The idea of paid companionship goes back many years and was once common enough to pop up in literature, as it did in Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth, which features a character who lives off the generosity of her wealthy friends, acting as confidante and travel companion in return for free vacations, dresses, and trinkets.
Still, the advent of professional cuddling and friend rentals seems to be serving a distinctly modern need. Everyone I talked to in the companionship industry echoed the same view that while digital technology may provide connection, it doesn’t provide physical touch and can’t replace real-life friendships. Samantha Hess, a professional cuddler, theorizes that another reason many customers are drawn to her business is the idea of human touch unaccompanied by judgment. “We have this emotional reciprocity and emotional baggage attached to friends and family,” she says. “I don't have emotional history since I am a stranger, so there is no worry that I will judge them.”
Hess, who has identified and catalogued 65 cuddling positions and written a book about cuddling, also teaches couples how to hold each other. Cuddle Up to Me, which Hess founded in 2013, employs three other cuddlers, all of them women, though Hess is currently training a male cuddler who she expects will start working by the end of the year. The company’s rate is $1 per minute, and books sessions lasting between 15 minutes and 5 hours.
When Hess started her company, she thought most of her clients would be elderly widowers who felt lost without their lifelong companions. But people from diverse backgrounds are drawn to her services: She says her clients range in age from their mid-20s to their 70s, and include both men and women. Encouraged by the knowledge that they won’t be judged, most end up talking during the entire session with Hess about their deepest insecurities.
A lot of the customers of RentAFriend, according to its founder, Scott Rosenbaum, are business travelers who are tired of eating alone in new cities every month. They use the service to have another person to sit with at the bar in the evening or grab a bite when they are away from home. Another group of customers is people who just moved to a new area and don’t yet know anyone.
Sometimes, the purpose of these businesses goes beyond companionship. Hess and another cuddler I spoke to hope that it will one day gain traction as a form of therapy. Human beings have been shown to benefit from touch—in studies, it has been linked to feelings of relaxation, increases in the hormone oxytocin, and decreases in blood pressure. Paying a stranger for a massage in a semi-undressed state has long been socially acceptable, so why would cuddling while fully dressed be all that bad?
This talk of therapeutic benefits is more than just marketing hype. Some of the people Hess sees have been physically abused, experienced PTSD, are on the autism spectrum, suffer from cerebral palsy or ALS, have missing limbs or disfigurements, or struggle with insomnia, addiction, or homelessness. She has clients who are recovering from cancer or struggling through difficult divorces. Some are people who work from home or work socially-isolating graveyard shifts. She even sees mothers of young children who feel worn out in their caretaker roles and want someone to give to them for a change.