For professional cuddlers, nonsexual touch is about more than just spooning.
Adam Lippin is here to change the conversation about touch. At 50 years old, Adam, a restaurateur with a zeal for yoga and meditation, decided to combine his two passions: business and health and wellness.
“I always had this underlying belief that a human connection is the only reason we’re…on Earth,” he tells me over the phone.
It was the summer of 2015 when Adam first heard about Cuddle Party — a structured workshop focusing on boundaries, communication, intimacy and affection. He was already considering starting a business within the field, so he flew to Chicago to attend facilitator training.
There he met Madelon Guinazzo, a fellow cuddling enthusiast and Cuddle Party facilitator who serves on the organization’s board of directors. Madelon graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in Communication Studies and spent ten years teaching medical students how to communicate and build rapport with their patients.
Even as a young child, Madelon saw herself as someone who appreciated the importance of touch. “I remember very early on, an aunt who was a mother figure in my life saying…‘Madelon, you shouldn’t hug people so much; they’ll get the wrong idea about you.’” For Madelon, this was a revelation; she had never before considered that something so inherent to her personality could be so misconstrued.
Madelon discovered Cuddle Party seven years ago; she was immediately intrigued by the way workshops focused on the intersection of touch, boundaries, communication and consent. After completing facilitator training, Madelon brought the workshop to Chicago.
“I saw that professional cuddling was starting to happen all over, looked into it and saw there was no training program for getting these types of skills,” she says.
By the end of that fateful Cuddle Party in the summer of 2015, Adam asked Madelon to partner with him on a new business venture: a holistic cuddling company, later dubbed Cuddlist. Adam serves as cofounder and CEO and Madelon as cofounder and Director of Training. In November of 2015, they launched the Cuddlist website.
There are few services that are not easily accessible online. Whether you want a lift, a meal, someone to do your laundry, clean your house, or deliver your groceries, tech companies have made a mint providing consumers with ready options for avoiding everyday tasks. But as Madelon succinctly put it during our conversation, Cuddlist is not “Uber for cuddling.”
Professional cuddling is slowly making its way into the mainstream: In 2015, Portland, OR-based cuddlist Samantha Hess appeared on “America’s Got Talent” (Howard Stern was not a fan). Cuddling services are becoming increasingly in demand, especially in major metropolitan areas where social isolation and loneliness are literal killers; studies estimate that loneliness is twice as dangerous as obesity and can be just as bad for you as smoking.
And the scientific benefits of cuddling cannot be denied. When a person is touched, the brain releases a hormone called oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone.” As your oxytocin levels rise, your stress and anxiety levels decrease. Touching another person during an apology can trigger the insula — an area of the brain hidden deep inside the cerebral cortex — easing irritation.
What distinguishes Cuddlist from other online cuddling providers is their training program. It’s a three-part certification process, devised by Madelon and available to anyone who can afford the $79 course fee. First, aspiring cuddlists must complete an online class that focuses on the basics: Students learn how to screen a client, initiate contact and create personal boundaries. On Wednesdays, Madelon holds teleclasses so students can dial in and ask questions.
Next, students participate in a four-hour Cuddle Party workshop. For their final exam, they’re required to hold a session with a certified cuddlist. Students receive feedback on these sessions from their clients and Madelon herself.
Since Cuddlist launched its training program earlier this year, over 50 cuddlists have become certified. All of Cuddlist’s training is remote, and participants join in from all corners of the world — Madelon currently has cuddlists training in London, Canada, Australia and Spain.
“The thing about cuddling,” Adam tells me, “is that you are experiencing another person…If you get to experience someone as a human being, when there’s no thought of this person as a sexual partner and you can feel their breath and look them in the eye and you can sort of be with them, I think that can be magical, transformative healing for someone.”
We live in the social media era; for many people, an unsolicited poke on Facebook is the closest they’ll come to experiencing nonsexual human touch. But people need and crave affection and connection — and it’s unsurprising that they’re searching for it on the internet.
As I scroll through the list of Cuddlist’s certified cuddlers, I am taken aback by their credentials — there are massage therapists, social workers, yogis and a lone sexologist. For Adam, providing these health and wellness professionals with additional opportunities to monetize their work is a point of pride. He says:
“I like the fact that they’re able to make money doing something that they want to do, that they’re good at, that they have an intuitive sort of understanding of, because I think that someone who does wellness work should be able to pay their bills.”
Cuddling is a lucrative business. Currently, cuddlists charge $80 for an hour-long session — and they get to keep everything they make. Cuddlist doesn’t take a cut; instead, they charge graduates of their training program a monthly fee to list their profiles on the site. And cuddlists are not required to work with the company after completing their certification; some prefer to take the skills they’ve learned and set off on their own.
In addition to training cuddlists, Madelon is a cuddlist herself — though she’s had to cut back on her client sessions significantly since launching the business. She describes the experience of cuddling as “rewarding and heartwarming.” And I can see why she’d say that; unlike massage therapy, cuddling is a business in which giving bleeds into receiving.
With cuddling, it’s hard to nail down a specific demographic. Madelon estimates that Cuddlist’s client base skews more male than female, with an average customer age of 47 years old. But she has cuddled people of all ages, from eighteen to 70 (the 18-year-old brought his ID with him to verify his age).
Because Cuddlist’s business model is built on the foundation of consent, all clients must be over eighteen. Every cuddle session is guided by the client’s preferences; cuddlers are trained to coach clients into identifying what they want and to provide them with a voice to ask for what they need. And it’s a two-way street—cuddlists are encouraged to say “no” to anything they’re not comfortable giving with a full heart. Ultimately, cuddling sessions require a lot of communication and negotiation as both the cuddlist and client discover what feels good. When I describe the push-and-pull as “touch improvisation,” Madelon agrees. “Ultimately,” she says, “what people want is to have a mutually enjoyable experience.
But even with Cuddlist’s accessible training program, not everyone is cut out to cuddle on a professional level. To find success within the field, cuddlists must be open minded: They are not allowed to discriminate against potential clients on the basis of gender, race, nationality or sexual orientation.
There are some exceptions, of course. As Madelon says, “If they look just like your ex-husband, you may not feel comfortable cuddling with them. [And] if anybody isn’t comfortable, the session isn’t going to serve.” But on the whole, Madelon and Adam are building an army of certified, equal-opportunity cuddlists.
“When someone holds you, you find that you can hold you. You feel cared for, so you then give yourself permission to care for yourself.”
Karissa Brennan works as an online psychotherapist, specializing in sexual assault, complex trauma and adult ADHD. Karissa met Adam at a professional fitness and wellness networking group in Manhattan and immediately saw the value in Cuddlist, especially as it relates to her own work.
“There have been many people that I work with who have been sexually assaulted and when it comes to any type of touch, even someone brushing against them in an elevator, it can be traumatizing,” she says.
As an online therapist, Karissa doesn’t get to touch or even sometimes meet her clients — in fact, as both she and Adam pointed out to me, it’s unethical for therapists to touch their patients, even if all they need is a hug. Karissa decided to reach out to Adam to ask how she could support the business. She now serves on Cuddlist’s Scientific Advisory Board, alongside two neuropsychologists. Since joining the board this past summer, she’s already recommended cuddling to five of her patients.
For Karissa’s patients, particularly her patients with ADHD, cuddling offers essential tools that are easily implemented in everyday life. As she explained to me on the phone: “With ADHD, there’s a huge sensory component; so many people are misdiagnosed as having a sensory disorder. They walk into a room full of people and their attention is everywhere and nowhere. If someone is holding their hand…it grounds people.”
And with Cuddlist, cuddling can be just that. Holding hands. A massage. Sitting back to back. At one point during our conversation, Madelon tells me we could have an entire cuddle session and never touch at all.
But despite all of its promise, the field of holistic cuddling is still very much in its infancy. And when it comes to healthcare professionals and even patients, not everyone is on board. According to Karissa, among traditional face-to-face therapists, cuddling is even more suspect than online therapy. Her medical malpractice insurance refuses to cover it, claiming they only work with legitimate healthcare providers.
Adam thinks the only thing sidelining cuddling is time. He cites yoga, therapy and massage as examples of alternative forms of health and wellness that are now considered mainstream. He hopes insurance companies will someday cover cuddling the way they now cover acupuncture.
Karissa also sees cuddling’s long-term potential. She is currently considering becoming a certified cuddlist herself and hopes that one day, cuddlists will be able to integrate shelter animals into their sessions (for clients without allergies).
“People are meant to touch each other. Look at animals. A lot of the time we should be looking at animals to see how we are meant to interact. Monkeys, they groom each other and touch each other to show they care.”
She adds, “When someone holds you, you find that you can hold you. You feel cared for, so you then give yourself permission to care for yourself. ”