increase the bonding of the group, you reduce the aggression and the loudness.”
In Canada, as we get older, we tend to assume we will get all our touch needs met by our sexual partner. But where does that leave people who don’t have cuddly partners, or who are single? For men, this has traditionally been addressed by the sex industry. As Nikki Thomas, a former sex worker and former executive director of the Sex Professionals of Canada, points out, sex is only a part of the experience of visiting a sex worker.
“I used to say a two-hour appointment and a one-hour appointment would involve the same amount of actual sex,” she said. “It’s what happens in between that makes the difference.”
Not everyone is a natural at what happens in between, Reid points out, which is why she provides lots of training for her staff. She likes them to be compassionate and giving, as well as technically proficient. She does a background check and, through conversation and “tough questions,” makes sure the candidate is non-judgmental and compassionate.
Training begins before the interview process is done – there’s an online video to watch, followed by an audition. In a cuddle audition, Reid watches two cuddlers and asks the cuddlee to provide feedback, as well as providing instruction herself. “The variety in positions that are available is really interesting and the positions people gravitate to are really interesting,” Madison said.
In my appointment, I gravitated to many, many positions. After 45 minutes of being ordered to try different things (“Can you rub my back?” “Can you tickle my forearm?” “Can you massage my face?”), Madison patiently checked in with me. We agreed it was a natural time to end the session. “Were you able to get anything out of it?” she wondered.
“Maybe for a few seconds,” I said.
Sadly, I realized, I couldn’t will myself to enjoy a cuddle-for-hire, no matter how much I wanted it. As someone who finds even the smell of my neighbour’s venting dryer intimate, I should have realized from the get-go that there was no way I was going to be able to be comfortable spooning a stranger.
Madison mentioned to me that she keeps books by her bed so that clients can read while they are cuddled, which seems wise to me. “Some people might just want to hold hands while they watch a movie and that’s enough for them,” she said. In hindsight, we should have taken it slower. (We definitely should not have attempted the “68 1/2,” a position from a book called The Cuddle Sutra.)
Uvnas-Moberg emphasizes that “touch-linked oxytocin release is reserved mainly for those people you really know and you trust.”
As trustworthy and caring as Madison seemed, we didn’t really know each other. Emotionless touch, for me, at least, means empty touch. And I think this is probably true for most of us, or else we would spend our whole lives designing and buying ever-more fancy and expensive cuddle bots that would never flag or fart or fall asleep before we were done.