Free Markets

Cuddles Incorporated

What's wrong with selling snuggles for $1 per minute?

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Glen MacLarty

Man cannot live by Tinder alone. "A ton of my male clients have said that it's really easy for them to find sex, but it's really hard for them to find someone to cuddle with," says Samantha Hess. Hess is the proprietor of Cuddle Up to Me, a Portland, Oregon, cuddling studio where Hess and three other comfortably but fully clothed women platonically embrace humanity for $1 a minute (with a 15-minute minimum).

Over the last half dozen years or so, professional cuddlers have been putting the squeeze on isolation and loneliness in San Francisco, London, Rochester, and many other cities. Hess herself started in 2013, first on an outcall basis, meeting clients at parks, movie theaters, and their homes, then opening up a retail storefront in November 2014.

While practitioners like Hess have received substantial media attention—she appeared on America's Got Talent in July, cuddling celebrity judge Neil Patrick Harris until the other judges gave her the cold shoulder—only a handful of individuals appear to be doing it in anything approaching a full-time, ongoing way. But professional cuddling is also perfectly situated for a high-stress, overstimulated, screen-dominated era that places an emphasis on self-care and efficiency. More tactile than psychotherapy, more explicitly nurturing than massage…who knows how big an industry it could become?

Professional cuddling can be misperceived as a PG-13 version of prostitution, with all the assumptions, prejudices, legal gray areas, and safety issues that that misperception creates. "Because the social norm around touch is that it's sexualized, most interactions you get as a new startup in this industry are just icky," Hess says. "I can't tell you how many times I got emails from people who were offering me absurd things. I had someone offer me $500 to make out on their couch for 15 minutes. I'm like, 'No, that's not even close to what I'm doing.'"

It's not just would-be clients who don't understand her business. "I had a hard time finding a retail space that would accept us," she says. "We got rejected by eight different places before we found this one. We have tons of massage places in Portland, but what I'm doing is definitely different. It freaked people out."

To help clarify its status as a professional and above-board industry with no connection to prostitution, the therapeutic massage industry emphasizes training and certification. Most states have massage therapy licensing boards that regulate practitioners. To obtain a license typically takes at least 500 hours of supervised, in-class training; in New York, you need 1,000 hours.

Such requirements help reinforce the idea that massage therapy is a skilled discipline practiced by experienced professionals who possess genuine medical knowledge and hard-to-acquire skills. But the pursuit of respectability comes at a price. Massage therapy isn't a particularly lucrative profession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry's mean annual wage was $41,790 in 2014. Obtaining the necessary training represents a significant investment, especially when many practitioners don't necessarily plan to pursue massage therapy as a lifelong career.

"It can cost 16 grand and take a year to 18 months just to get trained," says Joanna Robinson, founder of Lunar Massage, a chain of "affordable, no-frills" massage studios with four locations in Washington, D.C. "It should cost, like, six or eight grand and take no longer than six months."

Along with the training costs, some states or municipalities impose additional fees on therapeutic massage businesses. In D.C., for example, a basic business license for most retail operations costs around $190 for two years. To obtain a massage establishment license, the cost is $962.50.

Until 2012, the D.C. chief of police had to approve each massage establishment, and official city code actually made it "unlawful for any female to give or administer massage treatment or any bath to any person of the male sex, or for any person of the male sex to give or administer massage treatment or any bath to any person of the female sex" in such establishments. So you could say all the training, certification, and fees ultimately paid off.

But if professional cuddling attempts to go this route, an obvious issue arises. "There's only so much information you can give on teaching cuddling versus massage," says Evan Carp. "I'm not sure how much there is to teach."

Carp is the founder of TheSnuggleBuddies.com, a website that effectively functions as a kind of centralized cuddling marketplace. Carp hires independent contractors who offer cuddling services in 28 states. Their profiles appear on Carp's site, but potential customers can't contact them directly; they request appointments through a form that goes to Carp. Cuddling sessions ultimately take place on an in-call or out-call basis—i.e., not in a permanent retail location. Carp splits the fees with his cuddlers on a 50/50 basis: $40 an hour for him and $40 an hour for them. Currently, around 100 women and five men appear on the site.

Carp, who sought out advice from Hess when he was starting up, implements some of the same basic ground rules that she does. Customers are required to sign a waiver in advance asserting that they will not engage in any kind of sexual behavior. Cuddling sessions are fully clothed.

But overall, his is a more laissez faire operation. Customers aren't asked to provide as much personal information as Hess requires. Cuddlers aren't asked to complete any formal or even in-person training.

In Hess' opinion, this is both short-sighted and unsafe. "This isn't just about letting someone lay next to you," she says. "There's so much more to it than that. We have over 60 different cuddling positions that we use, because we see people who have disabilities and flexibility issues, or have experienced trauma," she says. "You have to know what positions are appropriate for which people, and how to create comfort and trust through the whole process."

In February 2015, Hess started offering certification workshops- $900 for a two-day course with some work to be completed in advance off-site, or $1,600 for a four-day course that's conducted entirely on-site. Those who successfully complete the workshop will eventually be listed on certifiedcuddlers.com.

"On a personal level, I don't really care about adding more laws. On a professional level, I will make my certification the gold standard of the industry," Hess says.

But however valuable the training Hess provides may be, the lack of regulation that currently characterizes professional cuddling is valuable too. Without any legal requirements in place, Hess herself was able to experiment and innovate and create a new livelihood for herself. The women and men who promote their services on Carp's site can give the profession a try with virtually no barriers to entry. At this point, when professional cuddling has a relatively tentative grip on the market, introducing a lot of requirements and regulations could impede progress rather than hasten it.

Nick Grossman, a general manager at the New York venture capital firm Union Square Ventures, has written extensively about the difference between traditional regulatory efforts and the "2.0" approach that Internet platforms like eBay and Uber employ.

Both are designed to promote trust, safety, and security. But while traditional regulation tries to do this through licensing, permits, inspection, and other top-down methods of restrictive control, platforms like eBay and Uber "freely [allow] users to act, but then hold them accountable through data and accumulated reputation." This, Grossman writes in a paper titled "Regulation, the Internet Way," creates marketplaces that are "massively scalable and also [allow] even the smallest actors to participate with minimal initial overhead."

In many ways, professional cuddling is a quintessential sharing-economy industry. It recognizes warm but platonic human contact as an asset with both underserved demand and underutilized supply, not unlike spare bedrooms and empty passenger seats. Similarly, TheSnuggleBuddies.com functions somewhat like Airbnb.com or Uber.com, creating a platform that connects cuddlers with customers. What the cuddle site lacks is a reputation system that lets parties on both sides of the transaction rate and review their interactions.

A system like that introduces privacy concerns. But it would also provide accountability on a very granular level while still welcoming any would-be professional cuddler with open arms. These practitioners would be free to innovate, iterate, and otherwise define their nascent profession in a flexible environment, unhampered by overly proscriptive rules and requirements but made safe through transparency and crowd-sourced assessment. Regulatory middlemen will likely find themselves feeling useless and unloved. Luckily for them, sympathetic shoulders will be easy to find.

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33 responses to “Cuddles Incorporated

  1. Ha! I had to get up early on a Saturday, but I beat Fist!

    1. 8:37AM

      Early?

  2. What’s wrong with it is if it’s Warty selling the cuddles.

  3. Selling Cuddles Sakall, however, was no problem as audiences loved him.

  4. “It should cost, like, six or eight grand and take no longer than six months.”

    No, it should cost, like, zero dollars and take however long anyone wants.

    Licensing requirements for massage are something the IJ should really be taking on. The best masseuse I’ve known had to stop because the requirements were too expensive and time consuming for doing it part time. And she would have had to go through it all, despite the fact that she was already awesome at it and needed no training whatsoever.

    1. “But you can’t know she’s awesome unless she has a certificate on the wall.”

      1. I think that alongside protectionist impulses, the massage-licensing laws are designed to weed out the prostitutes. I speculate that the logic is “look, if everytime we bust some hooker or pimp, we have to prove they’re not massage artists, they’ll all call themselves masseuses and we won’t be able to lock up anyone. But if we simply have to show they don’t have a license, and if the license requires more money and time than the average hooker wants to expend, the “unlicensed masseuse” can be a good proxy for prostitute and we can nail them. Well, not nail as such, but you get the idea.”

        1. Or, you could just legalize prostitution.

          1. Get out of here with that crazy talk. If you legalize having sex for lucre, people will begin filming that paid sex and then putting it on the internet. For money.

        2. But it seems prostitution pays better than massage, so wouldn’t that lead to prostitutes being the only, or almost only, people w the massage licenses?

    2. Well, at least we should have certification programs for nail salons. (/sarcsm)

      Then you get certification programs for private investigators – a year’s “apprenticeship” for a current investigator – during which you get to do grunt work and get paid almost nothing. It’s slavery.

  5. It’s really a sad thing that some people are so lonely and desperate for human touch that they have to, and are willing to, pay a stranger for human touch.

    On the other hand, the guy who recently shot up the JC in Oregon mentioned in his screed that he was a virgin and couldn’t get a girlfriend.

    Maybe a few hugs would have eased his desperation ?

    1. He could also have hired people to tell him how great he was, and how more people should appreciate his genius.

      1. Like Obama?

    2. Legalized prostitution is the answer to Elliot Rodgers Syndrome?
      Genius!
      Come one Barry. How many dead bodies will it take for you to TAKE ACTION NOW!

    3. Maybe a few hugs would have eased his desperation ?

      I think it’s easy to look for a root cause in a situation like this. But let’s not forget that, for every one of those causes people speculate about, most people with the same circumstances do not make such horrible decisions.

    4. Locker-room banter aside, seriously, yes. A few hugs might have settled him down, and legalized and accessible prostitution might not have hurt either. Ask yourself how much ambition you have have after you’ve just finished.

      1. Hey man? Legalized hookers is NOT gonna be enuff; What about poor blokes who cannot afford “equal access” to the hookers? I say, we need? Equal access, Government-Almighty-assured, for all, to penis and pussy!!! Regardless of our age or ugliness! A GRANDE idea, MeThinks!!! As I put on my tin-foil hat, I foresee a future USA where you will have the right to have intercourse (social and/or sexual) with any passer-by that you demand it from, except, of course, the “public servants” who are too busy enforcing your rights, to have intercourse with you. AKA, they are too busy fucking with you, to let you fuck them! And we will have to sneak, under cover of darkness or fog or smog, from house to house, to have any kind of voluntary social or sexual intercourse, for fear of having “freedom” foisted upon us, if we walk about openly? Or maybe we put on a REALLY ugly, slime-dripping disguise, and take our chances? This LOVERLY idea brought to you for FREE by the Church of Scienfoology. To learn more about Scienfoology, please see http://www.churchofSQRLS.com ?

        1. Pussy inequality is a problem in America. I blame women’s suffrage, and feminists. Evil bigots!

        2. “GRANDE”? You write in EsperAndy?

    5. I’m not lonely in the slightest, but I can get touch starved if away from family members. I don’t have a romantic partner, and I don’t cuddle with friends, so I have gone full weeks before without physically touching someone.

      1. Newb!

    6. It’s been done routinely for babies since time immemorial. Parents don’t always have the time. So why wouldn’t it be the same for at least some adults?

  6. ANIMAL SEX WORKERS???!!! Gawd, what’s this world coming to?

    1. My cat, AKA Chairman Meow, snuggles me from time to time… Licks my nose while I am sleeping, gives me a raw nose, the little turd… Well anyway, am I gonna owe him $1/minute, $60/hour, for licking my nose while I sleep, fer Chrissakes?!?!?!

    2. Lots of those performing regular shows in Tijuana.

  7. ” “It can cost 16 grand and take a year to 18 months just to get trained,” says Joanna Robinson, founder of Lunar Massage, a chain of “affordable, no-frills” massage studios with four locations in Washington, D.C. “It should cost, like, six or eight grand and take no longer than six months.” ”

    No, it should be completely unregulated. It’s one of those low-risk transactions, like cutting hair, that doesn’t need licensure.

    1. What if I’m getting a massage from a hot chick, and because she doesn’t have a piece of paper tacked to the wall, her hand ends up around my cock. And she starts stroking it. What then? Hmm? WHAT THEN?????!!???

      Without government approval, that could happen!

      1. If she’s a “hot chick”, then you should maybe wonder if you’re in a legitimate massage parlor, or if it’s a jerk joint. However, if it’s a jerk joint, they’ll stop and demand more money before they touch your cock. No pay, no play, playa!

  8. Its official, there is not a single relationship function that you can’t pay some female to perform. At least this way, its easier to track were your money is going.

    1. It’s also official that there’s no such function that someone is so deprived of that they’ll pay, and none that someone won’t try to regulate.

  9. Licensing and education requirements are just ways to restrict the competition. In the massage industry, that works in favor of jerk joints over legitimate massage because which one makes more money? Duh! I can’t imagine that licensing and educational requirements for cuddling will seriously do anything to prevent sexual contact, and, in fact, would probably help encourage it, instead.

  10. Is it OK if I touch myself, or will I need a license?

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