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Touch Is Healing, And Complicated

“The Snuggling Industry Takes Off, but Clothes Stay On; Spooning or Tickling Sessions for a Fee” reads the subtitle to a recent post in the Wall Street Journal.  Apparently, thousands of customers across the country are booking appointments with “professional” (there is no licensing or training involved) “cuddlers” in at least 16 states. The “snugglers” squeeze, tickle and bearhug clients for a fixed rate, after which some clients report therapeutic effects.  While some pay for the service, websites have sprung up that match those interested with others (strangers, mind you) for free.  Free or for Fee, why would people pursue such contact with a stranger?

The Healing Of Touch

Touch is essential to human development.  The science of psychology discovered its importance by observing the unfortunate outcomes from the infamous Romanian orphanages under Ceausescu where care was driven by technology and human contact neglected.  Some of these infants died, and those who survived and were adopted often suffered great difficulty forming healthy attachments to their adoptive parents and others.  Harlowe’s monkey studies provided experimental evidence that nurturing touch is more desirable than even food early in life.  The WSJ article references more recent research on tangible physical and emotional benefits to touch: increased levels of oxytocin (a bonding hormone), lowered heart rates, and reduced stress.

And so it is with the human condition.  We all benefit from a loving embrace from our spouse, child, sibling or a close friend.  For most, these are the preferred places to go for a ‘touch’ fix, and they occur with more or less frequency (which is to some extent culture bound) in the spontaneous, natural course of events.  Granted, many have had negative experiences of touch from instances of abuse or molestation, and are therefore naturally wary if not guarded in this regard.  Yet, even so, the natural human need does not disappear, and my clinical practice, as well as that of many other therapists, is full of those seeking counseling in order to heal and learn to trust.

Professional Touch

Leaving aside the “world’s oldest profession” and its corollaries, the province of legitimate professional touching falls to a few occupations: certified/licensed massage therapists, chiropractors, physical therapists, and the like.  These practitioners are typically consulted for amelioration of some ailment or to assist in recovery from an injury, though the touch they provide may indeed have some added emotional benefit.  In psychotherapy, the issue of touch is much more controversial, and while professional ethics codes explicitly forbid sexual contact with clients, the issue of physical contact is not addressed so clearly.   Yet in the professional world (with all due respect to bartenders), therapists are those with whom people share the most vulnerable parts of their lives, and in doing so educe a natural inclination for a reassuring pat, a gentle stroke or a warm embrace.  And when proper boundaries are in place and a depth of relationship has been established, this can be a helpful, if not necessary, part of the healing process.  But this is the key: beneficial contact is in the context of a relationship.  It is not with a stranger, and it is not as an end in itself.

So Why With A Stranger?

I would argue that the consumers of such service are not those addressed above, who have had traumatic, difficult experiences with touch in the past; these persons are in fact most likely to feel unsafe with strangers, having enough difficulty connecting with those whom they have familiarity.  Those in robust, satisfying marriage and family relationships, or with devoted friendships, are similarly unlikely to seek out a cuddle from strangers, as their needs are satisfied in the usual routines of their lives.  This leaves those in the middle, who are not fearful yet also not connected.

Who Are They?

It is not coincidental that the emergence of the “snuggling service” in recent years follows on the increasing saturation of our lives with technology.  “Screen time” of whatever sort (TV, computer, smartphone, gaming) is averaging over 8 hours a day, and arguably robbing people of the time that heretofore was spent face to face (or arm in arm) with another—another with whom affectionate and emotionally-intimate connections could be formed, who would then be the legitimate source of “meaningful snuggles” (if that can be written without smirking).

I fear the snuggling services are attempting to fill a void in a stereotypically-capitalistic way, efficiency with good marketing and a seemingly-good value.  But, as with so much in our disposable society, don’t count on the warranty.

What people need now, and have always needed, are lasting chums, consistent companions, and secure attachments to family and loved ones who are there for them, not only with a warm caress and ardent embrace, but who truly know them, care for them, and will be there for them day in and day out.