Why Americans pay for hugs

Inside the cuddle party industry

(Image credit: cienpies/iStock)

Apocalyptic fires. Mass shootings. An executive branch of government demonizing immigrants and hobnobbing with dictators. Lately it feels like our nation gets scarier by the week.

So I wasn't surprised to learn there's a cuddling trend sweeping the nation; sometimes jammying up, burrowing into a blankie, and going full-frickin'-fetal is the only way to cope with reality. But some folks aren't just curling up on the couch — they're snuggling up to strangers at "cuddle parties." And they're paying for it.

Growing since 2004, the cuddle industry provides a way for strangers to … well, touch each other fondly … without getting arrested. There are cuddle professionals who charge around $80/hour to cuddle with clients. There are cuddle parties, where people pay $10-$50 to come together for non-sexual nurturing touch that they're not getting elsewhere in their lives.

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"There might be hugging, playing with each other's hair, giving a back rub, holding hands. It's all platonic and rated G," says Jean Franzblau, who runs the Los Angeles-based Cuddle Sanctuary.

Jean says a lot of her clients are single, live alone, and might otherwise go a month with no physical contact. But affectionate touch gives our brains a boost of oxytocin, a.k.a. "the hug hormone" or "the cuddle chemical."

"There are benefits," says Jean, "and when it's absent, there are consequences in the body. Clients will often say, 'I feel lonely or depressed or grouchy.' We just know it as feeling sh***y."

But after a couple hours of everything from playing thumb wars to full-on spooning with other oxy-deprived cuddlers, her clients claim to feel "calm," "whole," "blissed out" and "cared for."

I asked Jean if people criticize her work for, you know, indulging childishness in adults who really ought to just grow up and deal with it.

"Not to my face," she said. Oops. "But this industry is badly named. The word 'cuddle' is either infantilized or sexualized."

Indeed, it's hard to imagine that among all of these cuddling strangers, there aren't some super-creepy lurkers who see these events — which occasionally end in a "puppy pile" — as sanctioned gropefests. A 48-year-old California male on CuddleComfort.com (where men vastly outnumber women) told me he "craves human touch that ranges from platonic to intimate to sensual" and that his wife doesn't know he cuddles on the side. But on-the-level cuddle outfits make a big deal out of teaching consent language to attendees. Jean's clients practice asking for a hug and saying "no, thank you" as cuddle party kickoffs.

Doesn't it all seem so artificial, though? I asked Jean why we can't just get our oxytocin from nuzzling our pets, who aren't likely to ask for our phone number, smell like hummus, or get an erection (yep, cuddle party foul). She has a client who says it's just not the same with his cat — but I wasn't convinced.

So I watched Jean's webinar on facilitating cuddle parties, and I invited a few girlfriends over Saturday night to give it a try. Garbed in PJs and lubed with Malbec (against the rules but come on), we arranged ourselves on blankets and rugs near a crackling fire. We were nervous! Sure, we all hug on the reg, but there's something uncomfortable about a prescriptive embrace.

We dove in, though, brushing hair, tickling backs, massaging temples, and even sliding into advanced moves like the Zipper and the Conga Cuddle. It was lovely. It really was.

Until my dog began trying to hump my cuddlers. Almost as if he hadn't even heard the consent lesson at the beginning, he went from platonic to intimate to sensual in, like, three humiliating thrusts.

Look, it's an alarming world out there and we all need to nab our hugs, head rubs, and cuddle chemicals where we can. If you can get "blissed out" in today's climate without hurting anyone, I say go for it.

But I'd caution you to skip the puppy pile.

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