Before booking a session with a client, 28-year-old Niki Scarbrough likes to ask his favorite color.
By the time the stranger — usually a man — arrives at Scarbrough’s home for an $80-an-hour visit, or by the time she meets him at his place or in a public spot, she’ll have incorporated the color into her look. The color of her dress, maybe, or make-up, or even hair — she has a killer collection of wigs. She wants to show clients they’re not just another number. The personal touch of the make-up ritual can take up to two hours.
She looks like a different person in each profile pic: auburn bangs hanging over wide blue eyes, tiny stars drawn in with an eyeliner pen on her upper cheeks, and pink frosted lipstick in one; bookish, brown-haired, brown-eyed, bespectacled plain Jane in another; blue-green curly-wigged indie flirt in still another.
Then they’ll get down to business. And if all goes as planned, the man will walk away refreshed and renewed, a smile on his face, a pep in his step. Whatever cliché you want.
Except this is decidedly non-cliché, nontraditional — Scarbrough’s isn’t the oldest profession; it just meets a similar need, an innate human longing for basic, PG-rated contact: Scarbrough is a professional cuddler.
Okay, done snickering? Good, because, stripped of pretense, beneath the quirky or amusing surface, Scarbrough and others in her slowly growing industry are providing a serious service. No, not every client is sad or lonely, but every client, just like everyone else on the planet, has moments when he or she just needs a judgment-free friend. She can hold him, he can hold her, or there doesn’t even need to be any holding. Maybe just sitting together in understanding silence.
Scarbrough is one of a handful of professional cuddlers who book sessions through a website called CuddleComfort, which, along with other nationwide or regional cuddling advertisers, like Snuggle Buddies, Cuddlist, or Cuddle Up to Me, allows clients to search for a companion to pay by the hour, or even an overnight or weekend stay. It’s strictly nonsexual, so any individuals with pervy inclinations are shown the door or, in extreme cases, blacklisted.
A single mother of four, and a freelance graphic designer, Scarbrough enjoys the extra income, irregular as it may be. She sets her own hours, and she also feels good about being able to help others. She came to the cuddling world in May 2017, after a short stint in the decidedly sketchy sugar-baby world.
“It’s safer to be a cuddler,” she tells the Houston Press. “And it should be easier for those that actually do it for not just the money, even, but because it’s beneficial to both the cuddlee and cuddler.” She adds, “I’m better suited to raise someone’s mood and try to help them feel relaxed and refreshed than just trying to please somebody.”
There was the 30-year-old man who nervously told Scarbrough that he had never cuddled before, which struck Scarbrough as strange, since there was really no need to be nervous. But after talking with him more before the session, she discovered that the guy wasn’t talking business — he had literally never cuddled with anyone.
There was the oil-rig guy, whose fiancée lived in a different country, and who from time to time just needed a freaking hug. He felt guilty because of it.
“You should only feel guilty,” Scarbrough told him, “if you do it with the intent of vulgarity…Everybody needs emotional touch.”
On the flip side, there was the 56-year-old creep, a level-five heart-failure patient with wires poking out of his chest, who complained that his wife didn’t like to be touched. Sure, sounded pretty sympathetic, until it turned out he was looking for more than cuddling.
“He had the audacity to ask me for a sexual favor for $2,000,” Scarbrough recalls.
Depending on whom you ask, the modern cuddling industry began in New York City circa 2004, when Reid Mihalko and a partner launched fully clothed — usually fully pajama’d — touchy-feely gatherings.
A cheeky August 2004 Washington Post story had fun with Mihalko’s somewhat cheesy, New Age-ish mantras, with the story describing the then-six-month-old phenomenon of cuddle parties as “the grandest social experiment since the 1970s brought us primal screams and group rebirthings.”
Mihalko told reporter Libby Copeland that we lived in a “touch-deprived society,” and that everyone needs a “daily recommended allowance of touch.” He slung gag-worthy terms like “cuddle monsters,” “cuddlemonials” and “energetically open.”
Fortunately, in the 13 years since, cuddling has come back down to Earth. A better introduction to the pay-to-cuddle world might be with Snuggle Buddies founder Evan Carp, whose story, while never entirely fact-checked, carries an appropriate enough mythos.
A New Jersey resident, the 28-year-old Carp has told reporters that he launched Snuggle Buddies in 2013 after six torturous years of depression and chronic pain. As a December 2015 Atlantic Monthly story noted, “He felt isolated from people and spent most of his days on the computer, alone.”
Today more than 200 independent contractors have profiles on Carp’s site, which he says brings in about $100,000 a year. (For those with different interests, Carp also operates Touchfeet.com, for “All your fetish needs.”)
Carp told the Philly Voice in February 2015, “I literally hadn’t talked to human beings outside of doctors for six years. The business has helped me develop social skills. Having a business forces responsibility on you and nullifies some of the symptoms [of depression.]”
Carp has a way of coming across as warm and fuzzy in interviews. His wife, not so much.
When freelance journalist Erin Menardi signed on to Snuggle Buddies for a story for Paste, she reported that Carp’s wife told her, “Maybe you have to deal with a guy’s bullshit for an hour, but then you get to go home. If they get inappropriate, tell them to keep it therapeutic or else you’ll leave. They’ll fucking behave. They don’t want to waste their money. But as long as you get the money at the beginning, that’s all that matters. You can leave after that if you feel like it.”
Another site, Cuddle Companions, did not want to participate in this story, and a representative for the site declined to pass our contact information along to its apparently not-so-independent independent contractors to let them decide for themselves. This seems to put the representative, Tim, among those in noble professions that have men decide unilaterally what is in a woman’s best interest. (Cuddle Companions’ sister sites include “Exotic Dancerz” and “Sugar Babies,” which has a domain registered in Colombia.)
“As much as we want exposure, we have to respect that the cuddlers themselves would want privacy and away from spot lights like this,” Tim told us in an email. “We are not an agency so all cuddlers are 100 percent independent on the platform and in their bookings.”
Fortunately, Scarbrough and two other cuddlers interviewed for this story were hardly as cynical as Tim or Evan Carp’s wife.
A police officer with a military background, Gary doesn’t seem like he’d be the cuddling type.
But when you talk to the thirtysomething Gary (not his real name), you get to the core of a very empathetic, understanding and funny person.
He describes himself as a free spirit who didn’t always fit in with his surroundings: “I always liked to do things that nobody else would do, and being that I’m African-American, [and] was born in a predominantly black area, some of the things that I liked to do were classified as being ‘white.’ You know — jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. Putting air tanks on my back and going diving under the sea and breathing underwater. Hang gliding.”
A male professional cuddler, Gary is a member of a rather uncommon species. The Snuggle Buddies site doesn’t list any male snugglers, and while Cuddle Comfort has many nonprofessional males — i.e., they don’t charge — Gary is the only male on the site within 50 miles.
He says he dug into the realm of professional cuddling around May, after one of his friends got into it. His first booking was with a couple in their late thirties, early forties.
Since the couple had hired cuddlers before and it was Gary’s first time, it wound up being more of a learning experience for him.
“They made me absolutely comfortable about the idea,” he says. “They gave some tips on…what to wear, what not to wear…”
Since then, Gary says, only women have booked sessions with him. They’ve ranged in age from about 25 to 50. So far, he says, only one client has really opened up to him — a woman in her early thirties who was feeling anxiety over living on her own for the first time.
“She was out on her own and when she looked for, like, boyfriends or girlfriends, most of them wanted to not just sit there and cuddle; they wanted to go straight to sex…not understanding that she actually needed that touch, that simple cuddling,” Gary says.
Like Scarbrough and Snuggle Buddies contractor Stefany Villanueva, Gary says he gets more out of the experience than just a quick buck. “If it was just cash, it would be creepy, I think,” he laughs. “I have always been the type of person that would like to please other people versus pleasing myself.”
Villanueva, 27, likes helping others as well.
Like Scarbrough, Villanueva is a single mother of four. The extra cuddling income helps supplement student loans for psychology and biology degrees from the University of Houston-Downtown, where she’s in her last year. She hopes to go on to medical school and become a surgeon.
Villanueva said she stumbled upon a cuddling article on a website called Pennyhoarder.com. She discussed the possibility with her male friends, who she said helped her scope out a few of the sites, like Snuggle Buddies, and felt it was legitimate. So she gave it a shot and has found that it has helped her almost as much as her clients.
She describes herself as a person who isn’t afraid of looking foolish to make others feel happy — like making funny faces in public. That’s a somewhat surprising proclivity, given her description of being trapped in a long, abusive relationship, and having to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I don’t like the thought of people hurting,” Villanueva says. “And if I can make somebody laugh, smile, whatever…if I get someone to smile out of it, it’s worth it.”
She says her very first client was “so nervous, he didn’t even actually want to cuddle. We literally just sat on, like, two ends of…a couch and, like, talked the whole time because he was too nervous.” He never came back.
But there was also a regular client who just wanted to watch movies, listen to music and play video games. There was one guy who just wanted to take a nap. There was yet another, an older, gray-haired man, who claimed he hadn’t hugged anyone in the ten years since his wife died.
“He ran into his sister-in-law, and she hugged him, and it hit him…‘I haven’t been hugged in, like, ten years,’” Villanueva says.
That’s when the man decided to give cuddling a shot, figuring it might help him feel normal again.
“You just get so used to carrying the weight,” Villanueva says. “You get used to being alone. Maybe at first…you go hang out at the bar and you get drunk and you go home and you forget you’re lonely. But you carry that.”
After the man’s first session, Villanueva says, “He kind of almost bloomed like a flower — like, his personality, he was just brighter and happier.”
She adds that the rush of endorphins sparked by cuddling goes both ways: “It feels good to hug on someone. It feels good to be hugged…I found there’s two types of people. There’s the people who need to be nurtured. They’re the ones you really need to just sit and listen to, drag their story out of them word by word, and just hug on them. You know, let them know you accept them…And then there’s the ones who need to nurture. And these are the people who try to get my story out of me, who just want to hug on me, and that’s what they need to feel good.”
The chemical release Villanueva refers to is of a type of hormone called oxytocin, which doesn’t always work as you might expect, according to Amanda Venta, an assistant psychology professor at Sam Houston State University.
At its core, “Research has shown that oxytocin will temporarily increase parental sensitivity and nurturance, quality of interactions with a partner, trust, empathy and other interpersonal processes,” Venta told the Press in an email.
Venta is the director of the Youth & Family Studies Lab at SHSU, and her studies have been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychological Association, among others.
“Oxytocin effects are not as straightforward as people hoped,” Venta explains. “In fact, most oxytocin effects seem to be moderated — meaning that they depend on other variables. For example, the trust-inducing effects of oxytocin do not occur for someone if their partner in a trust game has proven themselves untrustworthy.”
Venta’s own research on oxytocin in the adolescent brain has yielded discoveries Sigmund Freud would have a field day with, to wit: “We find that oxytocin increases trust behavior toward the teen’s mom only when the adolescent has mental health problems and an insecure attachment with their mother in the first place. When these additional characteristics are not present, oxytocin actually reduces trust behavior toward the mother.”
So what does this mean for the professional cuddling industry?
“While to my knowledge, no one has studied professional cuddling and oxytocin, these other studies would suggest that people should not expect a simple, uniform oxytocin effect from paid cuddling,” Venta writes.
But still, cuddling makes for one heck of a placebo.
Surprisingly, in the days after Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, the three cuddlers interviewed for this story didn’t report any clients who needed comfort from the floods.
Over Labor Day weekend, Scarbrough booked a session with a young Pakistani man whose father had died four months earlier. He wanted to meet at St. James, a gentleman’s club on Rankin Road, but the guy was hardly a gentleman: prior to the meeting, he asked Scarbrough for a nude picture, which she of course declined to provide. He asked for a $20 discount because he would handle the $5 cover charge and the drinks. He got handsy, but backed off after she admonished him.
“After the hour I thanked him kindly and wished him well and left,” Scarbrough told us in an email. “Later in the night he asked if I wanted to go out again which I told him I would still only be a cuddler and if he needed more ideas, I could offer some and again wished him good luck.”
The following night was better: a fiftysomething microbiologist.
“He did find it very relaxing and therapeutic and was hoping I could do an all-nighter, but since it wasn’t scheduled, I told him next time if he liked,” Scarbrough wrote. As part of the relaxation, the guy told Scarbrough how he had discovered three parasites in a woman’s blood sample, and that she was likely a goner.
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Unusual chatter, for sure, but cuddling — when done correctly — is a judgment-free zone. Clients aren’t judged for what they say, or if they don’t say anything at all. They shouldn’t have to feel awkward or guilty or ashamed.
“You never need to explain to someone why you need a cuddle,” Scarbrough says. “It’s something everyone needs.”