Jacqueline Samuels has two tiny arms and she wants to hold you. She became a professional cuddler in 2012, after years of boyfriends and lovers complimenting her superlative spooning skills. They often joked she should start her own cuddling business, she says. And when she first opened the Snuggery last year, up in Rochester, New York, she was booked solid within three weeks. She had to hire another cuddler, Colleen, to take on more appointments.
Here at the Snuggery, clothes stay on. There are strict boundaries and no genital touch is allowed. “Jacqueline established the Snuggery because she believes in the healing power of touch,” the website for her business explains. “She aims to make the world a gentler place, one snuggle at a time.” As a graduate student in social work, she just sees her latest venture as a different way to help people.
Still, nearly 50 percent of her male clients get boners, she told me. And I secretly wondered if she gets offended about the other half.
When I arrived at the inconspicuous building, I walked up a dingy staircase to a second-floor apartment and the first thing I noticed about Jackie is that she is basically a forest nymph. Standing at five feet tall on a good day, she’s delicate and graceful. I could totally picture her living under a mushroom in some forest, or in a children’s cartoon. She says she’s 29 years old, but she could actually say she was 13 or 150 and I’d probably believe her, like some character out of Fern Gully.
The clientele that visits the Snuggery is overwhelmingly male, and ranges in age from about 21 to 85. One or two women have come in since the place opened, but “they mostly just wanted to chat” — oh, women — and that’s not really the point. Though touching genitals isn’t allowed, I was surprised to learn that clients are allowed to caress their designated snuggler’s face, hair, and arms. They are also allowed to intertwine legs and play footsie. As long as it doesn’t involve lady parts, it’s basically fair game. It almost seems like men are paying to get blue balls. I had a hard time understanding what, exactly, they’re getting from the experience. “A lot of people come in when they’re going through a divorce or breakup,” Jackie explains. “Because they don’t want to get into another relationship but they miss being touched.”
Both she and Colleen offer the same rates: 45-, 60-, or 90-minute sessions that cost a dollar per minute. For an extra fee, you can do a double-cuddle. But I wanted to start more slowly. And rather than cuddling with Jackie — who I had been grilling about her business — I met with Colleen, my 26-year-old, music-playing, reiki-healing cuddle-for-hire. Spacey and bohemian, she seemed like the kind of person who would accidentally join a cult.
First, she led me into a large room with big windows, dark curtains, and a king-size bed. As soon as she turned down the covers and put on the music, I was uncomfortable. There was terrible massage-style Muzak that was meant to be soothing, except that it was a string-and-horn quartet version of a bad Brooklyn noise-art project.
I jumped under the covers anyway and turned away from Colleen as she buckled me into the most awkward spooning of my life. We laid there for twenty minutes dead silent, listening to my stomach perform an impromptu jazz solo. I immediately felt extremely self-conscious but tried to get into it. Come on, Rose. Let her heal you! You can do this! But I was too uptight.
At one point, I needed to shift positions. I ended up on my back with Colleen’s face burrowed into my neck. I felt like I was doing “the guy part.” Yuck. Then we shifted positions again. I couldn’t get comfortable. Finally, I broke the silence, “I feel weird,” I said. “Me too,” she admitted. Turns out she was more comfortable doing her job with men as partners, especially ones who weren’t reviewing the experience publicly. We both wanted to be good in bed for each other, I’m sure. Instead, we spent the rest of the 60 minutes chatting about random stuff. Finally, the music ended and the session was over.
I left feeling conflicted. Colleen is perfectly lovely and I’m sure she is terrific at her job. It just wasn’t my scene. The Snuggery is not a service for straight women, it turns out, but an outlet for men who feel either lonely or alienated. I like to think of myself as open-minded and progressive, but even this was too new-age-y for me. Although there is no sex involved, men are paying women for physical intimacy. Bodies are touching. Caressing is involved. Two people are on a bed and money is exchanged.
Maybe I’m more conservative than I thought. But at least I know now that I like my hugs to be free of charge.