Denise Loveridge didn’t grow up in a household big on snuggling. “My parents cuddled me here and there, but I wasn’t touchy-feely,” she says. In college, she dated a man who was affectionate and loved touch, and by the time her kids came along, years later, she was a full-on cuddler. But she didn’t consider cuddling for pay until the need arose to make some extra money, beyond what she makes as a program director and grant writer for an elder-care-focused nonprofit. She kept running into news stories about professional cuddling, an occupation born in the past several years that seeks to extricate touch from the complications of sexuality.
After some online course work, self-reflection and an in-person exam with a trainer, Loveridge became a certified snuggler, via a company called Cuddlist. Based in part in Chicago, it’s an effort to professionalize cuddling, according to CEO Adam Lippin, and provide more support and guidance to cuddlers than other agencies. Each practitioner sets their own rates (Loveridge charges $80 per hour), and most clients are men dealing with some kind of stress, anxiety, trauma or severe disability. All touch revolves around an exacting system of asking for consent.
In the past year, Loveridge has cuddled with around 20 people, most of them middle-aged men, but she’s seen younger guys, too, as well as two or three women. “I’m not sure why there are fewer women,” she says. “Maybe it’s because women touch each other more, and we share more with our friends than a guy might.” Most people who come to her are, in her view, lonely. Some are widowed and miss the intimacy they enjoyed during marriage. Others have been alone so long they know human contact only through handshakes.
A typical session includes lots of caresses and conversation, and some clients will want to touch more than others. Occasionally, clients will fall asleep, and one time, Loveridge herself dozed off. The client took it as compliment. “At the core, this is a safe space to be your authentic self without shame and to receive acceptance and nurturance,” she says. “Right now is a hard time. People feel disconnected. We’re a society that isn’t treating each other well.”
What clients don’t receive is kissing, sexual touching or the like, and Loveridge says she’s never had a problem with someone crossing her boundaries, largely because she screens each solicitation. But there are times when her male clients will become physically aroused, sometimes quite unexpectedly, which Loveridge says doesn’t bother her unless the man attempts to act on it. She normally deals with the situation by ignoring it, changing positions or talking about it. “Willy will go away, and we’ll have a nice, caring session,” she says.
The living room in Loveridge’s Grafton home serves as her “cuddle studio,” and she also travels to customers’ residences, or a third space, such as a park. She met one client in the cabin of a sailboat. Both her ex-husband and current boyfriend have expressed concerns about her safety but remain supportive. Her kids, however, can’t help but think it’s a little strange.
Our reporter’s first-person account: It wasn’t dimly lit, as massage offices often are. Denise’s living room was filled with bright, natural light as we lay on our sides atop a cushioned Thai massage mat covered with a furry blanket. She was spooning me – Cuddling 101 – but it was about to become more advanced. Shifting positions, she clasped my head above her breast, draped her calves over my balled up legs and began stroking my arms, asking if I prefer to feel her nails or her fingertips. As I lay there, the scent of her shampoo wafting up my nostrils, I began to feel extreme relaxation. Near the end of the 20-minute session, she began rubbing my forehead, and it felt great, which is unusual because I usually hate my face being touched. But this was different – I felt beyond comfortable, almost ready for sleep.