Liza Stahl's head bobbed gently as it rested on my chest; her breathing was calm and measured. With my left arm I held her close to me. We joked and giggled as our bodies intertwined. It was a spectacular day; sunlight poured into her East Harlem, New York City, apartment. It was a scene from a movie. In another world, she was my girlfriend; in another place, we were madly in love.
Stahl, however, was not my girlfriend, and we were not in love. In fact, we had only met minutes before. Stahl (which is not her real name) is a professional cuddler, and for $80 an hour, she will cuddle, spoon, comfort and caress just about any man who walks through her door.
"I think it's something that's important that's long overdue in our world," she told me as we spooned. "I think it's a form of therapy."
Stahl is one of an unknown number of professional cuddlers in New York City. The nonsexual, platonic touching briefly came to wide attention in early 2014 with solo acts like Ali C running operations from their apartments. Since then, the snuggling business has grown steadily. Today most cuddlers, like Stahl, do the work as side jobs to augment income from their day-to-day occupations.
Buying sex is easy — it's regarded as the world's oldest profession. But can you buy intimacy? That is a much tougher question, and I was going to find out.
The Emperor of Snuggles
At first glance, Evan Carp doesn't seem like an emperor. The reclusive 27-year-old rarely leaves his home in Marlton, New Jersey, and since the age of 18 has suffered from complex regional pain syndrome, a chronic condition which causes intense pain in the arms, legs, hands and feet. "I suffered from depression for about six years," he told Mic.
Nevertheless, today, as founder and CEO of The Snuggle Buddies, Carp bestrides an Internet spooning empire with paid, professional snugglers working in 30 states across the U.S., the District of Columbia, three Canadian provinces and London.
Carp said while growing up, becoming an international snuggle baron was the last thing on his mind. When he entered Pennsylvania's Arcadia University in 2005, he wanted to be a physician. With his diagnosis at age 18, however, "the whole doctor thing just wasn't going to become reality anymore," he said.
Like so many entrepreneurs before him, Carp developed the idea of The Snuggle Buddies from his own experience and from what he observed as a greater unmet need. "I would say that I have the exact same mentality as a customer," he said.
"I would say that I have the exact same mentality as a customer."
The Snuggle Buddies officially went into business in 2013, and while the work hasn't made Carp a millionaire, the returns have so far been impressive. "The money that comes in is roughly about $8,000 per month," or close to $100,000 a year, Carp said. About half of that goes back into a few minor web-hosting expenses and advertising on sites like Facebook, Yahoo and web classifieds. There's little in the way of overhead as he works out of his house and even designed the website himself. The Snuggle Buddies has no salaried employees, though Carp said he is looking for an assistant.
The network is also completely decentralized. Carp doesn't meet with new cuddlers and handles hiring entirely by phone and email. New hires are placed on the website and provided with a proprietary "cuddling manual" as well as a copy of the Cuddle Sutra. An hour of cuddling costs $80 in most places, with some Midwestern states costing $60. Of that, Carp keeps half, with cuddlers around the world transferring the money electronically into his coffers.
"It's enough to live on," he said.
When I told Carp I wanted to spoon with the best cuddler in New York City, the cuddling kingpin had only one name for me.
Stahl lived in one of those drab, '70s-era apartment towers constructed in an age when everyone thought it was chic for buildings to look like prisons. The inside was no less austere, with dimly lit, barren hallways that smelled vaguely of hamsters.
Stahl met me at her apartment door. She had long, brunette hair and a welcoming smile. She led me to her bedroom to get comfortable.
Following company policy, Stahl took the $80, all cash, up front. She then set the clock.
As we got chatting, the 26-year-old seemed a lot like any hustling millennial. She moved to New York City to study theater at Hunter College, though she admits she didn't have much interest in acting, and began working as a nanny while she was a student. After graduating, she never really looked for a job and just continued nannying full time. "I was already doing what I wanted to be doing," she told Mic. "Just stopped going to school."
Turnover among snugglers is high. Stahl, who began with The Snuggle Buddies in late January and had her first session on Super Bowl Sunday, is now the most senior of Carp's cuddlers in New York City. She estimated the job brought her a minimum of $200 a month and that dozens of men, mostly in their 40s and 50s, had passed through her bedroom in 2015.
As we lay on her bed, she told me about past clients: a former nudist, an ex-Orthodox Jew.
"I once had a client who was a former nudist."
Sometimes, she doesn't snuggle at all.
"You can use this time, as long as you're paying and it's appropriate and the snuggler is cool with it, to do whatever you want," she said. "I've had clients take me out to dinner."
Other times, it's not so fun. Stahl recalled more difficult clients including a man in his 70s and another who was mentally handicapped, but she said that as a professional it was her responsibility to power through it.
"Unattractive people still have feelings, still have needs, still have a desire for tenderness, like everyone else," she said. "Socially awkward people as well. I'll be like, 'You know what, Liza, find the grace. For one hour of your life, you can find the grace.'"
There are some other — more primal — downsides as well.
"Boners happen," she said. "It's not something that you can necessarily control, and its not the end of the world either." Arousal is not a deal-breaker, but The Snuggle Buddies clients must agree to a contract stating "no sexual activity is permitted" during a snuggle session. It's a requirement Stahl takes seriously. "If they push the envelope, you redirect the conversation, and if they push it again, you give them a warning," she said. "If it happens again, peace out Girl Scout." In her career as a cuddler, Stahl said she's only once ended a session early due to sexual advances.
And while inviting a parade of random men into your bed for spooning might seem like a recipe for disaster, Stahl said she's never felt physically threatened by any of her clients. She does, however, make a point of minimizing risks where she can, noting her building has security guards and she lives with two male roommates. "I try not to snuggle, at least with a new client, unless someone is home," she said. "If you're thinking of chopping me up into tiny pieces know that you're going to have to chop them up too."
Back in Stahl's apartment, I played around with different positions. First she lay to my side with her head on my chest, something she said was among her most popular maneuvers. Later, we switched on our sides with me being the big spoon, something she said was also popular. We fit together like puzzle pieces, her petite frame slid effortlessly into my arms. In the last 10 minutes we switched places with her taking the big spoon, something she said was far less common. She struggled a bit trying get ahold of me and, standing myself at around 5 feet 11 inches, I didn't really feel her 5 foot 6 body.
Before I knew it, her alarm rang and my session was over.
The Science of Snuggling
When it comes to the science of spooning, experts had generally good news.
"Touch has a very powerful effect mediating the bonding between people" Dr. Amir Levine (no relation to the author), a psychiatrist at Columbia University Medical Center told Mic. "At the end of the day when [mice] go to sleep, they all huddle together."
"Touch has a very powerful effect mediating the bonding between people."
Indeed, spooning can release the hormone oxytocin, which Levine said promotes beneficial, if modest, outcomes like reducing anxiety and promoting trust building.
The good news, however, came with one big caveat: Generally speaking, the positive effects of spooning were known to occur when the partners had previous meaningful relationships. "It's kind of weird, doing it in the context of someone you don't really know," Levine said.
When asked whether oxytocin could deliver its magical properties among strangers, Levine was less certain. "I don't know," he said. "If people are paying, they are getting something out of it."
Science or no science, Carp's snuggle crown is in for a fight if Adam Lippin, a cuddle enthusiast and founder and CEO of Atomic Wings, has anything to say about it. "I've always been a hugger; it's intuitive," he told Mic. "I don't know why we're on Earth if we're not going to make human connections."
Now Lippin, already a successful entrepreneur, has his sights set on the cuddling business with a new startup called Cuddlist. Lippin said he was still working out the kinks, but the premise is much the same as Carp's: to connect pro cuddlers with clients and reap the rewards either through handsome hourly fees or on-site advertising. Something else Lippin said he is passionate about is changing broader perspectives as well.
"Right now, Snuggle Buddies advertises in Backpage or Craigslist, and that's fine," he said. While repeatedly insisting that "he was not judging Snuggle Buddies," Lippin said he was adamant that the goal of Cuddlist was to bring transparency and professionalism to the industry. "Everyone who's interested has to go to a three-hour training," Lippin said of his cuddlers. "It's a very serious, real training program where we talk about boundaries and how to learn what you want and ask what you need."
Another advantage: Lippin, who is active in the New York cuddle scene, also knows the business personally. The chicken wing magnate is an inveterate cuddler himself and even organizes cuddle parties in New York for like-minded individuals.
Lippin admitted, however, he was unsure exactly the size and scale of the market he's after, but pointed to cuddling as a component of the "wellness industry," which at least one marketing firm has valued as a trillion-dollar field. "Wellness, the 'new black,' is now a status symbol among consumers, who prioritize maintaining their well-balanced physical and mental health," Women's Marketing wrote.
If the cuddle industry is worth even a small piece of that, then Lippin's business instincts could cash in big. Outside of The Snuggle Buddies, the current cuddling landscape is essentially an open field. Two phone apps, Spoonr, (previously Cuddlr) and CuddleBids, were so buggy as to be essentially nonfunctional, and when they did work they revealed a repetitive menagerie of men and women who made accounts seemingly with high hopes only to have given up long ago. The only iTunes review for either app was a two-star for Spoonr, which detailed a litany of the app's problems under the headline "Needs work."
Lippin also said his website would break out another vast market that's so far largely unserviced, even by Evan Carp: male snugglers.
"There's really just not a market [for male snugglers]," Carp said. "I've tried in the past. The issue is a lot of guys that even apply don't want to cuddle with another man." The same-sex skittishness combined with the relatively few requests he receives from women seeking men has resulted in Carp offering sharply reduced services for male snugglers. In New York City, there are two. Nationally, there are seven male cuddlers among the 30 U.S. states. In California, for example, there are 22 female cuddlers registered with The Snuggle Buddies, but only one man.
But Lippin couldn't disagree more. "One of the things we're going to try to do is have an equal amount of male and female cuddlers," he said. "I think this is a big, untapped part of the market. One of the requirements is you must be comfortable working with both genders." Lippin, who is gay and lives with his partner in Montclair, New Jersey, about a 90-minute drive from Carp in Marlton, said there was a massive opening for gay men in the cuddle market.
Finding a male snuggler — who was also willing to be interviewed for this article — was tricky. Andrew from The Snuggle Buddies declined, Reddit's snuggling community was a bust and even Grindr was useless.
Lippin ultimately directed to me his friend, relationship coach Peter Kowalke. The $90 per hour session happened at his apartment in Queens, a New York City borough, near the last stop on the Q train. He agreed that, as a male snuggler, he was a rare breed.
"In the United States, we don't have a place for nonsexual touch," he said. "If you are gay, it becomes about sex. ... If you're not gay, you just can't do it. You get your touch through your girlfriend if you're not gay. There is very little alternative."
The rules and considerations were much the same as with Stahl: No sexual touching was allowed, but beyond that Kowalke said he was comfortable with just about anything. As with Stahl, I explored a number of different positions: big spoon, little spoon and resting my head on his chest, which Kowalke said I seemed to enjoy the most. He also offered some intriguing insight that might give pause to both snuggle emperors and upstarts alike.
"You don't need a professional cuddler to be cuddled," he said. "Any two friends can do that same thing and probably do it better. I think everybody is looking for intimacy; I think at root that's what it's about."
Can You Buy Intimacy?
In the end, the answer was no — at least not for me.
Over a week of snuggling with professionals of both genders, there were pleasant moments, certainly relaxing ones and I was even aroused once or twice, but the intimacy that I have experienced spooning with good friends — and people who were more than friends — was simply not there.
When choices are among strangers, the benefits of snuggling come through much more when you select people you're attracted to. As a gay man, I found that I enjoyed the experience more with Kowalke, but it was likely due to the sexual energy I derived from being in a vulnerable position with another man. We've all seen that video, and we know how it's supposed to end. Even though I knew going in that it was strictly platonic, I was left feeling somewhat unfulfilled that my animal instincts had not been sated.
Stahl said during our session that most of her clients were one-offs, and she was told by some later that they found the experience "frustrating."
It's also a laughable pretext that other forms of fulfilling platonic touch — like hugging your grandmother — can have a comparable effect to cuddling with a total stranger. While Stahl was lovely, spooning with her for an hour was the emotional equivalent of holding a lump of clay.
In the end, intimacy, as the word suggests, has to come from intimates.