It’s rare to find an industry that wasn’t steamrolled by the COVID-19 pandemic. But for professional cuddler Samantha Hess—whose job relied on engaging in hours of sustained physical contact with a dozen clients per week—the complication posed by a global, highly contagious virus bordered on ludicrous.
Hess founded Cuddle Up to Me in 2013 as a service to impart physical touch to clients, platonically. Over the years, her repertoire expanded to include 92 different cuddling poses and adaptations to fit the needs of her individual cuddle partners. Hess says every client needs something a little different. Some clients are just searching for a good listener. But pre-pandemic, nearly all her cuddle sessions involved at least some physicality.
Virtually overnight, her business model crumbled.
“The pandemic really decimated the field,” Hess tells WW.
The experience was universal, throughout the fledgling professional cuddling industry.
Cuddlist, an online service that connects clients and professional cuddlers across the country, reported that its volume of postings and inquiries grew steadily between 2015 and 2020, as the industry gained more attention and legitimacy.
“The pandemic hit, then we tanked,” Cuddlist director of development Keely Shoup tells WW. “We were doing worse than we were in our second month as a company.”
In the first wave of the pandemic, professional cuddlers pivoted in a direction that’s become so familiar it’s almost a cliché: They switched to Zoom.
Shoup, who also works as a professional cuddler, says she would ask clients to report which virtual techniques resulted in the desired oxytocin release.
“You can experience oxytocin. It takes 30 seconds to a minute to get over how strange it is,” Shoup explains. “But once your body adjusts and it isn’t so foreign and new, you can experience that kind of lovely, light euphoria feeling you would get from cuddling.”
Hess also started holding remote sessions, with her Patreon subscribers, forging intimacy virtually—through eye-gazing and guided self-touch. She also downsized the business from its 1,800-square-foot studio on Northeast Halsey Street, moving to a smaller space in Southwest Portland.
In summer 2020, Hess started experimenting with outdoor, masked sessions with clients in public parks. She kept the in-person meetups brief—pre-pandemic, she’d offer sessions of up to five hours—to minimize the chance of exposure. It was fairly effective at keeping her and her clients safe, she adds.
“I’ve not had any big scares,” Hess says. “In Portland, people are pretty considerate.”
Cuddlist spent those first few months in triage mode. The strategy was to wait out the worst of the pandemic.
Around winter 2020, however, the company noticed a shift. Clients were coming back much faster than practitioners. Shoup chalks up the discrepancy to “a different perception of risk.”
“We started seeing, initially, a surge in requests,” Shoup says. “But the site was still pretty lean because practitioners hadn’t come back yet. People doing this as a job were still hesitant.”
Supply wouldn’t start to catch up with demand until around April, matching the rollout of vaccines. But then the industry was faced with a secondary hurdle: Should cuddlers mandate vaccinations?
For Hess, the answer was yes. She requires each of her clients to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to book an in-person session. She’s resumed indoor appointments at Cuddle Up to Me’s new location and occasionally travels to clients’ homes.
Among client-provider connector companies like Cuddlist—as well as a host of other websites like Cuddle Comfort, Cuddle Companions and Snuggle Salon—the vaccine question was more complicated.
“Our practitioners are not employees. They’re all independent contractors,” Shoup says.
The company settled on a transparency policy: Practitioners and clients must clearly disclose their vaccination status in order to book sessions through the Cuddlist website.
“We train them, then act as a listing service. But also with the social ethics, it’s been an interesting thing to navigate,” Shoup says.
Professional cuddling follows the same economic rules as any other industry: It responds to changes in supply and demand. And soon after the number of service providers fell off a cliff, the number of quarantined, touch-starved clients multiplied. As a result, platonic human touch became a very hot commodity in the past year and a half.
Cuddlers also fall into a wider economic narrative that’s emerging during our uneven, ongoing pandemic recovery. With more people leaving the traditional 9-to-5 workforce, niche freelance and self-employment is booming.
According to Josh Lehner, an economist at the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, the state’s payroll jobs are still 3% lower than pre-pandemic levels, amounting to around 70,000 unfilled positions. Comparatively, self-employment numbers are much stronger.
“Nationally, it’s more than fully recovered,” Lehner wrote.
“Startups, or new business formation, has been very strong during the pandemic. That’s encouraging [from an] economic view. New firms tend to drive productivity gains.”
Now, as the industry rebounds, it’s spurred by the surge in demand, the availability of vaccinations, and a shrinking stigma among the general public about what professional cuddling actually entails.
“More people are understanding, on a different level, a visceral need for human touch,” Shoup says. “The entire population for the most part can say, ‘I get how awful that was.’”