Early on, the Snuggle House offered free hugs. Now, it's $60 an hour.
The experience of having a physically intimate moment with a complete stranger is usually reserved for times of crisis -- perhaps an impulsive hug for someone who just lost a loved one, or a moment holding hands in fear at the first sight of a forming tornado. It's in the uncanny valley between familiar and unknown.
At the Snuggle House, this kind of physical contact is viewed as therapeutic. The idea is healing through touch, and it's evident in the employees' wide-eyed descriptions of positive energy, the soundtrack of birds and falling water and the textbooks on "energy medicine."
The $60-an-hour snuggling business recently opened at 123 E. Main St. after receiving scrutiny by the city, which wondered if it would turn into a thinly veiled prostitution center or an unsafe environment for employees. The Snuggle House needed to be very clear about its safety precautions and security. But now that it's booking appointments (see its Facebook page), we can answer the key questions: What's a professional snuggler like? And is it worth the money?
As a result of the pre-opening brouhaha, preliminaries include a background check, which requires only the client's basic contact information and a deposit. It's no easy feat to find the Snuggle House, as there's no sign. It's above the Argus Bar, and only a welcome mat lets you know that you're in the right place as you wait awkwardly for someone to answer your knock at the door.
You get a two-page waiver detailing the specific acts that are prohibited. No kissing, no stroking of various things, no nudity, etc. By the time your snuggler makes you aware of the security cameras pointed directly at the beds, you're beginning to feel a little dirty just for being there. But as a woman who has worked in many professions with a lax harassment policy, I appreciate the care taken to ensure the employees' safety.
"This is my room -- my feng-shui setup," says Lonnie, my requested snuggler, with a smile. He designed it himself, with a couch, a generously pillowed bed, soft lighting, and an ambient nature CD to play during our session. He closes the door and sits down across from me on the couch, and we chat for a few moments about why I'm here.
Lonnie has no background in therapy, but he tells me he’s had friends come to him with problems, and he's fascinated by the power in just listening to a person's heartbeat. And that's how we start the session.
"I like to start with just a nice big hug," he says.
Lonnie is a good hugger. We lie down on the bed (above sheets) in a sort of couple-watching-a-movie pose. His arm is around me and I'm cozy but faced forward. We chat lazily for a while, then Lonnie's breath slows down, and I attempt to follow suit, meditation-style.
It's relaxing, no doubt. Between the calming music, the presence of a warm body, and Lonnie's superhuman lung power -- his breaths seem to take a minute apiece -- I find myself easing into a half-asleep state. After about 20 or 30 minutes he says, "If you're comfortable, you can put your head on my chest."
I take him up on it, and we carry on breathing deeply in a sort of hibernation mode for the rest of the session.
It feels partially like yoga and partially like accidentally falling asleep on a friend, waking up, and wondering if it'll be awkward. It's strange but not unpleasant. The greatest benefit may be in the ability to chat about anything you want (within the bounds of decency) with a stranger for an hour. The Snuggle House seems to attract an empathetic, kind, gentle staff who don't mind listening. The more you share, the less weird it seems to add physical contact.
There's no science to back up touch therapy per se. But this certainly qualifies as an hour of relaxation time in the same way that a massage might, and I'd be interested in studies as to its effectiveness in treating depression that coincides with social isolation.
As for me, the Snuggle House isn't in my regular budget, but there aren’t many experiences in life where I can leave my comfort zone while simultaneously getting cuddled by a very nice stranger. If it takes the stigma out of our willingness to comfort one another and helps us feel less inhibited about the ways we express empathy, it seems a worthwhile project.