The Reluctant Adventurer: One Hour With a Professional Cuddler
Friday, December 05, 2014
My first really good knife.
A tiny computer I can talk into that uses games, tasks and constant communication with friends to distract me from the ever-present knowledge that we’re all going to die alone.
Oh, and touch.
Touch is a big one, and I just learned it.
Well, that’s not entirely true—I’ve known since my first relationship that affection was important to me.
My boyfriend had this insanely thick, silky head of hair that I loved running my fingers through.
“You’re petting me again,” he’d say, trying to fall asleep.
“I did it for like TEN SECONDS. GOD.”
I have no idea why he broke up with me.
So it was clearly not a thing for him. But it was for me.
I’ve recently learned how much of a thing from dating “Joe,” the polyamorous married man I mentioned earlier in this column.
Joe has a very particular set of sexual skills, there’s no denying that. He’s even read books aimed at improving said skills, which I will tell you, men, is MUCH APPRECIATED and makes a difference. I mean, I own the equipment and sometimes I’m befuddled by it.
But his real skill is in non-sexual physical intimacy. The stuff that happens after all the sweaty rolling around and intense concentration and “there’s no way my boobs look good in this position” activity. (This afterglow is what many women refer to as “the best part” and what many men refer to as “nap time.”)
Joe is a master of The Afterglow. After our first heated rolling-around session, when we frankly didn’t know each other that well (sorry, Mormons), we were lying next to each other laughing and talking and he did something I didn’t expect: he took my hand. Then he ran his other hand softly up and down my forearm very casually as we chatted, as if he’d been doing it for years.
Everything about this relationship had been casual up to this point, but this physical act was such a convincing simulacrum of actual intimacy that it was jarring. But in a good way.
And I hadn’t been able to figure out why until I had an appointment with Samantha Hess.
Samantha is the professional cuddler who recently opened up the cuddling studio “Cuddle Up To Me” on East Burnside in Portland.
One of the GoLocalPDX editors had forwarded me an email from Samantha’s publicist with a simple note: “Are you interested in this?”
Samantha has been offering cuddling sessions (anywhere from 15 minutes up to five hours) featuring “non-sexual touch” at $1/minute, for the past 18 months. She’s gotten so busy that she’s now opened the studio and hired three other cuddlers, each of whom has trained with her for 40 hours.
Yeah, NO. Nope. Nuh-uh. Not interested.
Which meant, if the title of this column is any indication, that I should do it.
It’s not that I don’t think people should be able to pay for an hour-long cuddle. It’s just that when I thought about how awkward it would be for me to cuddle with a stranger for an hour, my stomach dropped and my shoulders crept up around my ears and my face morphed into what I call the Grimace of Anticipatory Dread (GAD).
I get it a lot. It’s not attractive.
But then I thought about it for a minute. We’ve all had one-night stands (sorry again, Mormons), and this is, ostensibly, a lot less intimate than that, right? I can do this. I just need two margaritas and a body shot right before to rationalize it.
I set up the appointment with Samantha and, once I showed up, I asked that she treat me like any other client who arrived with both trepidation and a photographer.
Upon meeting her, I began to understand the draw. A 5’ 3”, impish brunette, she had a sweet, kind energy that started immediately chipping away at my grimace and creating a rapport that made me want to tell her everything. Although I tell everything to the Safeway checkout guy, so I suppose that part wasn’t all that notable.
Like all clients, I was given a clipboard with a questionnaire to fill out, a map of my body so I could indicate where it wasn’t okay to touch me, and a waiver that laid down the ground rules. Among them were: I was not to interpret the session as sexual (check), no kissing (not a problem), touching is limited to areas that would not normally be covered by a swimsuit (what if I’m wearing one of those old-timey swimsuits? Then I could just leave, right, because you could only touch my ankles?), and that I should’ve showered, put on a minimal amount of perfume, if any, and brushed my teeth prior to arrival (this was obviously not the case with a prior client, as they’d just finally been able to get the patchouli smell out of the beach room).
Samantha interviews every client prior to cuddling with them, and amazingly it’s kept her from having to end a single session early due to inappropriateness or fear in over a year and hundreds of sessions.
She claims that she’s “trained her intuition” and it appears to be working. She has had to end the interview a few times and let potential clients know that her service isn’t for them. Generally, this happens with people who ask a lot of detailed questions about what’s appropriate and what’s not, so it becomes clear what they’re looking for is sexual touch. (To answer the question everyone asks, yes, men get erections, and no, that doesn’t end the session. “I’ve gotten really good at re-direction and positions where it’s not an issue,” Samantha repeated for the millionth time when I asked.)
The big question in the pre-interview is, “What brings you here?” For me, of course, I had to be honest and say, “I’m writing a column.”
But I also told her the story of Joe, and the realization I’d come to about how important that kind of affection is for me. How early in a relationship it can appear and feel real enough to satisfy that need? Two dates? One date? After you sign a waiver and have a 10-minute interview?
I was curious.
Samantha usually uses the interview to gauge how comfortable people are with giving and receiving affection, and she could tell, based on my story and the fact that I was wearing my shoulders as earrings, that I was comfortable with affection but very uncomfortable with the idea of getting it from a stranger. So she reassured me that I was in good hands. I believed her in the same way you believe your dentist when he tells you something “won’t hurt much.”
She showed me the four rooms I had to choose from, each with a bed and a bedside table. There was a room covered in sea shells, the “Cascadia Room” with trees and mountains painted by a local artist, the deep burgundy “zen room,” and the one I chose, the Space Room. With dark walls, a spinning space lamp and glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, it seemed like the room best suited for imagining myself anywhere else but where I was. Y’know, just in case the experience was utterly miserable. (I always plan for this eventuality.)
I took my shoes off and got on the bed, and my awkwardness level was at a solid 11. It’s difficult to tell, however, how high that level would’ve been if one of my editors hadn’t been in the room with a camera. We’d agreed that he’d be there to get a few shots and then leave so we could have a real session.
In fourteen experiences I’ve had writing this column, being photographed cuddling was by far the most uncomfortable I’ve been. And I’ve been to a freaking sex club.
The experience itself is already vulnerable—receiving affection can feel vulnerable because we’re often seen as weak for needing it. Giving affection feels even more vulnerable due to the possibility of that affection being rebuffed. So imagine yourself in either of those positions, but being photographed. FOR THE INTERNET.
Samantha attempted the first position, “The Motorcyle,” in which she sat behind me with her legs and arms wrapped around me, her head on my left shoulder. It probably would’ve felt lovely, but here’s what my brain was saying to my body: CAMERA. THERE’S A CAMERA. DID YOU KNOW THERE’S A CAMERA? BECAUSE THERE IS ONE. IT’S RIGHT OVER THERE. OPEN YOUR EYES. SEE? CAMERA!!!
Most people don’t experience the fight or flight response when being photographed, but when you’ve struggled with weight your whole life, a camera might as well be a snake. A snake that waits to bite you until you’re tagged on Facebook.
Samantha tried another position—the Eiffel Tower, where we lay face-to-face, legs intertwined, each with one arm over our head beneath the pillow, hands clasped.
This would’ve been uncomfortable for me even without the camera.
As Samantha noted, we look at technology more than we look at each other these days, so direct eye contact feels almost…aggressive. Also, no one just lies in bed staring at each other, unless they’re in a Nicholas Sparks movie or a mouthwash commercial.
The final position with the camera was “The Honeymoon,” where Samantha lay in the crook of my left arm, her head resting on my chest and her arm around me. This felt strange. As a woman, I’m normally the one in the crook with a protective arm around my shoulder.
But once the evil camera left, Samantha asked if I wanted to move into a different position and strangely, I didn’t. It felt nice to be the giver of comfort instead of the receiver.
Prior to the appointment, I had expected that all I’d want was to be taken care of—held, touched—and I’d specifically mentioned that I liked having someone run their fingers through my hair because what kind of asshole doesn’t like that?
But it was interesting to discover that sometimes being taken care of means being allowed to offer affection to someone.
Samantha leads people through each session based on what she thinks they need—sometimes she tries multiple positions, sometimes the client knows exactly what they want and it’s just one or two positions for the whole hour.
Some clients want to give affection and comfort, some want to receive it. She says about 30% of her clients are women, and initially they wanted to give comfort more than their male counterparts, but now it’s about 50/50.
And it wasn’t exactly the same as having a lover or friend do it, but I have to say, it wasn’t that different.
I have female friends who sometimes get massages because they just need to be touched and know that if they don’t, they might do something dumb, like sleep with a douchebag. This feels to me like a better choice for that purpose, because it’s even closer to the affection they’re seeking.
I once read a study that revealed that there’s no discernable difference between the happiness we feel because we got exactly what we wanted, and the happiness we feel when we didn’t get what we want, but we’ve convinced ourselves that what we did get was okay.
This feels like that to me.
But part of the reason I think the affection felt so real was who Samantha is. She’s clearly an anomaly in this age of irony and snark: a true optimist who believes that everyone deserves to be loved. I’m generally very jaded, and she convinced me.
In the same way some people are more generous financially than others, I think there are people like Samantha, who are perfectly willing to offer true affection—not guarded, not empty—before someone has proven that they deserve it.
And yes, she’s taking money for that affection, but if you discovered something you enjoyed, were clearly born to do, and you believed that by doing it you made the world a better place, wouldn’t you try to make it your career?
Samantha has set off a virtual tidal wave of snark with the opening of her business, and I get it. It’s an easy thing to take shots at.
There’s nothing more earnest than offering yourself up for physical comfort, and as comic Hari Kondabolu recently said, “You don’t have to be famous for people to say mean things about you on the Internet. You just have to be earnest.”
When I first read about Samantha, I knew it would make me uncomfortable to utilize her services, but I would never judge the people who do—those who have access to physical warmth and affection all the time have no idea the emotional toll it takes on you not to have it.
But the one thing about paying someone to touch you in this way when that kind of touch is missing from your life is that it has a marked poignancy: at the same time, it’s exactly what you need, and a reminder that you don’t have it. (See also: dating a polyamorous married man who knows how to cuddle.)
Would I go again?
I think I would, if I found myself in the position of needing physical comfort and not having access to it otherwise.
It’s a little weird, yes.
It’s also effective.
Deal with it, Internet.
Cuddle Up to Me
1015 E. Burnside
RECOMMENDED FOR: Currently unattached people who need physical affection but don’t want to have an ill-advised one-night stand to get it, cuddle enthusiasts, every single person in the YouTube comments section.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: People who hate to be touched, the terminally snarky, those Baptist people who think dancing is a sin.
Related Slideshow: Cuddle Up to Me
Cuddle Up to Me, owned by professional cuddler Samantha Hess, opened in Portland November, 2014. See photos from The Reluctant Adventurer's one hour spent with Hess in a professional cuddle session.
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