The Snuggery: Cuddles As Sex Work

I was annoyed by this New York Magazine article about a business called The Snuggery, both by the writer’s snideness (“It almost seems like men are paying to get blue balls”) and by the choice to illustrate with a nude photo, even though The Snuggery has (as the article says) a no-nudity policy.

But the article does raise the question of if “non-sexual” cuddling is still, essentially, a sexual service:

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.” […]

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.

Jackie Samuel, the woman who runs The Snuggery (and one of the two snugglers), says “there’s no sex involved.” But if there were no sex involved, wouldn’t her clients be more diverse, instead of being nearly all heterosexual men?

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against The Snuggery. I think she’s providing a valuable and honest service to her clients, and although I’d have a hard time doing her job, I’m glad she enjoys it.

But it seems to me that what’s she does is a form of sex work. There’s nothing wrong with that. But in a more reasonable society – one in which sex workers weren’t subject to social stigma and (in some cases) arrest – maybe she wouldn’t feel the same need to deny that what’s she’s doing actually does has “sex involved.”

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20 Responses to The Snuggery: Cuddles As Sex Work

  1. 1
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    But it seems to me that what’s she does is a form of sex work.

    I think that really depends on the client.

    Are you a serious snuggler? I mean, one of those people for whom snuggling isn’t just “cozy”, but is really necessary to mental health? I am. And frankly I would find it a lot easier to switch to an existence that eliminated sexual interactions with others (I don’t think of snuggling as sexual) than one that eliminated snuggling.

    You can recognize people with that set of cues by who they snuggle with. If they only snuggle with cute-to-them potential sex partners, that’s one thing. If they happily squish in to the middle of the couch with family members or in-laws of all sexes and large dogs and multiple children, they’re probably a snuggler. If they ask to be the one who gets to hold the sleeping baby (sleeping babies are sort of like crack; there are few cozier things on the planet with the exception of a sleeping toddler in footies) then they’re probably a snuggler. Etc.

    Certainly there are people for whom snuggling is just something that you do after sex, or as a prelude to sex. I am sure that some of those folks sign up for the service. But there are lots of people like me, and I suspect that they would use this service in a relatively non-sexual way.

  2. 2
    R. H. Kanakia says:

    What a weird, interesting business. I feel like there is a sexual component involved (at least in peoples’ perception). It’s hard to imagine a business where straight men paid to be cuddled by other men. Maybe that’s not because they wouldn’t enjoy it, but just because they wouldn’t want to be perceived as gay, but still…

    On the other hand, at least part of the joy of massage is about being touched by another person and there it’s not unknown (though, I think, less common) for a straight man to be massaged by another man.

  3. 3
    Jess H. says:

    While the vast majority of the Snuggery’s clients are straight men, I think it’s a big leap to say what’s going on is sex work. This is not to say that I think sex work is a bad thing; I completely agree that our society needs to stop stigmatizing sex work and sex workers. But I see some other interesting things here that connect more to emotion work and other social norms than to sex work specifically.

    For example: who is likely to be touch-starved in our society? Who has the disposable income to spend on a service like this one? Who feels they have a right to another person’s time and attention? Who is used to being nurtured and who is used to nurturing? Who is more likely to express their emotional needs through physical rather than social action?

    I suspect that for many clients, there is a sexual subtext. To me, though, that’s a symptom of these other factors. Who, after all, is taught that any interaction with an attractive person of the opposite sex must naturally be sexualized?

  4. 4
    Elusis says:

    It’s hard to imagine a business where straight men paid to be cuddled by other men.

    A friend of mine who has begun doing what he calls “cuddle therapy” says it’s rare but it happens.

  5. 5
    Myca says:

    I guess I think that calling this sex work may stretch the definition a little farther than is useful. It’s like calling non-sexual massage sex work … there’s touching of mostly naked bodies, and some customers may get turned on, but sex is explicitly verboten, and the arousal is a bug, not a feature.

    I don’t disagree about the ‘straight men wouldn’t (generally) cuddle other straight men’ thing, but I’m with Jess H in thinking that that has to do more with physical contact comfort levels, social conditioning around soothing touch, etc. than it has to do with sex.

    I mean, I think that some of this has to do with why both men and women prefer female doctors, therapists, etc. (NOTE: I may be talking out of my ass on this. I vaguely remember reading something on it, but it may have been a Bazooka Joe gum wrapper. YMMV.) That is: Men have an easier time being open and vulnerable with women, and women have an easier time being open and vulnerable with women. Men are more threatening, women are more nurturing YAY GENDER ESSENTIALIST BRAINWASHING! Sigh.

    —Myca

  6. 6
    Tamen says:

    But if there were no sex involved, wouldn’t her clients be more diverse, instead of being nearly all heterosexual men?

    I dont’ find that unsurprising at all. Which demographic do you think have the hardest time finding acceptable venues for close and tender physical contact?

    I also find it surprising that the pre-dominance of male straight clients is what makes you think it’s sex work. Would the existense of female clients prove that it’s not sex work? Because women never are sex work clients…? I mean, that sentence I quoted reads pretty gender essentialistic to me.

  7. 7
    Ben Lehman says:

    I agree with you in thinking that this is sex work — although I tend to take a broad view of sex work that includes, say, maid cafes, but this argument:

    But if there were no sex involved, wouldn’t her clients be more diverse, instead of being nearly all heterosexual men?

    is pretty bad. It implies that, because straight men are the primary audience, it is inherently sexual, and thus sex work. That’s just bizarre. Is anything that largely caters to straight men sex work? How about baseball? NASCAR? Whiskey? Are superhero comics a form of sex work? Wired magazine?

    It’s almost as if you’re living in some other culture. A culture in which straight men, as a group, aren’t the only group whose touch is so problematized that they’re not allowed to touch anyone except sexual partners w/o being weirdos, perverts, or considered homosexual.

    Customers are straight men, thus it’s sex work, seems to me to be a wholly patriarchal argument.

    The reason that the Snuggery is sex work is that it is the buying and selling of affection. If it was largely patronized by women, it’d still be sex work.

  8. 8
    Ampersand says:

    I pretty much agree with everyone’s critiques of my post.

  9. 9
    Robert says:

    It’s emotional support work. A lot of sex work is, in fact, emotional support work. Sometimes the providers and clientele know this and sexual contact is actually secondary to the genuine value of the service; other times it’s unspoken or simply inchoate. This service just extracts a huge portion of the value proposition of ordinary prostitution, confines it to the non-sexually-expressive part of the physical spectrum, and as a result makes it squeaky-clean-legal. If its Prohibition and I find out that people love the speakeasy environment and so I open a “secret” bar where all you can get is a Pepsi, it’s not a liquor business. It’s maybe got some of the same ambience, but it’s different.

    I have a couple of friends in the industry, and they both have told me in discussions of the general topic that the emotional support side of things is one that they are not comfortable with being obliged to provide. When they have clients who they genuinely like, it does develop in that direction and that support role becomes a bigger part of their work. A client who they do not personally like, they are willing to trade sex acts for cash but do not want to be a buttress to that person’s emotional health. They would find it draining.

    My two observations on this story: 1) it would be an incredibly difficult job for many people, but I can envision some people would find it tremendously rewarding. 2) I bet they have a huge problem with clients becoming overcommitted and falling in love, or thinking they’ve fallen in love.

  10. 10
    ballgame says:

    I agree with Myca and Tamen. I don’t think it’s useful to broaden the definition of “sexual” to encompass affectionate touch, particularly in a culture tinged with toxic Puritanical attitudes like the US of A.

    I think the touch-starved nature of a lot of people’s lives — particularly men’s — is a greatly under-appreciated aspect of our culture. (The counterculture and so-called “pop” psychology movements of the 1960s and 1970s did a lot to try to counteract that, and I think it’s sad that the progress those movements made was subsequently subsumed by a certain sneering derision towards “touchy feely” things.) I always thought there was a certain unrecognized bitter irony to all those “Hugs Are Better Than Drugs” bumper stickers. For many men, drugs are a hell of a lot easier to get a hold of.

  11. 11
    ballgame says:

    Let me add that I had not watched the brief YouTube before writing my comment above, and — having now watched it — I was surprised to see the snuggling taking place in a bed and even under covers. While I won’t go so far as to say this changes my mind, I will say this makes Amp’s initial reaction a bit more understandable to me.

  12. 12
    Danny says:

    Late as usual.

    But if there were no sex involved, wouldn’t her clients be more diverse, instead of being nearly all heterosexual men?
    Well not necessarily. From what I can tell she takes on male and female clients so with there not any apparently reason that she would not take on female clients it seems like there just aren’t that many woman choosing to go.

    While touching can be healing and is often a sign of close personal connection I don’t think its fitting to leap to some sort of sexual context. I don’t think it would be out of the way to consider a guy that just wants to feel the touch of a woman while he sleeps, especially if he is now single after coming from a long term relationship.

    I think she is tapping into something that is seldomly touched on. Male touch starvation.

    Maybe this will get guys to speak up about it more often (because heaven knows its not like we have a free pass to speak up about in the first place).

  13. 13
    Kaija24 says:

    I definitely agree that many people in North American culture suffer from touch starvation, and it is probably more prevalent in the US, whose complicated and lingering Puritanism sees sexuality as a bogeyman hiding in every situation. There is no distinction between “sensual” and “sexual” as there is in other cultures. My opinion is that this is a form of social work in the broadest sense, as the main source of human touch for adults is romantic in nature (not true in all cultures) and many people are not romantically partnered at any given time. Unpartnered women (in North America) probably seek out this service less often because they are still able to receive touch from their friend/support network as there is less fear of “being gay” if you pile onto the sofa with a couple of your best friends to watch a movie, share a bed, tent, foldout couch whilst visiting or travelling, get a hug or a hand hold while sharing a difficult moment. On the plus side, in addition to the boost from shows like Dancing With The Stars, social dancing/partner dancing is enjoying a renaissance because it’s a safe (and fun!) form of social interaction and social touching :)

  14. 14
    StraightGrandmother says:

    I hope you don’t think I am weird. BUT, say if my husband died, and I was very very lonely, not living near any of my children, I might be starved for just a snuggle from a man. Say if I was in deep mourning for my husband, I’m not looking for another man to replace him yet, but I just needed to be held, something to help my loneliness, I might consider going to a snuggle man, just to be held for a while, just to ease up on the pain. I’m just trying to be honest and project, I don’t think I would reject the idea without thinking about it.

    See those of us who have our spouses, we don’t know really *truly* what it would be like for us until we experience it. I suspect part of the clientele may be people who have lost a spouse through death.

  15. 15
    mythago says:

    I suspect that this is also a way of marketing touch in a way that is very clearly signaled as “not gay and not paying for sex”. After all, someone who just wants touch could pay for a massage for probably the same rates.

  16. 16
    jackie samuel says:

    I googled myself and found this thread. Its nice to see thoughtful analysis and insight about what I do.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with being a sex worker. Part of what motivated me to begin cuddling was research I did on various types of sex workers’ experiences. I spoke with prostitutes and exotic dancers and found that a lot of them felt that the men they worked with were really just lonely and in need of affection/ someone to talk to. There isn’t a socially sanctioned place people can go if they just need affection (and nothing else) and are lacking it in their personal lives. Older, wealthy, white men tend to be the most socially isolated portion of the population. They’re also the least likely to seek help and the most likely to commit suicide.

    Maybe labeling anyone as a “sex worker”, whether she is a prostitute, dancer, or cuddler, does that person a disservice. I think its our culture’s discomfort with touch for the sake of touch that leads people to want to label what I do as “sex work”.

  17. 17
    Grace Annam says:

    jackie samuel:

    and the most likely to commit suicide.

    *cough* …trans people… *cough*

    I agree with your other points, particularly that the value of touch is much underrated, and that men tend to be more touch-deprived than women.

    That said, if my memory serves, 41% of trans people attempt suicide in their lifetimes, and a fair number of us actually do kill ourselves. It’s one of the reasons that older trans people tend to be so stubborn and bloody-minded; we’re the ones who are left.

    Grace

  18. 18
    closetpuritan says:

    I was thinking of this article while watching the movie Hysteria the other day–certainly the doctors treating hysteria would not have thought of themselves as sex workers…
    (I know that the movie version is looking at the whole phenomenon through rose-colored glasses.)

  19. 19
    dragon_snap says:

    I found this article at Solo Poly was quite interesting (and useful!), and thought those interested in the discussion here might want to check it out: 5 ways to get enough touch, without all the pressure. In addition to sharing her strategies to incorporate more touch in her life while being careful and respectful of others and herself, the author discusses a lot of the social context making it difficult for many people to ‘get in touch’ as much as they’d like (her – in my opinion, wonderful – phrasing).

    Though I feel like I get enough touch via best friend and my brother, and to a lesser extent my parents and several other friends, I really like the dance idea – especially since dance is something I’ve always wanted to explore as a form of artistic/creative/emotional self-expression as well. (via Autostraddle)

  20. 20
    puppyakka says:

    It may not be a form of sex work with every customer. But if a customer wouldn’t use the service if he didn’t find his snuggler sexually attractive, then I think that’s what makes it sexual. If you had people who were pleasant to see in a platonic way for the average customer — say, a chubby grandmotherly type who is soft and nice to cuddle — doing the cuddling, I’d be more doubtful about its being sexualized and perceive it as being comparable to genuine massage, where the appearance of the masseuse or masseur is irrelevant. But the video ad, in a tasteful way, does seem focused on the provider’s attractiveness, particularly in the still images at the end. She’s wearing light makeup; it’s focused on her face (which seems like the least important part of her body for cuddling).

    OTOH, I don’t think it makes sense to assume that if someone wanted non-sexualized touch, he would get a massage. Massages are essentially somewhat clinical; they are about healing or soothing your body physically, one bit at a time. Snuggling gets us back to being children, when (at least for those of us fortunate to be in loving homes) being cuddled was a whole body experience of comfort.

    I’ve thought ever since I was a teenager and not allowed to date, and seeing my friends turn their impulse to cuddle toward boyfriends, while in my family my mom still wanted to cuddle with us, that it’s very sad how Western culture tends to force adults — especially men — to be in sexualized/ romantic relationships in order to get a comforting touch.