On a quiet afternoon in Missoula, two people hop into bed together.
"OK, let's try the Sideways Hug," says Lauren Venaglia. Venaglia, the cuddler, wears comfy sweats and a gray cardigan, and moves around the bed with an easy grace, directing cuddle-ee Alexis Baker in a gentle voice. Baker obliges, sitting up while Venaglia clasps her in an embrace from the side. Ambient music plays softly from a small speaker.
"OK, now let's try the Gemini," Venaglia says. The two lie down on the bed, face one another, entwine their legs and giggle. The scene—unfolding in Venaglia's tidy bedroom—resembles a highly intimate yoga session.
Venaglia practices cuddle therapy, a service that provides platonic touch and emotional support to paying customers. Cuddling has already made inroads in Portland and New York City, but it's new to Montana, and Venaglia hopes to establish the state's first brick-and-mortar cuddle therapy office in Missoula.
Baker, for one, is already sold on cuddling's benefits.
"I'm really excited to see businesses like this ... bringing attention to this as a useful service," she says. "It's getting it out there that human contact is important for your health, both mental and physical."
While Venaglia acknowledges that cuddle therapy might seem trivial to the uninitiated, the 27-year-old does indeed view it as a path to emotional healing. Venaglia believes cuddling can save lives.
Though the New York Times writes that cuddle parties became popular more than a decade ago, cuddle therapy is a relatively recent concept. In Portland, Oregon, entrepreneur Samantha Hess launched her one-woman business, Cuddle Up to Me, in 2012. In a 2016 Huffington Post article, Hess said she was inspired after reading about two men at the Portland Saturday Market: One was giving away free hugs, but he was outdone by another man offering "Deluxe Hugs" for $2. The piece quotes Hess: "When I saw this, my first thought was, 'I would pay someone to just hold me and make me feel loved without wanting anything more,' and then it hit me that there had to be other people like me who go through moments when they just need a no-strings-attached hug."
- photo by Celia Talbot Tobin
Cuddle therapists cater to that desire by allowing clients to explore emotional issues while being held. The website Certified Cuddlers describes the service this way: "What we offer is a safe space for every human to feel respected, accepted, and loved as they are. We work hard to create an atmosphere that is akin to a chosen family."
The Cuddlist, an online clearinghouse for cuddling services, features dozens of professional cuddlers nationwide. (New York and California have Cuddlist's highest concentrations of cuddlers, and the cuddlers closest to Montana are in Washington and Colorado.) Online sites Cuddle Comfort and the Snuggle Buddies allow registered users to connect with professional cuddlers.
A few years ago, Venaglia came across an article about Cuddle Up to Me and found the idea intriguing.
"I'm the type of person that people tell their very deep thoughts and feelings to quickly," Venaglia says. "I've just seen a theme in a lot of people, when they open up to me, that most of their issues and problems and pain are surrounding not feeling loved or cared for, and feeling lonely."
Last fall, Venaglia entered a contest through Portland-based certifiedcuddlers.com and won a free cuddling certification course (standard cost: $300). The course teaches dozens of different snuggling positions, from the leg-weaving Gemini to the Mama Bear, where the seated cuddler envelops the seated client from behind. Certified cuddlers also learn how to forestall any confusion about the nature of their service. Venaglia meets potential clients for coffee to suss out what they're after.
"If they are looking for something sexual, I can let them know I don't provide that," Venaglia says. "And during a session, if sexual energy does start bubbling up, it's just [about] guiding them back to a platonic place."
- photo by Celia Talbot Tobin
In February, after completing the course, Venaglia launched Garden City Cuddle Co. For now, Venaglia does house calls and practice sessions with friends and acquaintances while saving up to open a dedicated cuddling office sometime this summer. (In the meantime, Venaglia also works for Missoula's Summit Independent Living.)
A cuddle session can comprise any kind of nurturing activity the client seeks, from watching a movie together to holding hands and walking around a park. Venaglia says clients sometimes feel a little awkward at first, but often start to relax within a few minutes. They also usually open up about whatever is on their mind. Talk therapy is an important component of cuddling.
And the benefits, Venaglia says, go both ways.