AP NEWS

‘Cuddlists’ hug and spoon clients in nonsexual sessions

December 7, 2019 GMT
1 of 10
Ivy Dremon, left, drinks tea with a client, Rashida (no last name to be disclosed). Ivy is a cuddlist, which means she gets paid to cuddle and hold people in non-sexual ways.(Jose F. Moreno/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)
1 of 10
Ivy Dremon, left, drinks tea with a client, Rashida (no last name to be disclosed). Ivy is a cuddlist, which means she gets paid to cuddle and hold people in non-sexual ways.(Jose F. Moreno/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Ivy Dremon opens the door to her South Philadelphia apartment and greets the stranger she will be cuddling for the next hour.

“I’m super-excited,” Dremon, 24, a professional “cuddlist,” tells her visitor, Rashida, a 42-year-old divorced mother of two who has driven there from Glenside. Though she allows photographs, Rashida asks that her last name not be used.

“My intention,” she says, contemplating how she’d like Dremon to put her hands on her, “is relaxation.”

What’s happening is neither sex nor massage.

Dremon is one of five people in Philadelphia who provide one-on-one cuddling services for $80 an hour. They’re part of Cuddlist, a four-year-old company offering a “therapeutic approach to touch,” according to its website. There are smaller businesses that dispatch cuddlers into the world, but Cuddlist describes itself as America’s largest such enterprise.

It has 200 practitioners across the nation who allow people into their homes, or go where their clients designate, to hug, spoon, snuggle, and pet in a near-infinite menu of platonic touches, according to cofounder Adam Lippin, of Montclair, Essex County.

“A lot of people have touch deprivation, skin hunger,” says Lippin, 56, an entrepreneur who was a yoga teacher as well as the founder of Atomic Wings, a chain of chicken eateries in the northeastern United States. “Cuddling is a super-charged way to connect. And it releases oxytocin, the love hormone,” which some scientists say is secreted into the bloodstream during hugging.

One-on-one cuddling derived from cuddle parties, which started around 15 years ago with groups of strangers engaged in nonsexual touch, Lippin says. Two-person cuddling is seen as more intimate.

Is professional cuddling the ultimate 21st-century response to loneliness — where one orders up an embrace like a quesadilla from Uber Eats? Is it the inevitable pendulum-swing away from too much online life, which compels folks to touch keyboards instead of one another?

Or — as Dremon herself once wondered — is it just plain “creepy”?

Typically, sessions last 90 minutes, Lippin says. He adds that clients include a “broad swath of humanity,” including new-age “spiritual seekers”; those with post-traumatic stress disorder who need help connecting to others; anxious college students; and people with Asperger’s syndrome, with significant difficulties interacting socially.

“It sounds crazy when I tell people I’m gonna hug on a stranger for an hour,” says Jennifer Locke, 50, of Brewerytown, a divorced mother of three and one of Dremon’s Philly cuddlist colleagues. “But it’s about caring and healing. And the sense of well-being can be euphoric.”

Personal boundaries

Dremon serves Rashida green tea.

Then she recites a code of conduct governing the interaction. Both client and cuddlist agree to not pursue or encourage sexual arousal, but to “practice consent and attention to personal boundaries.”

“I ask that you don’t touch my feet,” Dremon says, “or put too much pressure on my jaw.” Rashida nods.

The two sit on the couch. “Would you like my arm around your shoulder?” Dremon asks.

“Yes,” says Rashida, a family therapist. “I give a lot at work. It’s nice to feel I don’t have to do anything here.”

They sit back and close their eyes as Rashida places her head on Dremon’s shoulder.

Touch-deprived

In a study from the 1960s, a psychologist observed friends talking in cafes around the world, according to an article by University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Dacher Keltner.

In England, friends touched zero times in an hour. In the U.S., twice. In Puerto Rico, 180 times. Keltner’s conclusion: “Some Western cultures are touch-deprived.”

Untouched babies in orphanages manifest behavioral problems, Keltner writes. When librarians pat the hands of students checking out books, the kids are more likely to return. Professional basketball teams whose players touch one another win more games, Keltner writes, citing a 2010 study in the scientific journal Emotion.

“Cuddling can reduce stress and promote well-being,” says Girija Kaimal, an assistant professor at Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions and an expert in human development. “Forty percent of us feel lonely. This conquers that. I never heard of professional cuddling, but it makes sense.”

While it’s true “that touch can be positive,” says Rudy Nydegger, chief of the division of psychology at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, N.Y., “that comes with a large however.”

If you have to pay someone to hug you, he says, “then physical contact is the least of your problems. It means you need help developing relationships.”

Beyond that, Nydegger says, while some professional cuddlers may be legitimate, it’s not a licensed specialty, “which means anybody who wants to hang up a phony shingle can provide services, and there’s no way to know if a person is on the shady side. It can be risky.”

Lippin of Cuddlist insists his enterprise is safe, both for client and practitioner. To engage a cuddlist, a person answers a series of online questions about what, ideally, might be gained from the experience. Then the cuddlist contacts the client to “get the vibe,” as Locke puts it, weeding out oddballs and anyone looking for sex.

Once, Locke said, a client started getting sexual, but she shut down the session without incident. She and other local cuddlists say they haven’t had dangerous encounters.

Cuddlists take a three-week online course about mutual consent and boundaries. They keep their session fees, and pay the company about $40 a month to stay listed as practitioners on its website.

Not everyone understands the practice. When Malcolm Grant, 39, a North Philadelphia cuddlist, first told his mother, she said, “That sounds like prostitution.”

Like Dremon and Locke, Grant, who also works as a case manager in a mental health program, deals with old hardships that haunt. He has bipolar disorder, and was traumatized as a child witnessing violence. Dremon is a domestic-violence survivor. Locke has multiple sclerosis. Dremon and Grant allow that there may be a correlation between being hurt and wanting to heal others through safe touch.

It’s not surprising that people are skeptical of professional cuddling, says Bob, 71, a client of Locke’s from South Jersey. He asks that his real name be withheld in order to speak openly about cuddling.

“Jen is a beacon of light in an unforgiving, dark world,” Bob says. “She’s friendly, she won’t blackmail me, and she’s giving me something I’m starving for.

“I’ve had tremendous trauma, and Jen offers spiritual food. Cuddling is like a home-cooked meal. After you feed, you’re content, satisfied with yourself and humanity, and connected to another.

“It’s about soulful nurturing.”

The toboggan

Dremon commands her Echo to play jazz.

“Ever heard of the toboggan?” she asks Rashida.

Dremon sits on the floor and has Rashida sit in front, leaning back against Dremon’s torso. She cradles Rashida in her arms.

“It feels really good,” Rashida says.

At the end of the session, Dremon advises her: “Right now, you’re probably feeling high. It’s oxytocin. You could also be going through strong emotions.”

“It’s like the feeling after leaving a spa,” Rashida says. “This was a great comfort.”

The two raise their teacups and clink them in a toast.

Rashida smiles. “This was lovely.”

___

Online:

https://bit.ly/2syG3IH

___

Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.inquirer.com

Sidebar:

Men’s cuddling group aims to redefine masculinity and heal trauma

BY ANERI PATTANI, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Twice a month, half a dozen men gather in Plymouth Meeting to help each other work through past traumas.

Their chosen method of healing? Cuddles.

It may seem odd, but members of the Men’s Therapeutic Cuddle Group say the practice has helped them cope with everything from childhood sexual abuse to the loss of family members when they were young.

The two-year-old group draws men from various backgrounds: a 37-year-old Mormon who works as an airport gate agent, a 57-year-old married father of three, a 62-year-old retiree. There is a range of sexual orientations.

At a time when traditional ideas of manhood are facing scrutiny and such terms as toxic masculinity are becoming more widely known through the MeToo movement, the group aims to provide new ways for men to express themselves.

“So often, we’re taught that to be an emotional stoic is the mark of manhood,” said Scott Turner, a 46-year-old interior designer and cofounder of the group. “If you show any emotional weakness or vulnerability, that’s a failure to your title of a man.”

But “if we expect men to be emotionally sensitive to the needs of others, they first need to be able to build an emotional vocabulary,” he said.

Part of that involves learning that physical touch extends beyond aggression or sex. Platonic affection can be a doorway to emotional closeness.

“It’s not the ends of what we’re doing,” Turner said. “It’s part of a larger toolbox of healing.”

Unlike professional cuddling services, which are gaining popularity in cities across the United States, the group charges no fees and members are not required to undergo training.

Although the meet-ups are not open to the public (members must be interviewed and approved), the group held a demonstration for The Inquirer.

At the beginning of the session, everyone agreed not to engage in sexual touch and to ask for consent before each action. They gathered in a huddle and breathed meditatively.

The cuddling started with men pairing up to do “the motorcycle hold,” in which one man sits with his back against another man’s chest, as if they were riding together on a motorcycle. Some massaged their partner’s shoulders or hands, while others stroked the other person’s beard. Many closed their eyes as the room fell into silence. After 15 minutes, they switched to a new partner.

For the second half of the session, the men cuddled as one large group in what they call a “puppy pile.” Men lay with their heads in each other’s laps, chatted, and joked.

It’s meant to be a space where men feel safe sharing their innermost thoughts, said Kevin Eitzenberger, 57, who founded the group with Turner. That can be challenging in other areas of their lives, where they’re expected to be “the strong provider.”

In the group, “they learn it’s OK to be a little fractured,” Eitzenberger said.

The importance of vulnerability

As a child, TJ McDonnell was molested by a neighbor. He didn’t tell anyone, ashamed he’d done something wrong. For years, he kept his distance from others.

“I never connected with people very well, even my siblings,” said McDonnell, now 62 and living in Montgomery County.

Getting therapy and attending a support group helped, but McDonnell credits the men’s cuddling group for teaching him that emotional intimacy and physical touch aren’t always abusive.

“It allowed me to experience what good friendships are, what brothers are,” he said.

Another member, Ryan Hancock, has become like a son to McDonnell. Hancock’s children even call McDonnell grandpa.

“These types of groups can be healthy and helpful for men and women,” said Chris Liang, a licensed psychologist and associate professor of counseling psychology at Lehigh University.

Liang researches the effect of masculinity on health and was part of a board that helped the American Psychological Association (APA) formulate new guidelines on working with boys and men.

The guidelines highlight ways in which traditional views of masculinity — such as men are tough and never cry — harm their emotional and physical health. Studies show that men who strongly believe in masculine norms are less likely to get preventive health care, more likely to drink heavily and use tobacco, and more likely to hold negative attitudes toward seeking mental-health services.

Many men never learn healthy ways to deal with stress, Liang said. Then, it can emerge in harmful ways.

According to the APA, men commit 90 percent of homicides in the U.S. and represent 77 percent of homicide victims. They’re also more than three times as likely as women to die by suicide, and their life expectancy is nearly five years shorter, largely because of both violence and the health impact of stress.

Liang hopes that such groups as the cuddling meet-up can help men move beyond one restrictive definition of masculinity. Although those with more serious concerns may want to seek therapy, he said, “if this is something that’s more comfortable for men ... then it can do a whole lot of good.”

A growing movement of men’s support groups

When Kevin Eitzenberger was 11, his 7-year-old brother died. Growing up, Eitzenberger didn’t spend much time with his father. The two had little in common.

Both experiences left Eitzenberger without a role model to show him what it meant to be a man.

“It led me to believe I was less than,” he said. “That I wasn’t manly.”

In 2008, he discovered a group called the ManKind Project (MKP), which would help him overcome that feeling.

Founded about 30 years ago, MKP is a nonprofit focused on building male community through more than 900 men’s support groups in dozens of countries.

“We want men to come in and figure out what their ideal of manhood is,” said Boysen Hodgson, communications director of MKP in the U.S. “It’s not something that can be imposed or prescribed to you.”

The group doesn’t focus on cuddling, but it does promote the idea of being open and vulnerable with other men.

“Asking for affection, asking for time, asking for help from other men is scary,” Hodgson said. “But it’s a very important skill for men to learn.”

Studies published in 2010 and 2014 found that participating in MKP programming improved men’s psychological well-being for up to two years.

For Eitzenberger, MKP helped him realize that wanting a connection with other men and seeking their acceptance was OK. It led him to start the cuddling group.

Now he receives about two requests a week from people looking to join the meet-up.

A man among men

At the cuddling group demonstration, Ryan Hancock absentmindedly touched TJ McDonnell’s ear. Later, McDonnell squeezed in between Turner and Eitzenberger lying on the floor, calling himself “the cream in the cookie.”

In this setting, touch was no more notable than asking about someone’s day.

Some men teared up as they discussed their regrets as fathers. Others were playful.

At the end of the session, the group huddled and took turns completing the phrase, “As a man among men, I feel...”

“Grateful to be with all of you,” Turner said.

“Worthy of connection,” Hancock said.

McDonnell, going last, said, “Loved, accepted, and included.”

___

Online:

https://bit.ly/2sJCq2N