Last year, James struggled through a series of unfortunate events. First, major back surgery left him with a 14-inch scar on his back. Next, a heart attack prompted doctors to place a stent in his heart. He later experienced a cancer scare.
The past ten years, James admits, was muddled in problems that started with a grievous motorcycle accident and ended in a divorce from his wife.
For James, 60, the cuddling service was a hopeful respite to help him in recovery. James only provided his first name to conceal his identity.
“I’ve had a rough couple of years,” James said. “I kept running across in books how hugging and intimacy are important for the healing process.”
In 2014, Gainesville became home to a professional, non-sexual cuddling service called Cuddle Time. The company mainly offers close contact or hugging between employees and clients, but their services expand to offer anything from a conversation on a couch to a night spent at the movies. They charge $60 an hour and up to $400 per night, according to the website.
Employees will meet with clients at an agreed upon location, and then they can move to the client’s home or another location.
Edie, an employee of Cuddle Time, said the employees are called cuddlers. There are three types of clients Cuddle Time cuddlers encounter, she said. Edie uses a pseudonym to protect her identity.
“There are the clientele that have extra money and they’re curious, and there are the second that are usually in a relationship or married…and are missing that aspect in their relationship,” Edie said. “And there are the third, which is someone who is so walled off intimately or relationship-wise that they need me to help them.”
Cuddle Time was founded by a Gainesville couple looking to start another business to supplement their income. To date, they are the only official employees of Cuddle Time. All other cuddlers are independent contractors, according to Edie.
Co-founder Mike Price, a youth counselor at a children center and a part-time EMT , said he liked the idea of this business because he wanted something to offer the community that didn’t require high start-up costs.
“I’ve seen these other cuddling businesses, and it kind of hit me that this can be an option in Florida,” Price said.
Chloe Kats, Cuddle Time co-founder and CEO, grew interested in the business as a way to connect clients with a kind of interaction not readily available–cuddling or human contact. Kats said she too uses a fictitious name to protect herself from clients.
Kats was inspired to create Cuddle Time when she learned of a similar business created by a woman in Manhattan, New York. Cuddle U, a cuddle service started by Alison Cuddle, launched in 2013 under the same premise.
In our digitally connected, personally disconnected daily experiences, human contact is often a luxury, Kats said.
“We want to be there to help these people,” she said. “We want to give back something that they think maybe they can’t have.”
Kats cites research demonstrating physical touch can increase oxytocin, a hormone that relieves stress and builds trust.
According to Dr. Eric Krause, an assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Pharmacy, oxytocin, or the “love hormone,” is released in the brain when people act in a way that is perceived as positive. This could be experiences of intercourse, the connection between a mother and her child, or falling in love.
Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, said she hasn’t come across research that ties cuddling with oxytocin specifically, but she asserts that touch does increase oxytocin.
“I think all we can say is that we can extrapolate from literature about massaging, where oxytocin is increased,” she said.
Krause said clients may have a release of oxytocin if they perceive the act of cuddling as a positive social behavior.
“The consumer in that context would be looking for that pro-social behavior,” he said. “So, maybe from their own perspective it would be socially rewarding and would help elevate brain levels of oxytocin, which would be good. ”
James is now slowly growing more comfortable with the idea of entering into a new relationship, he said. He credits this growth to his sessions.
“We have a tendency to get away from that closeness,” he said. “Even when I was married, you find that there’s not that much intimacy in terms of closeness.”
However, some people believe there is an underlying concern for safety when strangers engage in closeness and intimacy.
Price said there hasn’t been an incident involving sexual misconduct. Police intervention has yet to be necessary. If a cuddler feels uncomfortable, he added, he or she will simply end the session early and block the client from contacting them.
The founders have implemented a system to track the cuddlers at all times, which is based on having steady contact with the cuddler before, during and after a session.
Also, cuddlers are not giving real names or personal information to the clients. And, according to Price, they always follow the clients in their own cars.
Kats said there is an open line of communication and a discourse with clients on what is appropriate and what is not. Usually, the cuddlers will say what is acceptable or not during a session.
Edie said that she feels fully comfortable and has never had any incident where she felt in danger.
“I took self-defense since I was nine years old, so I’m pretty confident that I can protect myself,” she said.
So far, they have expanded to Daytona, Ocala, Orlando, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Tampa, West Palm Beach, Sarasota and Puerto Rico. They have at least one professional cuddler in each location, ready and waiting to make contact.
But the business is still in the start-up stage, and its future remains unclear. While the business is growing, Price admits it is not a full-time endeavor.
“One week you have 5 appointments, another week you have 20 appointments,” he said.
A similar business in Madison, Wisconsin, called The Snuggle House, was shut down in 2013 before it was officially opened. Public criticism claiming the organization was a prostitution operation led to its demise, according to their Facebook page.
James said he wants to continue using the service until he feels ready for more organic experiences.
“Having done it and looking forward to it, I’ll do this until I feel really comfortable and feel healed,” he said. “Then I’ll start looking for a relationship.”
Edie has enjoyed the connections she’s made as a cuddler. Currently, she can’t even think about leaving.
“It will it be heartrending for me because I built these friendships that mean a lot to me,” she said.
The service satisfies a basic human need. But regardless of the interaction it provides, it is still just that — a service.
“You pay a psychiatrist to talk out your problems, you pay a masseuse for a deep tissue massage and you pay me to cuddle,” Edie said.