Ever Nestled



Do other people still snuggle with their parents? Is that normal? I decide to talk to some people, maybe find some answers. I start by talking with the experts: professional cuddlers.



{shortcode-5fbb14600ddb4500b23bc4289f528a3c71d187a7}

I find myself on the couch, in the crook of my mother’s arm — head on her shoulder, arm over her chest, leg over her leg. I am warm, safe, loved.

I find myself here often. When I live at home, we might fall asleep like this two or three times a week, too comfortable and too tired not to take a long nap. There’s a sense of security in every snuggle, some assurance that everything will be okay.

I’ve cuddled with my mom and dad for as long as I can remember. It’s just that, well, I’m 19 now. When does it become weird? People don’t really talk about cuddling — it’s personal, and too strongly tied to either young children and their parents or to significant others in romantic relationships. As my brother put it, it’s kind of cringey that I’m even writing about “cuddling.” I don’t disagree.

But the fact remains that I regularly ask my parents for a snuggle. That physical warmth and closeness is something I almost need, at least every now and then. Lost for it on campus — my parents and boyfriend are back home in Philly — I often still crave a good cuddle.

Why am I like this? Do other people still snuggle with their parents? Is that normal? I decide to talk to some people, maybe find some answers (preferably answers that affirm my weird need for snuggles).

I start by talking with the experts: professional cuddlers.

***

When he turned 50, Adam S. Lippin sold his successful Atomic Wings restaurant chain and pursued a mission closer to home — fostering human connection.

Lippin has known he was gay since he was very young, and when he was closeted, his anxiety about hiding his sexuality made his world small, he says.

“I became more and more closed off, and the more closed off you are, the harder it is to meet people, the harder it is to be out there,” Lippin says. “I knew I needed connection, yet I was unable to get it.”

In 2015, Lippin co-founded Cuddlist, a company that provides professional cuddle therapy to anyone who needs it. Cuddlist trains professional cuddlers, also known as cuddlists or touch practitioners, who can then be listed on its website. Clients can hire a cuddlist for about $80 to $120 per hour to spoon, snuggle, or even play board games with until they feel more comfortable. Within the boundaries of both the client and practitioner, a cuddling session lets clients ask for platonic physical touch.

“Cuddlist offers the ability to be seen, heard, and validated,” Lippin says. “It’s okay to get touched, it’s okay to feel good, and it’s okay to work through issues relating to touch and intimacy and human connection. And we give people a very safe space to do that.”

When he first founded Cuddlist, Lippin says people looked at him like he was insane. They told him it was softcore prostitution, that people would get hurt. Since then, he says, the idea of professional cuddling has become more normalized, with the collective isolation of pandemic life even “helping to destigmatize mental health.”

“It became very apparent that we’re all at the whim of larger forces; all of us need some more support,” Lippin says. “We’re a society that values strength, and there’s somehow this perceived weakness — if you need to pay someone to cuddle you, to touch you, that’s crazy, right? But like Dr. Brené Brown says, ‘Vulnerability’s our superpower.’”

The number of cuddle-providing companies has grown since then, and there are actually quite a few across the country. Cuddle Party, for instance, founded in 2004, creates spaces for groups of people to platonically cuddle with each other under the guidance of a trained facilitator. In non-Covid times, cuddle parties organized through their platform are available across the U.S. and across the globe, including Australia, Indonesia, and Hungary. The website Cuddle Comfort acts as a kind of Tinder for platonic cuddlers — make an account and find a cuddle buddy near you, 100 percent platonic with zero sexual connotations. Snuggle Salon, The Snuggery, Cuddle Up To Me, Cuddle Sanctuary — all companies offering professional cuddling services. (The Snuggery wins best name!)

Of these, Cuddlist is perhaps the most well known and well branded. The term “cuddlist” is trademarked — designated only for cuddling professionals who have gone through the company’s online training program.

Who would pay for this? Lippin says Cuddlist’s clients “run the gamut.” Some have had serious trauma and are trying to overcome negative associations with touch. Some are touch-deprived — they’ve been single for a long time, maybe, or have a disability that’s left them physically isolated. They are neurodiverse, gender diverse, and often differently abled.

Cuddlist Sundria C. Sam, a minister from California, was drawn to the profession of “healthy touch therapy” after realizing that the physical abuse she’d suffered as a young child was making her uncomfortable with physical touch. Then in 2014, over the course of a single year, Sam’s husband, mother, stepfather, and brother-in-law all passed away. She found herself isolated with everyone she had received “healthy touch” from gone at the same time. When she saw one Cuddlist’s ad on Facebook, she knew it was the right avenue for her.

“I became what I needed in the world, which was someone to give healthy touch,” she says. “I knew that there were other people out there like me who needed that and did not have it within their immediate community or circle of support. And so I became a Cuddlist.”

She recalls one client who suffered from health issues that physically isolated him. Worried about him, his family signed him up for an overnight cuddling session. Once he realized he “wasn’t being punked” and that Sam “wasn’t there to have sex with him,” she says, the client completely relaxed.

“We had a wonderful evening,” Sam says. “We danced, and he just broke down and cried. He has so much pain and isolation because of all of his medical treatments, and he just laid on my lap. I was running my fingers through his hair, and he fell asleep.”

He’d been dealing with sleep issues, his family said. When Sam told his sister that he was snoring, she started crying.

Another client of Sam’s booked cuddling sessions to break down the discomfort she felt around touch. They started by talking and holding hands. Eventually, the client began bringing the board game Sequence to play while they talked. Finally one day, she walked in, said she was ready, and asked for a hug.

“Our whole session was different stages of embrace, and it was beautiful,” Sam says. “That was our last session. She had worked her way up to a point in her life where she could accept touch from someone else and set strong boundaries around that touch.”

Even for those who aren’t touch-deprived, platonic cuddling can be a very moving experience. At her first cuddle party, Cuddlist co-founder and professional cuddler Madelon L. Guinazzo felt a rush of oxytocin that “flabbergasted” her.

“I was happily married and I had two young children at the time, so I was not what I would consider touch-deprived at all,” Guinazzo says. “And yet, when I left this workshop, after just a couple of hours of cuddling with people I’d never met previously, I felt physically more relaxed than if I’d had a 90-minute deep tissue massage.”

To hear these cuddlists talk about touch makes my snuggling habits seem positively mild. Lippin likens touch to air; he calls it a human right.

“There is not one individual who is not in need of healthy touch,” Sam says.

***

My boyfriend Jarod might argue otherwise. He can’t imagine needing to cuddle with someone platonically, let alone paying for it. He can’t remember the last time he cuddled with his parents, though he thinks he did when he was younger. He must have a very different relationship with physical touch, he says, than the people who go to these cuddle parties.

“Physical touch is just not something I need to sustain me,” he says. “It’s not something that I really base any level of my happiness or emotional state on.”

As far as Jarod can remember, he’s only really ever cuddled with me. For him, cuddling is “almost intrinsically and solely intertwined with romantic love.”

“Even thinking about the possibility of, ‘Would I cuddle with my dad or with my mom?’ — the Oedipal overtones of cuddling with your parents, it’s another thing that adds to the discomfort of it,” he says. “I see it honestly in a similar way to kissing your mom on the lips. It’s very unusual, especially as a college-age kid.”

He compares cuddling to a scene in the beginning of “Pulp Fiction,” in which main characters Vega and Winnfield — played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson — argue over the significance of a man giving a foot massage to their boss Marcellus’s wife. Is that in the same ballpark as sex? Is it okay or not?

“Marcellus throws him through a window,” Jarod says.

***

Guinazzo believes the common perception of cuddling as a sexual activity stems from our culture’s “conflation between any kind of physical pleasure and sexuality.”

“When they hear ‘Cuddle Party,’ they think it must be an orgy,” she says. “It’s like, really? We say very explicitly what it is.”

That’s true — the strictly platonic, nonsexual nature of cuddle parties and professional cuddling is clearly stated on every website. Cuddlist clients are prescreened to make sure they understand this expectation.

In fact, the Cuddlist and Cuddle Party approach is all about expectations and boundaries and communication. A cuddle session is also a form of education that helps clients better express their needs and wants, as well as become more comfortable with navigating consent.

As co-founder and Director of Training, Guinazzo has trained over 1,600 Cuddlists and a few hundred Cuddle Party facilitators. There are three pillars to the Cuddlist approach, she explains. One: the Code of Conduct, which helps set boundaries for the client and practitioner. Two: a verbal commitment at the start of every session that both client and practitioner will stay present and aware of their own boundaries, as well as clearly communicate them to the other person. Three: every session is client-led.

“This is [the client’s] experience that they’re creating for themselves. They learn to ask for what they want, they learn to ask how to get a yes and a no,” Lippin says. “And what I’ve heard over and over again is that people feel more human after a session.”

***

Research shows that affectionate touch really does have concrete health benefits. It releases oxytocin — commonly known as “the cuddle hormone” — and lowers our cortisol levels.

Michael L. M. Murphy, a health and social psychology professor at Texas Tech University, has researched the benefits of hugs. For context, he explains that social isolation and loneliness are harmful to our wellbeing: Those with fewer social connections are at higher risk for heart disease, poor HIV outcomes, depression, substance abuse, suicide, and premature death.

Hugging is a powerful protective factor, Murphy says, though the exact mechanisms of physical touch’s benefits require further research.

“The human nervous system seems to have the ability to detect social touch and to differentiate social touch from other types of touch, like when you pick up something to move it,” he says.

Touch is coded by peripheral nerve receptors and fed back to the emotional and reward areas of the brain, allowing hugs to affect the release of hormones or neurotransmitters. What may be more important than a hug’s direct sensory effects, Murphy says, is what it signifies socially.

“We think a lot of the benefit is from what a hug or affectionate touch represents to the receiver, which is a very salient reminder that we belong, that there are people who care for us,” Murphy says. “Having that in our minds, that belief that we are loved, that also has effects on our physiology.”

“It can help dampen the sympathetic branch of our nervous system, which is responsible for fight-or-flight responses, it can promote a more balanced immune response, and it can release hormones that make us feel better through a variety of different mechanisms that are independent of the actual touch,” he adds.

At the end of our interview, Murphy takes care to emphasize that everyone’s needs are different. In a 2018 study, he found that hugs could improve individuals’ moods on days they faced interpersonal conflict. After its publication, he received emails from people all over the world who were upset — they hated hugs.

“It’s important to keep the emphasis on why hugs are beneficial, and that really comes [from] the reminder that we’re cared for,” Murphy says. “There are other ways of conveying that message that don’t necessarily involve touch. And so people who don’t like hugs should still be able to get these benefits if they are being provided effective support in other ways.”

***

Almost all of my friends chuckle in discomfort as they tell me about their cuddling habits. Some still cuddle with their parents; some can’t imagine it. My friend Lisa says she stopped cuddling with her parents when she was three.

A number of my other friends still do, though. They tell me about their families squishing into bed together, about their 28-year-old sister who comes home and still snuggles with their mom. For anyone still wondering, I’ve pretty much conclusively confirmed (with a massive sample of 5 to 6 friends) that it is indeed okay for a 19-going-on-20-year old like myself to snuggle up to her dad while watching March Madness highlights. Nice. Done.

There is, of course, a gendered aspect to various perceptions of cuddling. Sisters cuddle; brothers don’t. My brother Max doesn’t find my snuggling habits odd, but he also says the relationship between daughters and their parents is different. He would never.

One male friend of mine didn’t want his name mentioned in this story. He’s like me — physical with his affection — and he still cuddles with his mom, but telling people would just be too embarrassing. If everyone knew he cuddled with his mom, maybe they’d think of him as less of a man.

My dad surprised me, then, by being so open about it. He doesn’t think it’s weird that I still cuddle with him and Mom, actually finding it more odd that my brother was so resistant to hugs as a teenager.

He even analyzes why I might be such a frequent cuddler, pointing to how I like close company as a people person. He points to the tougher times in my life and how cuddling might have helped empower me — no lie, my conservative, 6-foot-tall, basketball-loving dad used the word empowered like, six times.

“You are a social person, maybe a little dependent on social activity or people’s relationships,” he says. “Feeling sometimes helpless, cuddling maybe empowers you, gives you more comfort, more confidence. Makes you feel like people are with you to fight against disease, fight against some kind of [depression], fight against pain.”

I think back to my months-long stay at the hospital when I was 12 and got very sick; my mom thinks my urge to cuddle really ramped up then. When I couldn’t go home, I found some sense of it in her warmth. Then and now, when I am down or exhausted or upset or insecure, a good snuggle with my parents is there for me.

And hey, if my middle-aged, man’s man of a dad can find cuddling empowering, why not the rest of us? Because you know what? It really is.

—Magazine writer Claire H. Guo can be reached at claire.guo@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @clairehguo.