At The Wall Street Journal, Stephanie Armour looks at a blossoming new industry: Cuddling. Armour leads with a professional cuddler named Kimberly, a “mother of three,” who charges clients “$80 an hour, or up to $400 for an overnight gig” to cuddle, spoon, and even tickle them.
Thousands of customers across the country are booking appointments with professional cuddlers in at least 16 states. The snugglers squeeze, tickle and bearhug clients for a fixed rate. Patrons who booked these services out of mere curiosity say they have become hooked on their therapeutic benefits.
“I am a convert,” says Melissa Duclos-Yourdon, 35, a freelance writer and editor in Vancouver, Wash. She originally hired a cuddler after hearing about it from members of her book club, thinking it could provide fodder for an essay. Once cuddled, “I felt transformed,” she says.
Armour is careful to emphasize two things in her article. First, the cuddling industry isn’t some lunatic fringe. She mentions free apps like Cuddlr with tens of thousands of registered users who use the app to find partners and businesses that offer cuddling. While perhaps not yet mainstream, professional and networked cuddling is definitely not a secret.
Secondly, Armour mentions at least five times that the cuddling is “strictly platonic,” an understandable frequency given the obvious parallels between professional cuddling and prostitution. She mentions “non-sexual spooning,” which I admit I didn’t know was possible. The enterprise is instead cast as mainly therapeutic (Armour writes that the industry originated as a sort of protest against rules that forbade therapist-patient touching). Whatever its origin, “platonic” cuddling seems to be winning over the public. Armour even reports that male clients get sent in by their sweethearts “to learn how to cuddle properly.”
Up to that point in Armour’s article, I thought the whole practice of professional cuddling sounded strange and risky. When I read that married men were actually being told to take these one-on-one sessions, though, I realized that deeper issues were at work here.
It seems to me that the words “sex” and “sexual” have been redefined to exclude all but the most obvious, most legally potent acts. Take “non-sexual spooning,” for example. What is the difference between sexual and non-sexual here? Clothing? Simulated intercourse? Intercourse? The challenge is to understand why the mere presence of clothing or absence of coital motion renders a very intimate physical act “strictly platonic.” I don’t think it does or can. When the businesswomen offering their cuddling services say that their sessions are non-sexual, we should believe that they are genuine, but that doesn’t imply we should accept their logic.
We live in a pornified culture, by which I mean a culture whose sexual values, expectations and beliefs are informed by pornography. Pornography is at the same time an augmenting account of sex (as an all-satisfying, self-contained experience) and a reductionist account (reducing sex between lovers to sexual acts between anyone). Addiction works by joining these two accounts together in a cruel circle, by which the all-satisfying experience is constantly redefined to incorporate more and more of what plainly bears no resemblance to the actual satisfaction promised. The law of diminishing returns takes effect, and what goes up is condemned to come down. What was initially experienced with great pleasure is now dull, and what was seen as gross or even absurd is now desired with great intensity.
The development of a “cuddling industry” is both a plea for rescue from this system and tacit submission to it. Pornography’s great achievement is that it creates loneliness where none should logically exist. Therefore, you have thousands of young adults spending hundreds of dollars on cuddle therapy when they could be spending it in social settings that could land them a free (and perhaps even permanent(!)) cuddle partner. This resembles Kevin Williamson’s stunning essay in which he observed a large group of men paying a lot of money and waiting a long time to watch pornography when cheaper and legal prostitution was readily available. The upshot of Armour’s report on the cuddling industry seems to be the growing number of adults for whom $80 per hour pseudo-sex is easier and a better investment than dating and marriage.
Pseudo-sex is the correct term, even if these sessions are indeed fully clothed and even monitored by security cameras (as Armour writes of one establishment). “Spooning” is clearly a kind of sex position; those women who sent their sweethearts to learn how to do it would probably not be as ambivalent if they walked in to see him practicing with an ex-girlfriend. Armour mentions that scientists attribute the feelings of calm and warmth associated with human touch to the hormone oxytocin. She doesn’t mention that oxytocin is the same chemical that is released during sexual climax and helps to foment emotional bonds between lovers.
Surely some will ask, “Why the big deal? If it’s not sex, it’s not sex. Why judge these people?” The point is not to judge anyone but to evaluate how words and ideas shift to accommodate cultural mores. Simply because these sessions do not include sexual intercourse does not mean they aren’t sexual. They are. Human beings are not ephemeral wills that accidentally occupy bodies. The relational warmth experienced by a client during a night of paid cuddling is a commercial substitute for the sexual relationship that God intends for those willing to submit to the covenant of marriage. Even on secular terms, the cry of loneliness that would fork out the cost of a community college class for a few hours of basic companionship is a disheartening sign. Our pornified culture continues its scramble to assemble the passable substitute for the Family.