Powell gets hands-on in a growing niche.
After four years at various administrative jobs in Toronto, Madison Powell found a new calling this past January. “Touch has always been something that’s a great communicator for me, and it comes very naturally. When I found out that cuddling was happening in Portland, I decided to keep an eye on it, and when it came to Canada, I applied immediately.” She now offers her cuddling services as a contractor and through the Cuddlery, a growing Vancouver-based company specializing in comforting touch.
Cuddlers are clothed and friendly: Powell offers beverages and makes small talk as she moves clients through a variety of positions over their session. Inappropriate touching is met with a three-strikes-you’re-out rule. Powell, who has a Bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Western Ontario focusing on gender, sex, and culture, sees about four cuddle clients each week, for sessions ranging from 30 minutes to two hours. She also offers companionship services, like movie dates or a supportive hand to hold during doctor’s appointments.
“I started out identifying myself as a professional cuddler, but I’ve found that term felt a little campy, so I moved into therapeutic touch and companionship,” she explains.
Powell sees cuddling as a growth industry. She’d love to see the practice make inroads in assisted living facilities and with the elderly, but so far, there’s been too much red tape. “The issue with those populations is that often they’re considered vulnerable populations, so we’re not legally allowed to go into those places,” she explains.
Our conversation with Powell—about the importance of lighting, “the girlfriend experience,” and how her partner reacted to her career change—is below.
Torontoist: What is a typical cuddling session like? How do clients find you? What do you arrange ahead of time?
Madison Powell: Clients normally find the Cuddlery through various media we’ve been involved in, usually a newspaper article or a television interview. Starting out, we don’t really know much about them other than their name and that they want to book a session. From there, each individual cuddler contacts their client and welcomes them to the company. We want to know more about them to cater their session, so each session is personalized. We discuss things like lighting, music, beverages, and what level of touch they’re comfortable with, such as if they would prefer to be on a couch or lying down. We also go a little deeper into if they have any triggers, mental illness, or anything they feel that we should be aware of—stressors, a recent crisis in their lives, things like that.
First intake sessions are really important. We have them sign a contract, we photograph their ID, and we record every session. The video recording is simply for safety purposes, and if nothing goes amiss, we delete it after two weeks. The general intake is to keep our safety in mind, and make sure we know who is entering our homes. There are some gentlemen that are a little nervous, such as becoming aroused during a session, and we’re totally fine with that as long as it’s not made into an inappropriate situation. I find I lead the sessions 90% of the time. 90% to 99% of my clients want me to lead and want me to say what positions are next. Often, they’re too nervous to think it through, or they simply just want to be coddled and cared for. It’s a place where they don’t want to make any decisions.
What kind of screening process and training did you go through to get the job at the Cuddlery?
The initial application was an essay about why you feel you’d be good at this position. People gave various answers, and mine personally was that it was always something that came naturally to me, that I’m very open and welcoming, and that I’ve also been a part of marginalized communities. Some of my office work in the past was with people with mental illness, so I was more sensitive to people with anxiety and various degrees of Asperger’s. If the head of the company liked your application, you would do a Skype interview, and she would get a feel for your personality. Then she would get a person who was already part of the company to do a mock session with you, and she would watch over Skype and critique. She would run us right through from the initial contact, to greeting them at the door, to how smooth you are with your transition between positions, and how comfortable you make them with difficult subject matter. For example, I had a client who was a recent widow, so that meant dealing with them speaking in great detail about grief and sometimes even suicidal tendencies. It’s a matter of being very supportive and non-judgemental: as long as you don’t feel that they’re in harm’s way or harming other people, you’re simply there to listen and comfort.
What kind of people seek out professional cuddling services?
The majority of my clients are either work-stress related, or they have some form anxiety, Asperger’s, or a combination of the two. It’s more of a comfort-seeking service. I have some individuals in a high income bracket, primarily in the financial industry, often single, and they’re working six or seven days a week. They simply don’t have time to allow their brain to stop talking to them, so my regulars are people with workplace stress who don’t want to be as angry in the office. They find that it’s become very therapeutic to have one day a week when they can just fall asleep if they want to, or just chat and focus on touch. The other side of my clientele are people dealing with anxiety or Asperger’s. They’re often much lower income, and they’re the people who come sporadically, either when they can afford or when they feel they need it. It’s a very different experience with the two groups. With the people in the financial industry, the cuddling is very straightforward, and there’s lots of small talk and we focus on the touch. With the other clients, there’s often a lot more conversation. They’re unloading things and people that make them anxious, specific things that are causing them stress, and it’s less about the cuddling itself. I sort of become a pseudo-counsellor or a shoulder to cry on, as well as the touch being something that physically calms their body down.
What niche do you think cuddling fills? Is it like a massage, or a session with a therapist?
Despite the focus of the sessions being mostly on touch, with my clientele in particular, it’s [about providing] therapeutic emotional release or emotional distance. These sessions give them permission to speak about things in their lives to a neutral party, and the touch is a physical sensation that helps their body and brain quiet down. In many ways, I do feel like a counsellor even though it’s obviously just my own advice that I’m giving. It’s difficult, because I’m a mix between a counsellor and a massage therapist, but there’s also this…it’s not a girlfriend experience, but a friend or a confidant. Especially with people who come regularly, we’re building a relationship and I’m learning about their lives. They know I’m in a position where I’m not going to judge them and I don’t have ulterior motives.
A lot of my clients talk about wanting to feel like they have a cuddle partner or a girlfriend experience without the pressure of sexual activity. I did have one client in his forties who has Asperger’s, and he was originally going to sex worker to be cuddled. He said that the emotional connection wasn’t there, and that were times when they would try to do more and it just wasn’t what he wanted, and he came to me once and said, “Thank you. I really need this, and this is what I was looking for.” It was interesting watching someone make a shift and to finally have something where they can just settle in.
Cuddling is so ingrained in our understanding of personal relationships—often a romantic relationship, or a parent-child relationship. What changes when you monetize and formalize that type of relationship?
There were times in the beginning when it was difficult for my partner to get around the idea of it but I’ve always been a very touchy person. Cuddling can have sexual connotations, but many times it’s platonic with me. The wariness of my partners is primarily safety-related, but in the very beginning, there would be times where I would be cuddling my partner, and maybe my technique had changed a little bit because I had picked something up. She was like, “What are you doing? That’s something you do with you clients, isn’t it!” Now she’s gotten used to it, and realizes that it’s just that I’m a better cuddler now.
What’s the moment where you realized that cuddling could really affect your life, and the lives of your clients?
I met a client a while ago who had become a recent widower at a rather young age. Being able to do weekly sessions with him over a period of time, and watching work through his grief, was really exceptional. The first time I met him, he was shaking and terrified and broken, and he really just needed something to hold onto—no pun intended. Knowing he was leaving my sessions with some sense of positivity or hope when he was returning to a home where his wife no longer was, it really made me feel that there was a reason I was doing this. The mediocre clients and the inappropriate clients were all overshadowed by this one person who really needed me at the time. It was helping him get to a place where he was able to function.