In the largely unregulated industry of professional cuddling, two warring factions are developing. The first offers a legitimate health service, while the second offers … something else.

The sofa smelled like cinnamon.

I knew this because my face was pressed into it. Not maliciously or anything. No one sofa-slammed me. I was just relaxing. On my stomach.

Also, there was a lady on my back. Fei Wyatt — a professional cuddler from L.A.’s Cuddle Sanctuary. She was stroking my hair and tickling my feet with hers.

It was awkward at first, her warm body pressing into mine just moments after we’d met; her soft voice in my ear, asking if I liked this cuddle position she called the “pancake.” Within moments, I felt safe, cozy and high; like anesthesia-comedown-on-YouTube high. Goofy-giddy. I went from “I would never ordinarily do this” to “I need to get rich so I can do this every day.”

Then Fei rolled off and sat up next to me.

“Isn’t it amazing?” she asked. “You look so relaxed.”

Despite the fact that I’d never met her before, I was.

My visit with Fei took place during an exploration of professional cuddling, a therapeutic service that seeks to increase human connection through the use of platonic touch. Countless studies show the benefits of this — it improves mood, relieves depression, increases interpersonal connection, boosts the immune system, relieves pain, decreases social anxiety, relieves stress, lowers the risk of heart disease and increases positive thinking. At its core, cuddling is meant to fill the void in modern life where healing, non-sexual human contact is desperately needed, but rarely available in a safe and comfortable setting.

Problem is, that same void is exactly what some faux professional cuddling agencies want to capitalize on.

Not all cuddlers-for-hire believe in the mission to make non-sexual intimacy accessible. Instead, some are hiding behind the legitimate therapeutic benefits of it in order to sell sex … or at least the potential of it.

No Sex Allowed

When Fei first asked me if she could cuddle me during our interview, I felt a tinge of awkwardness at the thought of being so close to her. I’d always been sleeping with someone if that sort of touch happened … I don’t exactly climb on my friend’s or co-workers backs and delicately stroke their hair. That’s exactly the problem though; the touch context many people have for cuddling typically takes place within a sexual relationship, so it can be jarring to think about it as a genuinely non-sexual practice.

With Fei, it so clearly was. Half because I knew what I was getting into before I came, half because she reassured me multiple times that what we’d be doing was strictly platonic.

In fact, for cuddling to work its magic, it must be platonic. The reasons for this are many, but one is that cuddling acts as a recycling center for shame, judgment, and fear. Legitimate cuddlers take difficult emotions and turn them into trust, respect, and self worth. This is something that Cuddlist founder Adam Lippin likens to yoga, a sometimes-meditative practice that can be used to realize your true nature. The only difference is with cuddling, you reach that same place with the help of someone else.

"A way of discovering who you are is to be into communion with another human being," Lippin explains. "Being in a cuddle session where are you are being physically close to someone, there's intimacy and your boundaries are really strictly enforced. You can actually see someone as a human being and relate to them as a human being and therefore hopefully gets to a deeper level of consciousness which is closer to your true nature."

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that adding sexual intention that very psychologically and physically intimate interaction would prevent the positive outcomes for many because so many of us associate shame, judgment, and fear with sex.

Another reason cuddling must, at all times, be platonic is that if it's not, it can easily be mistaken for prostitution. This mistaken impression happens so often that Fei cites it as the reason doctors are hesitant to refer their patients for cuddle therapy despite its demonstrated benefits — they think it’s just a front.

“People are still very skeptical about us,” Fei says. “They have to get over the fact that we're not sex workers. That's new to people. When they hear cuddling, the first thing they think of is some sort of escort service.”

For certain companies, that might not be so far off. In 2013, a cuddling agency called Snuggle House was shut down after just three-weeks of business, due to allegations of prostitution taking place behind its doors. Cuddlr, an app which launched in 2014 to widespread press, was quickly pulled from the App Store after refusing to ban users who tried to hook up with their cuddlers.

Often operating with little or no training or protection for their cuddlers, these types of companies manipulate the overlap between cuddling and sex work, putting both clients and cuddlers alike at risk. In fact, according to some harrowing reports like this one from a Paste Magazine writer who briefly worked as a cuddler herself, many have quit the profession altogether after realizing how many clients wanted more than just to be the big spoon.

Escort Lite

“Cuddle” read one caption under a photo advertising hot brunettes in hot pants.

Not Cuddle.

“Cuddle” As in air quotes. As in: “You can call this cuddling if you want.”

You could see that photo on The Cuddle Time Agency’s site anytime you wanted … before it mysteriously disappeared off the internet in mid-January for “website updating.” By all accounts, Cuddle Time is like Snuggle House or Cuddlr; less of a therapeutic outlet and more of a business endeavor created by an opportunistic guy who saw a fillable hole in an unregulated market. For $95/per hour, Cuddle Time will pair a specifically male clientele with what they call “attractive female cuddlers,” women who can be found posing in lingerie and bathing suits on the company’s Facebook with no shortage of boob to seal the deal. One of them bears the title of Human Barbie.

“I myself would like to cuddle with them,” Cuddle Time founder Richard Banach told me over the phone. “Who wouldn't want to cuddle with a co-ed?”

Banach’s business practices don’t sit well with pro-cuddlers who have made it their mission to desexualize connection via human touch. After all, it’s not hard to make the mental jump between the services Cuddle Time says they are providing and what they might actually be offering when their “gals” are pictured wearing shirts that say: “Hug me! I’m 18.”

Banach even spelled it out for me himself.

“I don't want to be promoting prostitution or be entrapped into anything, so I tell everyone we keep a clean business,” he said. “‘Escort lite,’ is what I call it.”

That’s a far cry from the healing altruism of cuddling Fei described to me.

“In my experience, guys are really affected by the looks and appearance of the cuddler,” he tells me. “They ask me the height, weight and age of the girl. They want to see multiple pictures. They're just really interested in the attractive ones. I've noticed that when they're not objectively attractive, they get zero bookings. It’s how my clients are.”

Sexual Energy, or Sexual Activity?

Samantha Hess hasn't experienced this at all. Hess is the founder of Cuddle Up to Me, a company widely considered to be the gold standard of the industry thanks to its professional cuddling certification and training for its employees. She says about half of her clients are women, and about 5 percent are non-binary identifying. Sixty to seventy percent of her male clientele seek services from women, but the rest are perfectly comfortable cuddling with a male cuddler.

“These businesses are atrocities,” Hess told Business Insider in a separate interview. “Anyone who uses the platform of platonic touch to promote sexual intention is abusing people in the worst way.  People seek this out instead of sexual services because they want to feel secure, not used.”

And while both Fei and Hess couldn’t conclusively tell me for sure whether companies like Cuddle Time or Snuggle Buddies are fronts for prostitution, they’re still adamant that using sex appeal to lure customers is a dangerous and counterproductive thing.

“Sexual activity is very different from sexual energy,” says Fei. “Just because you're maybe not selling sex and maybe are doesn't mean you're doing cuddling right. Cuddling aims to heal and create a safe space. That's very different from physical touch mediated on sexual energy.”

One of the easiest ways to tell if an agency is doing cuddling right, however, is if their cuddlers are certified. Currently, certification is offered through Hess’ extensive training program, as well as through Cuddle Sanctuary and Cuddlist. Hess' teaches over 60 cuddle poses, how to decide which pose is right for which client, how to ask for ID and payment up front, redirection techniques for when clients become aroused, how to decipher the red flags that give away whether someone's looking for sex, how to tell whether someone's the kind of person who might benefit from cuddling, and how to control for any variables that might endanger or themselves or their clients. She even has an immersive online training program for people who want to seek out the professionalism her certification offers from afar.

Cuddle Up to Me is also one of the few companies aside from Cuddle Sanctuary and Cuddlist that doesn't function as a "cuddle pimp" — they take zero percent of the cost of the sessions. Many other companies take half.

Even in lieu of training as extensive as that, it's still easy to pick out a reputable cuddling company by their cuddler's backgrounds. Cuddlist hires many cuddlers with previous experience with bodywork (massage, acupuncture) and other holistic, touch-based therapies who are already trained in healing, non-sexual physical contact and are well-versed in how to navigate an interaction like cuddling in a platonic way. A good cuddle site like that has its employee's bios on it, where potential clients can easily see what sort of requiste touch experience their prospective cuddler has.

The most that shadier companies do to cover up what they’re actually selling is to state on their websites and client agreement forms that sessions are platonic (“No kissing! No sexual touch!”), but the message isn’t always received by clients who are understandably confused by the company’s highly sexual imagery and dubiously worded messaging.

In fact, Banach described to me a situation that occurred in his own company in which a cuddler had her phone stolen by a client who was upset she didn’t want to have sex. The cuddler had to forfeit half her pay to get her phone back. This isn’t exactly uncommon; another cuddler from Cuddle Time named Erin told me her clients often try to escalate cuddling into foreplay or intercourse.

“As long as you're clear with boundaries it's okay,” she said. “But let's not think this is not sexual already. Physical intimacy is sexual.”

Problem is, it’s actually not. Or rather, it doesn’t have to be. That kind of thinking is a setback for the cuddling industry, especially for trained and certified professionals like Hess and Fei who work relentlessly to remove the sexual stigma from the practice. In fact, Erin’s not uncommon assumption that physical intimacy is necessarily sexual is the very reason our culture has problem with touch in the first place — when we sexualize it, it becomes unsafe. When it’s unsafe, we can’t reap the benefits of platonic touch done right.

A professionally trained and certified cuddler like Fei discussing what professional cuddling is and what its objectives are before kindly pancake-ing me in her apartment was platonic touch done right. I was informed, I was prepared, and when I left, I felt better than I’d ever expected to feel. The vulnerability of a physical barrier consensually crossed and the healing intentionality of her touch did something for me I’d never have expected from such a simple act — it allowed me to put my guard down in the most literal of ways so that I could connect with someone who cared.

“There has to be connection in order for any growth to happen,” Fei tells me as we bask in a post-cuddle glow. “Healing happens in a space where you can be safe, but vulnerable. Cuddling does that. It’s instantly gratifying. There's a really big caretaker inside of me, and it's really gratified by this work.”