In early April, Dylan Josselin, a stocky man in his early 40s, began looking online for professional cuddlers.

It was an intentional, if unexpected, development. What Josselin was really looking for, he said, was human connection. Extensive childhood abuse left him with severe post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. Finding friends had always been difficult. When he moved to Frederick three years ago with his wife and two young sons, it seemed even harder. His physical relationship with his wife had deteriorated over the years, and parenting his children left him fearful of repeating the same patterns that had been inflicted on him, again and again, growing up in Minnesota. He needed some kind of release.

At first, he started looking for other forms of companionship. Every year, Josselin sees the songwriting duo Marian Hill when they perform in Washington, D.C. “They’re beautiful,” Josselin said. And this year, he wanted someone to go with him. He visited the site Rent a Friend and hired a woman to see the concert with him. But the experience wasn’t what he expected.

“I was about as weird and awkward as you might think,” Josselin said. The best way to describe it, in his words, was “transactional.”

While he was looking for a real friendship, or at least a convincing facsimile, the rented friend seemed like she was looking for money. At one point, Josselin said she used the term “platonic escort,” which turned him off from the site and the concept entirely.

“It really hit me hard,” he said. “That’s why I never did it again.”

Still, his need for companionship remained. Josselin turned back to Google and looked for alternatives, not dating sites, but other avenues for finding a real and platonic connection. That’s when he started getting results for cuddling websites, forums on which users can find and schedule appointments with strangers — usually women — and pay them for sessions of nonsexual physical intimacy. Snuggle Buddies was the first one. Then Cuddle Comfort, which is laid out more like a dating website, with short bios and demographic facts for every user. That’s how he found Jasmine Siemon, a professional cuddler with her own office in Germantown. Josselin booked an appointment and arrived at the office close to the end of business hours, slipping through the glass doors as someone else was leaving.

He was nervous, sitting there and waiting, playing with his phone to distract himself. Then Siemon came in. She offered him a drink — a cup of coffee, maybe, or a glass of water. They went into her office, a compact space dominated by a pillow-laden daybed. Josselin filled out some intake forms, and they meditated for 10 minutes, a way for both of them to get comfortable. Then they cuddled. Josselin, who, by his own admission, has a terrible memory, doesn’t remember exactly what position they were in, or what they talked about, or whether they even talked at all. But the experience was transformative.

“More than I even thought it could be,” he said. “She made it comfortable and safe and comforting. And I wanted that. I wanted that physical, human connection.”

Becoming a cuddler

When it comes to professional cuddling, Siemon has heard it all. That it’s weird. That it’s gross. That the people who do it are weird and gross and also creepy. For the first two years after she started offering the service, in 2016, Siemon was stuck in the “cuddle closet,” afraid to openly admit what she did for a living. Then, last year, she found Cuddle Sanctuary, a program based in Los Angeles that offers a professional certification. When she flew out for the three-day seminar, openly attended by 10 other cuddlers just like her, she cried.

“That’s when I finally decided that I could be open about what I did,” she said.

Siemon is a tall, strong woman — 5 feet, 11 inches — with toned biceps and a confident smile. She seems like the type of person who could successfully navigate a plane down for a difficult landing or convince a room full of capital investors to devote millions to a start-up. But when she started her career as a professional cuddler, she was also feeling vulnerable. Or maybe it was burnt out. For the past 10 years, she had worked in electrical construction, first as a project manager and then as the owner of her own firm, Bogan Services, handling high-profile commercial and residential projects. The company was successful, but the industry was fast-paced and stressful. As a woman in a male-dominated industry, she had to develop a thick skin. There was no self-care or meditation or emotional connection. Her job was troubleshooting for clients who expected their projects completed on time.

“It was really tough,” Siemon said. “I have a thick skin, so I was able to do it, but it was taking its toll on me.”

One day, in 2015, she stumbled across a Huffington Post article about Samantha Hess, a professional cuddler in Portland, Oregon, who snuggled Nick Cannon and Neil Patrick Harris on “America’s Got Talent” and launched her own studio with a full staff of certified “cuddle buddies.” The idea resonated with Siemon, who wanted to help people — really help people — and watch their progression in a way she couldn’t experience through the construction industry.

“I felt like I wanted to help,” she said. “I don’t think I recognized how stressed out and crazy I was at that moment. I just needed to do something besides what I was doing. I was having one of those transitional moments where I wanted to change something in my life.”

She suggested the idea of professional cuddling to her fiance at the time, who openly discussed feeling “threatened” and “afraid” by the concept in an 8-minute video on Siemon’s professional YouTube channel. But over time, both said they became more acclimated to the idea. The initial fear — everyone’s initial fear, Siemon said — is that cuddling is strange and somehow taboo because it’s most commonly viewed as a prelude or postlude to sex. The idea of platonic, nonsexual touch, at least in America, is largely nonexistent.

The no-touch normal

It’s an observation backed up by research from Dr. Tiffany Field, the founder and leader of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. The program first began in 1992 with a start-up grant from Johnson & Johnson, a corporation whose then-CEO, Jim Burke, “decided that touch was going to lead to fewer diseases and fewer wars,” Field said.

The grant was also motivated by some of Field’s previous research on the effect of therapeutic touch on newborn infants. In the late 1980s, she found that premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit gained weight 47 percent faster if they were given 15-minute massages three times a day (compared to infants left alone in their incubators). The study, inspired by Field’s own prematurely born daughter, upended the commonly held belief that touch was too much of an agitator for the fragile infants.

Field’s research has examined the positive effects of massage on a host of conditions: depression, pregnancy, arthritis, and anxiety, just to name a few. But some of her earlier research looked at the frequency of touch among American and French adolescents, revealing a significant divide in physicality between the two cultures. At a McDonald’s in Paris, Field observed friends of both genders leaning on each other, rubbing each other’s backs, wrapping their arms around one another, and leaning their heads against each other’s shoulders. Young Americans, in contrast, exhibited more self-touch — wringing hands, cracking knuckles, and rubbing their own arms and legs — and aggressive behavior. Earlier studies found that 12-year-olds in Miami only physically interacted with their peers 2 to 7 percent of the time in face-to-face conversations, even if the pair was good friends.

“Our culture has never been touchy-feely compared to the French and the Italians,” Field said. “But I think social media and the litigiousness of our society is leading to even less touch.”

In April, she spent more than an hour on the phone with a reporter from The Atlantic, puzzling over the ethical ramifications of Joe Biden’s frequent — and, in some cases, reportedly unwelcome — physical affection. On the one hand, Field wants Americans to touch each other more. But on the other hand, she said, culture has moved in the other direction, fueled by reports of high-profile misconduct and exploitation by men.

“I think it’s a very awkward situation,” she said. “And one of the things I puzzled over is what can be done. I think maybe men have to be much more reserved about touching women. And I think the onus is on women to make it very clear if they do want to be touched.”

Cuddling and consent

Siemon, like many other professional cuddlers, is also working to normalize touch through the lens of enthusiastic consent. One of the ways she keeps herself safe is to establish a strict code of conduct for her clients. Before she meets up with anyone for the first time, she organizes a video call to learn more about them and why, exactly, they’re looking for a professional cuddler. Sometimes, she said, “they’re looking for services that I’m not going to be able to provide.” But if the meeting goes well, and they both feel comfortable, clients can schedule an appointment (Siemon’s rate is $100 per hour) and meet at her office for an in-person discussion.

Siemon’s intake forms include a waiver for clients to sign, indicating they understand that her service is platonic, therapeutic, and non-sexual. Clients must arrive fully clothed. And when Siemon introduces herself, she includes a conversation about her personal boundaries and the two modes of consent, which start with the “wait and see” model.

“That basically means that if I say, ‘May I run my fingers through your hair,’ I’m going to wait and ask for your response,” Siemon said. “And what we say is that if it’s not a ‘hell, yes,’ it’s a no.”

Most clients are receptive, but the inherent gender dynamics of professional cuddling can also make things more complicated, she said.

Roughly 85 percent of Siemon’s clients are male (something Hess said is common throughout the industry, though her studio in Portland sees a more equitable gender split), and the vast majority of professional cuddlers are women. Sometimes, a client will seem to understand the rules, only to lob an unexpected request at Siemon when they meet in person.

“They jump through all the hoops, and then they’re like, ‘Can you wear stockings?’ ‘Can I gyrate against your leg?’” Siemon said.

It’s not that she’ll absolutely refuse clients who make those requests. In some cases, she’s built successful therapeutic relationships after re-explaining the intent of her services. But it can be hard to get through to people.

Out of curiosity, I registered as a professional cuddler on Cuddle Comfort, a process that involved listing my height, ethnicity, body type, and favorite movie. I was approved by the site after a couple of days. Within a few hours, I accumulated 15 messages, all from men — some as far as Arkansas and Maine — with a handful of requests for photos or “massages and light wrestling.” Those are the expectations Siemon and her peers are trying to shift.

“The thing is, it’s not licensed, it’s not regulated, and that’s part of the reason I’m trying to change that,” Siemon said.

While the industry gold standard is strictly platonic touch — no kissing, no fondling, no touching of any area that would be covered by a bathing suit — there are “professional cuddlers” out there whose personal boundaries differ from those guidelines. Siemon and Hess would like to see a national certifying board, not too dissimilar from the American Board of Plastic Surgery or the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage, that could establish some control and oversight of the industry.

“You can see someone advertising as a ‘professional cuddler’ who has zero ethical or professional training,” Hess said. “And if we create at least baseline minimum standards for the industry, I really think that will help move us into the mainstream.”

Finding acceptance

More than anything, Siemon is excited for the potential of cuddle therapy if it were to ever reach widespread awareness. She’s already reached out to the Montgomery County Police Department to offer her services to law enforcement officers dealing with career-related trauma. In April, she attended a suicide prevention workshop to expand her own awareness of the warning signs and intervention methods. In an ideal world, Siemon said, she’d like her clients to graduate from needing her services at all.

“So often, I get people who are reaching out because their touch needs aren’t being met at home,” she said.

In most of those cases, the clients tend not to tell their partners they’re seeing her. But Siemon encourages them to. One of her most resonant cases was a man dealing with insecurity and trauma from his relationship with his parents. He ended up marrying his childhood sweetheart, Siemon said, but their relationship was virtually devoid of physical affection. Siemon encouraged him to see a professional therapist, who, in turn, motivated him to communicate with his wife. She eventually joined him in therapy, and they all decided it would be better if Siemon’s client stopped seeing her and sought more physical attention at home.

“I was very, very proud,” Siemon said.

She would like if more people recognized that the whole point of professional cuddling — the reason it exists at all — is to fill the real human need for touch and affection.

When I told some of my family and friends about this story, I saw reactions that ranged from gentle derision to mild disgust, as if I had pointed out a dead rat in a subway station. But when Siemon reached out to me, I got it. Back in December, I was going through a rough time. It was the middle of winter, I was dealing with some personal conflict, and I hadn’t seen my family in a while. One morning, I was meeting with my personal trainer, and he touched my shoulder to adjust my posture. I felt an immediate, visceral shock — it was the first time I had been touched by another human being in weeks.

“I hear that all the time,” Siemon told me.

As part of the story, I actually met with her for a cuddle session. I felt some of the same nervousness that Josselin must have felt, reaching out and holding hands with a stranger for the first time. But by the end of the session, as I leaned against Siemon in her daybed covered in pillows, the idea of finding cuddle therapy weird was actually stranger to me than the service itself. I don’t know how to describe it, other than that I left feeling refreshed. It was the same feeling that I’ve gotten from cuddling my mom, or lying down with my sisters and watching a movie.

“I’m not sure if it can be a one-time thing or if it’s like putting milk in your fridge every week,” Josselin said.

He hasn’t seen Siemon since his initial appointment in April, but he plans to schedule another appointment. After he left her office, those feelings lasted for a week.

“Ultimately, I was seeking a connection,” Josselin said. “And that’s what she gave me.”

Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters

Kate Masters is the features and food reporter for The Frederick News-Post. She can be reached at kmasters@newspost.com.

(3) comments

gary4books

A seriously repressed population.

girlpolitic

Has anyone notified Frederick's own GOB of this business?

gary4books

What?

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