Austin Professional Cuddler Aims to Heal Through Touch
By Madelyn Gee
Austin resident Kristi Lippincott was used to touching people physically through her massage practice. However, professional cuddling has allowed her to use her experience in touch to help others emotionally as well.
Lippincott became the first licensed massage therapist to offer professional cuddling services in Austin when she started Austin Cuddle Commune in 2016, she said.
“I’ll call it therapy with hugs,” she said. “I am not a therapist, but it is very therapeutic.”
Lippincott’s business is part of a growing trend. Professional cuddling is becoming increasingly popular around the country. In the past 10 years, cuddling businesses have opened in Georgia, New York and Texas. In 2015, there was even a national cuddling convention in Portland, Ore.
Lippincott provides one- to five-hour cuddling sessions for about $80 an hour.
Lippincott’s platonic cuddle sessions include more than physical touch, incorporating activities such as reading, lying down, or playing games.
“I will ask you questions and guide you in order to customize your session to help you be comfortable, relaxed and feeling this sort of love a mother gives her child,” Lippincott said.
To become a listed practitioner for the international cuddling organization Cuddlist, a cuddler must complete a $149 online training course. The training takes about 30 hours “if one really focused on it,” Cuddlist Co-Founder and Director of Training Madelon Guinazzo said. To become a Cuddlist-certified cuddler, practitioners must submit feedback from clients and talk to a Cuddlist mentor. Certification costs $249.
The code of conduct for Cuddlist requires the client and practitioner be 18 years old and that the cuddling session remain strictly platonic with no genital touching or exchanging of bodily fluids.
Payment for sessions is handled between the client and practitioner directly. Payment is usually taken in cash, according to California-based professional cuddler Kat Demille.
Demille, whose resume includes burlesque dancer and sex expert, says there are rules and emotional checks that must be made before diving into the field. In her busiest years, she has had between 20 to 30 clients.
Demille says that clients seeking cuddling services are often struggling emotionally and that it is important for practitioners to maintain positive energy.
“The reason you have to feel the best possible is because you are going to be around people who don’t in some way or another,” Demille said. “You have to be strong enough to maintain your frequency of energy around these people.”
Demille says people in search of cuddling services fall into different categories — those who are cheating on a partner, those who are not cheating on a partner, those who believe they are not good enough for a relationship, business people who travel too much for a relationship, and women who simply want someone to hold and love on.
Most clients are men, Demille said.
Clear rules regarding consent and respect are extremely important in the profession, Demille said.
“Cuddling is more about tenderness, it is more about needing some type of physical contact that is non-sexual in nature. I am always very clear that I am not a prostitute but I never judge the people who need that,” Demille said.
Potential clients sometimes see professional cuddling as synonymous with prostitution, and while there is no judgment for those who do want those services, professional cuddling is far from prostitution, Lippincott said.
While cuddling is considered an intimate act, there are steps taken to avoid any sexual interaction by conducting sessions in a separate location away from the practitioner’s home, like an office or hotel room, Demille added.
“You will have guys that try to turn it into something sexual. Try to accidentally touch you or start talking dirty or try to kiss you on the lips,” Lippincott said. “There are going to be guys that push the boundaries, so you’ve got to be really strong. You’ve got to lay down those rules, which is why I have a contract that they have to sign.”
Lippincott makes sure that a third party knows about cuddling appointments to ensure safety and that no information about the client will be shared outside of the session
If one of these rules is broken, the session is immediately over and there are no refunds. There is no judgment for those looking for a sexual relationship, but that is not what Lippincott and other cuddlers provide, Lippincott said.
Boundaries for client and practitioner are made clear in an opening agreement. They both verbally acknowledge that they will take responsibility for their actions, speak up when they are uncomfortable, and make each of their wants and needs known.
The physical and emotional benefits of cuddling can be seen on a psychological and even neurological level, according to clinical psychologist Carla Manly, who is based in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Cuddling releases hormones that positively affect the body, including oxytocin, and decreases debilitating hormones in the body such as stress and adrenaline, Manly said.
“Oxytocin levels rise, making us feel a sense of love and being loved,” she said.
“Neurobiologically, we are diminishing the stress hormones, increasing the oxytocin as well as generally increasing dopamine and serotonin levels,” Manly added.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to cuddlers around the country having to adapt their practices. Some now offer socially distanced walks as a replacement for cuddling as well as masks for in-person sessions. Lippincott has plans to use Zoom for online cuddle sessions and outdoor meetings.
Despite current parameters, cuddling has formed a community of people connected by touch, Lippincott said.
“You still have somebody that is letting you know ‘You are OK. I care about you and I am interested in whatever you have to say and showing up for you in whatever way you need and want,’ ” Lippincott said. “I can’t believe that I get paid to do this because it’s so fulfilling for me, and I help people. So it’s pretty amazing to be trusted,” Lippincott said.