Is cuddling with strangers in exchange for cash an ingenious business plan or G-rated prostitution? Are the people who would pay for a cuddle sympathetic or suspect? Can someone legitimately claim to be uniquely skilled at cuddling?
I’m going to need your help here.
Late last spring, a 29-year-old named Jackie Samuel opened The Snuggery. Operating out of her home in Penfield, N.Y., this social work graduate student offers to assume any one of 100 cuddling positions with her clients, who are charged $1 per minute of cuddling. Most of her clients are men, middle-aged and older.
Business boomed to such an extent that, by the fall, she was earning up to $260 per day and serviced up to 30 clients per week. Ms. Samuel decided to expand her offerings, and now includes reading bed-time stories on the menu of her clients’ options. She even hired an associate, who is allowed to participate in “double cuddle” sessions with Ms. Samuel. The profits from the business go towards paying Ms. Samuel’s graduate school tuition and supporting her son.
There are rules to the cuddling. Clothes are a must. Sex is a must not. Ms. Samuel acknowledges on The Snuggery’s website, however, that arousal “happens,” and reassures folks that such a reaction is “normal” and should not make anyone “uncomfortable.”
The point of the snuggling is not foreplay, Ms. Samuel insists, but taking time to “focus on the simple restorative pleasure of touch.” She believes Americans have a cultural apprehension or even aversion to non-sexual touch. Through her work, she aims to break down this barrier and to “make the world a gentler place, one snuggle at a time.”
Not everyone is convinced by her marketing.
According to the Daily Mail, the school Ms. Samuel attends threatened to expel her when they learned about The Snuggery. (There is no indication from online sources that she has been expelled.) Many label her a prostitute. Others simply wonder how she manages to keep the business afloat.
The business clearly raises eyebrows. Ms. Samuel and The Snuggery have been profiled everywhere from her local news to CNN to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. She claims to be surprised by all of the attention.
In a way, I am too. She is, after all, the proprietress of a business that hasn’t expanded beyond a single home in upstate New York. She is doing nothing more than lying beside someone and letting them spoon her. To my untrained eye, there’s nothing too remarkable about her spooning technique (except maybe her advertisement of so many different ways to spoon; a spoon’s a spoon, in my experience). I’ve done my fair share of cuddling, and Jimmy Fallon has never shown the slightest interest.
But then you throw in the payment part. And the stranger part. And the claimed therapeutic value part.
Each toss raises the stakes, and the questions.
I know that the prostitution debate is a heated one. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it is worth considering whether paid non-sexual touch is measurably or normatively different than paid sexual touch. If we agree that you can “emotionally cheat,” should we also agree that you can “emotionally prostitute”?
Beyond the moral (or legal) question, the stranger-danger aspect of this business seems very real. Ms. Samuel professes no fear – or even concern – about her clients getting aroused. She has simply stated that she sometimes has to “restate boundaries,” and that if one of her clients were to seek sex, she’d tell him that’s “not what we’re doing.”
But as she repeatedly has stated in the press, she is a petite woman. She is inviting strangers into her home to climb into bed or onto a comfortable sofa or wherever else they want to cuddle up. There is no security to protect her in the event someone decides to ignore the physical boundaries she verbally establishes. Her business pose is necessarily one of vulnerability. Can that really be a good idea?
Ms. Samuel thinks so, and claims that her cuddles have helped men get over break-ups and ease feelings of loneliness. More generally, she urges snuggling because it “makes us feel good.” Most of us would probably agree with that – because we’ve done it with someone we’ve (a) met; (b) care about; and (c) aren’t charging. Is it believable that two strangers could achieve the calm, relaxed state that could promote the health benefits Ms. Samuel is convinced flow from touch alone?
I’ll say this much: I think her school’s threats to expel her because of her cuddling-for-cash exploits, if true, are an over-reaction. While perhaps unorthodox, nothing she is doing appears to be illegal. The school does not seem to be in a place to legislate her business decisions.
I will also say that I do not think that what she is doing is prostitution. I think she is putting herself in a dangerous position, one in which she risks being forced to perform beyond limits she wants to impose, much like prostitutes do. But to jump from that similarity to a label of “prostitute” would be like making a woman responsible for whatever response she gets when she puts herself in a huge variety of situations, and I am in no way an advocate for the “she was asking for it” defense.
I will also acknowledge that perhaps our culture is prudish when it comes to demonstrating affection. For goodness’ sake, leave the United States and you’ll be expected to kiss someone on the cheek at least once, even when you meet for the first time. Enter the U.S., and you get nothing more than a cold handshake.
And yet. Something about the whole thing still strikes me as bizarre. How about you?
Featured image via Daily Mail