Today, the world is celebrating its second Valentine’s Day during the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the course of the past two years, quarantine policies from state officials, strict social distancing policies and masking recommendations have isolated people at home, leaving them unable to see their loved ones. As a result, intimate and platonic touch have been limited. A study in Feb. 2021 of 1,746 adults concluded that a lack of intimate touch, like hugs and cuddles from loved ones, is a significant predictor of anxiety. The study also suggested that the effects of touch deprivation are particularly strong in single people as opposed to married couples.
Keeley Shoup, a professional cuddler, may have the answer to the problem of touch deprivation. Based out of Chicago, Shoup has facilitated both group sessions — referred to as cuddle parties — and individual sessions for over six years. She is also a developer at Cuddlist, a company that serves as a platform for professional cuddlers.
“It starts off with a consultation before the session begins,” Shoup said “We talk through a phone call or Zoom. The consultation gives the client an opportunity to ask any clarifying questions. What it does for me as the practitioner is it gives me an insight into what they’re looking for. Cuddle therapy is different for every individual person. It’s completely customized.”
Shoup believes in the positive potential of touch, and studies have shown that touch can be a positive force in people’s lives. Acts like hugging and cuddling release a hormone called oxytocin, which plays an important role in facilitating bonding, trust and generosity in interpersonal relationships, according to PsychCentral.
Once the client arrives at the apartment, Shoup checks in with them emotionally and gives them time to settle in. After that, she provides an opening agreement in which they “create containers.” This allows clients to leave behind the chaos of the outside world and begin to reset.
“What I mean by creating containers is setting a time limit, setting an intention, setting boundaries and sticking to it,” Shoup said. “If you are in a relationship and trying to explore something, set a time container. Set some limits of what you are and aren’t going to do that both of you agree on and stick to it.”
During the session, the client may not know what they want or may be uncomfortable cuddling with a stranger. However, the basis of cuddling is informed consent, said Cuddlist’s website. For example, the idea of cuddles can have a sexual connotation for many people, and the clients can explore what cuddling means for them in a nonjudgmental space, according to Shoup. In a pandemic-scarred touch-starved world, the idea of initiating platonic or intimate touch can be scary. Clients may even worry about becoming sexually aroused during a cuddle session. Cuddlist’s FAQ page says that if neither person acts on it to increase arousal, then it is perfectly normal.
“I’ve had sessions where I’ve held someone while they cried for the session,” Shoup said. “I’ve had sessions where we play games and dance and do headstands and chair races or an office chair spinning race. I have had a pillow fight with a client before in a session because we were working on feeling acceptance and embracing complicated emotions. One of their complicated emotions was anger.”
While in-person sessions have the benefit of physical presence, the pandemic has forced some cuddlers to go virtual. A recorded virtual cuddling session by Cuddle Sanctuary involves activities like deep breathing, “self-cuddling” and meditation.
“What I wanted to offer is for you to adjust your position, thinking about the idea of cuddling,” professional cuddler Jean of Cuddle Sanctuary said in the video. “If I were to cuddle myself, what might that position be? We’ll spend a minute or so making it the coziest version of it. I want you to be aware, like Jean is here, so with me to witness. Take a moment and ask your body what emerges.”
Randy, the subject in the video, seems to be the main demographic for some cuddlers. According to a 2016 Newsy interview, Shoup’s main clientele base are men ages 35 through 60. As a result of her TikTok promotions, Shoup has recently gone viral, catering to a diverse audience. A professional cuddler in a different interview said that her main clients are men between the ages of 40 and 60. Virtual sessions have broadened the possibilities now that geography is no longer a factor.
No matter who the cuddlee is, Shoup’s willingness to work on a client’s boundary-setting comes from her own relationship struggles. After she finished college, she moved from Indiana to Chicago, which was a big change of setting for her. According to Shoup, she became a successful workaholic, but isolated and touch deprived.
“But as a person in touch deprivation, without comprehensive skills on setting boundaries, what healthy consent looks like, I got into an abusive relationship,” Shoup said. “And so, finding Cuddle Party, finding [a cuddling] community, then getting that education, feeling and understanding what healthy platonic touch looks like, helped me get out of the abusive situation. It helped me get a stable community and foundation for my life, and provided me with a career path.”
Cuddle Party, a nonprofit organization that facilitates cuddling groups, is where she and many other professional cuddlers have started. They also teach others how to facilitate cuddle parties, and this is where Shoup first learned the art of therapeutic cuddling.
Platforms like Cuddlist and Cuddle Sanctuary offer their own certification programs as a requirement to work for their companies. Cuddle Sanctuary offers an online program that consists of six modules: Beginning the Journey, Anatomy of a Cuddle Session, Cuddle Position Deep Dive, Session Finesse and Finality, Safety and Boundaries and Completing the Journey. The tuition is $1,997. This contrasts with Cuddlist’s program, which costs $249.
After completing a certification program, a cuddler can set their own prices, whether they want to incall or outcall, their location and other factors. Shoup said that she charges above the industry standard at $200 an hour and allocates up to six hours of sessions per day. Another cuddler on the website, Annie Hopson, is listed at $97 an hour.
While the cuddler certifications can offer quality control, it is up to the cuddler to customize their cuddling regimen. Shoup not only wants people to learn important lessons concerning boundaries and consent, but also encourages touch-starved individuals to ask their friends and family about touch.
“If you’re in a circumstance with someone, and you want to initiate a platonic cuddling connection with them, ask yourself if you are comfortable with any level of vulnerability with this person,” Shoup said. “Can you tell them something true about yourself? Can you ask them something true about themselves, or about them? Start with a little practice of a small amount of vulnerability.”
For Valentine’s Day, Shoup encourages single people to try and incorporate touch through cuddle puddles.
“Many people have the understanding experience of a sleepover vibe,” Shoup said. “There’s not a ton of sexual energy in that sleepover vibe from adolescence or childhood. If you can tap into that innocence…for example, movie night for Valentine’s Day. I would say for couples on Valentine’s Day, my invitation would be to communicate more about what’s something they might want to do that day. Don’t assume like, “Oh, I better go get flowers, and then we’re going to do this.” Would you rather picnic? Or would you rather us play video games all night? What would actually make you really happy?”