Shanna arrives at my apartment 20 minutes early for our 4 p.m. session. I greet her in the clothes prescribed by her company’s code of conduct: a clean T-shirt and sweatpants. On my couch, also as directed, are a fresh sheet and two pillows, both with fresh cases. She changes in the bathroom into an outfit that matches mine, goes over the rules, and for the next 60 minutes, she holds, rocks, and cuddles me, a complete stranger.
Next, I answered 12 questions about why I was cuddling and what I wanted to get out of my session. I signed a client release and waiver agreement, gave my personal information and social-media handles, and waited for the screening process, which would be a phone call or Skype. I passed, though not everyone is accepted. After I picked a time and date and received a confirmation, I then surrendered my AmEx number — for a second, it did feel a little dirty.
I went through a horrific breakup in March. It was a five-year investment that left me cautious, jaded, devastated, hurt, and resentful. At the same time, I desperately missed human contact and the nakedness and sex my ex offered, something friends and family couldn’t provide. Cuddling seemed like a temporary solution to the above issue, and at $80 an hour, a cheaper alternative to therapy.
It’s not exactly deviant or even very new — cuddling parties have been around for several years. Like a large sleepover, strangers sit in a room and touch one another, give massages, scratch backs, and giggle. These one-on-one sessions are a private comfort to people like myself: those who are stressed from work or life, or feel lonely or lost or physically disconnected, thanks to the Internet — Facebook and Pinterest aren’t adequate substitutes for human contact.
At 4 p.m., Shanna and I sit cross-legged on my sheet-covered couch and face each other. She asks if both of us are sober — we are. She prefaces that only platonic, non-sexual touching is permitted.
When I ask her why cuddling has risen in popularity, she says, “Most people are either trying to get what they never got or haven’t had in a long time. People want to feel taken care of. They need contact. Technology gives the illusion of connection, but it’s superficial. Touch nourishes your cells.”