Need a hug? Lauren Venaglia wants to sell you one. 

On a quiet afternoon in Missoula, two people hop into bed together.

"OK, let's try the Sideways Hug," says Lauren Venaglia. Venaglia, the cuddler, wears comfy sweats and a gray cardigan, and moves around the bed with an easy grace, directing cuddle-ee Alexis Baker in a gentle voice. Baker obliges, sitting up while Venaglia clasps her in an embrace from the side. Ambient music plays softly from a small speaker.

"OK, now let's try the Gemini," Venaglia says. The two lie down on the bed, face one another, entwine their legs and giggle. The scene—unfolding in Venaglia's tidy bedroom—resembles a highly intimate yoga session.

Venaglia practices cuddle therapy, a service that provides platonic touch and emotional support to paying customers. Cuddling has already made inroads in Portland and New York City, but it's new to Montana, and Venaglia hopes to establish the state's first brick-and-mortar cuddle therapy office in Missoula.

Baker, for one, is already sold on cuddling's benefits.

"I'm really excited to see businesses like this ... bringing attention to this as a useful service," she says. "It's getting it out there that human contact is important for your health, both mental and physical."

While Venaglia acknowledges that cuddle therapy might seem trivial to the uninitiated, the 27-year-old does indeed view it as a path to emotional healing. Venaglia believes cuddling can save lives.




Though the New York Times writes that cuddle parties became popular more than a decade ago, cuddle therapy is a relatively recent concept. In Portland, Oregon, entrepreneur Samantha Hess launched her one-woman business, Cuddle Up to Me, in 2012. In a 2016 Huffington Post article, Hess said she was inspired after reading about two men at the Portland Saturday Market: One was giving away free hugs, but he was outdone by another man offering "Deluxe Hugs" for $2. The piece quotes Hess: "When I saw this, my first thought was, 'I would pay someone to just hold me and make me feel loved without wanting anything more,' and then it hit me that there had to be other people like me who go through moments when they just need a no-strings-attached hug."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CELIA TALBOT TOBIN
  • photo by Celia Talbot Tobin

Cuddle therapists cater to that desire by allowing clients to explore emotional issues while being held. The website Certified Cuddlers describes the service this way: "What we offer is a safe space for every human to feel respected, accepted, and loved as they are. We work hard to create an atmosphere that is akin to a chosen family."

The Cuddlist, an online clearinghouse for cuddling services, features dozens of professional cuddlers nationwide. (New York and California have Cuddlist's highest concentrations of cuddlers, and the cuddlers closest to Montana are in Washington and Colorado.) Online sites Cuddle Comfort and the Snuggle Buddies allow registered users to connect with professional cuddlers.

A few years ago, Venaglia came across an article about Cuddle Up to Me and found the idea intriguing.

"I'm the type of person that people tell their very deep thoughts and feelings to quickly," Venaglia says. "I've just seen a theme in a lot of people, when they open up to me, that most of their issues and problems and pain are surrounding not feeling loved or cared for, and feeling lonely."

Last fall, Venaglia entered a contest through Portland-based certifiedcuddlers.com and won a free cuddling certification course (standard cost: $300). The course teaches dozens of different snuggling positions, from the leg-weaving Gemini to the Mama Bear, where the seated cuddler envelops the seated client from behind. Certified cuddlers also learn how to forestall any confusion about the nature of their service. Venaglia meets potential clients for coffee to suss out what they're after.

"If they are looking for something sexual, I can let them know I don't provide that," Venaglia says. "And during a session, if sexual energy does start bubbling up, it's just [about] guiding them back to a platonic place."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CELIA TALBOT TOBIN
  • photo by Celia Talbot Tobin

In February, after completing the course, Venaglia launched Garden City Cuddle Co. For now, Venaglia does house calls and practice sessions with friends and acquaintances while saving up to open a dedicated cuddling office sometime this summer. (In the meantime, Venaglia also works for Missoula's Summit Independent Living.)

A cuddle session can comprise any kind of nurturing activity the client seeks, from watching a movie together to holding hands and walking around a park. Venaglia says clients sometimes feel a little awkward at first, but often start to relax within a few minutes. They also usually open up about whatever is on their mind. Talk therapy is an important component of cuddling.

And the benefits, Venaglia says, go both ways.

"This whole time I'm just putting all of my energy toward them and focusing on them and staying present with their feelings and what's going on. So it can be a really nice clearing of the mind. It can be really meditative."

Venaglia is currently seeing about five recurring clients, and has 12 signed up for group cuddle parties. Private sessions cost $1 per minute, and can last from 30 minutes to three hours.

And if it seems odd to commodify an activity like cuddling, just think for a moment of all the people in the world who may not have access to safe, nurturing, friendly touch on a consistent basis: single people, the elderly, people who work strange hours, people with disabilities.

Venaglia sees this work as especially crucial in a state like Montana, where depression and suicide have been a plague for decades. In 2014, Montana had the highest suicide rate in the United States, according to the American Association of Suicidology.

Venaglia sees cuddle therapy as a way to reach out to people who might be on the edge. "For me, bringing professional cuddling to Montana and expanding eventually to more rural areas, I think will really help communities," Venaglia says.

click to enlarge Cuddle therapy is an informal, self-regulated profession, but the benefits of nurturing physical contact are well documented. Lauren Venaglia used The Snuggle Party Guidebook, which includes activities, prompts and suggestions, as a reference to help plan Garden City Cuddle Co.’s group gatherings. - PHOTO BY CELIA TALBOT TOBIN
  • photo by Celia Talbot Tobin
  • Cuddle therapy is an informal, self-regulated profession, but the benefits of nurturing physical contact are well documented. Lauren Venaglia used The Snuggle Party Guidebook, which includes activities, prompts and suggestions, as a reference to help plan Garden City Cuddle Co.’s group gatherings.

Anne Harris, a Missoula-based licensed clinical professional counselor, says she believes that cuddling can provide an avenue of support for mental health care. Though cuddling is currently an informal, self-regulated profession, Harris says that doesn't diminish its value. Clinical counseling sometimes uses touch therapy, Harris says, most often in group settings where, for example, one person might stand back-to-back with another while role-playing a difficult scenario. Such supportive touch complements attentive listening.

"A lot of good therapy is turning back to one of the most important things that happens: developing rapport and good communication with someone by doing good listening," Harris says.

Harris, who met Venaglia through mutual friends, says cuddle or touch therapy also has promise for soothing lonely, upset people, especially in settings like hospice care.

"Lauren's being a brave pioneer to bring that service to Missoula," Harris says.

Harris also agrees with Venaglia that humans, as a highly social species, need physical and emotional affection to survive.

A series of famous Harvard studies of overcrowded Romanian orphanages in the 1990s found that neglected orphans, desperate for human contact, suffered from underdeveloped brains and often had trouble forming attachments to their adoptive families.

Decades of research has shown that oxytocin, nicknamed the "cuddle hormone," is released when people bond socially or physically. Oxytocin is also crucial to facilitating childbirth and nursing, according to a 2007 study published in Psychological Science.

The importance of cuddling babies is well understood—the World Health Organization strongly recommends that new moms and babies cuddle as much as possible—but Venaglia observes that cuddling acceptance often decreases with age. Loneliness among adults is commonly reported, including a 2010 AARP survey in which 40 percent of adults reported feelings of loneliness and isolation—up from 20 percent in 1980. Psychologists refer to lack of physical closeness as "skin hunger." Adults suffering from skin hunger demonstrate depression, anxiety and an increase in physical health problems, according to an Arizona State University study.

Venaglia's own family was far from affectionate.

"My mom would not hold my hand when I was a child because she was afraid people would think we were lesbians," Venaglia remembers.

Venaglia discovered Buddhism as a teenager and still looks to the Dalai Lama as a source of inspiration—especially in videos where he chats with his longtime friend, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In a 2015 video, for instance, the two spiritual leaders hold hands, laugh and tease each other. The Dalai Lama even playfully slaps Tutu. It's a display that would be highly unusual among straight-identified men in Western culture.

"They'll hold hands, and eye gaze, and say these meaningful things to each other, and I love them," Venaglia says. "For my whole life that's kind of been my source of figuring out how to heal and be healthy."

click to enlarge Venaglia founded Garden City Cuddle Co. to provide a safe space for platonic, nonsexual touch, which research shows has mental and physical health benefits. Venaglia demonstrates gentle head compression with friend Alexis Baker in Venaglia’s home. - PHOTO BY CELIA TALBOT TOBIN
  • photo by Celia Talbot Tobin
  • Venaglia founded Garden City Cuddle Co. to provide a safe space for platonic, nonsexual touch, which research shows has mental and physical health benefits. Venaglia demonstrates gentle head compression with friend Alexis Baker in Venaglia’s home.

Lately, Venaglia has been practicing the Buddhist "hugging meditation," in which two people hold each other and breathe in and out three times. Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh says of the meditation: "With the third breath, we are aware that we are here together, right now on this earth, and we feel deep gratitude and happiness for our togetherness."

(Venaglia once dated a Buddhist monk, and says it can be awkward to make out with someone who's so intensely mindful. "I have a little pop in my jaw and he was like, 'Oh, your jaw pops,'" Venaglia says. "I was like, 'What? You're not supposed to say that.")




In some ways, cuddling is an ideal small business: Overhead is low and Venaglia can build a client base with in-home visits before committing to an office space—Venaglia envisions something downtown, decorated as a "magical bedroom" with soft lighting and a comfortable queen-size bed. After completing the Certified Cuddlers course, Venaglia took a business plan to the Missoula branch of the Montana Small Business Development Center, where Regional Director Jennifer Stephens helped outline realistic goals. Stephens says she hears pitches from all kinds of unusual small startups, but she's impressed with Garden City Cuddle Co.'s vision.

"I'm not a therapist or a scientist, but it's a clinical need—people have a need to interact with each other," Stephens says. "And for some reason, at this point in time people are acknowledging that they're not getting enough affection. Like, a hug. That's what Lauren's offering."

One of Venaglia's clients, Miles Kinney, is a shy, reserved man who speaks hesitantly until he gets excited about something. For the past few years, he's worked the overnight shift at the front desk of a Missoula hotel. He says he watches a lot of YouTube videos to stay awake.

"Working nights, you have little to no social life," Kinney says. "I wake up at 2 p.m. most days, and I'm usually very timid, very withdrawn. So, it's hard for me to develop friends normally."

click to enlarge Lauren Venaglia and Michael Beers hug as Arlan Bergoust (left) and Darin Austin bow to one another during a group activity called “hug, handshake, zen bow.” The icebreaker is designed to help participants practice identifying and following physical cues. - PHOTO BY CELIA TALBOT TOBIN
  • photo by Celia Talbot Tobin
  • Lauren Venaglia and Michael Beers hug as Arlan Bergoust (left) and Darin Austin bow to one another during a group activity called “hug, handshake, zen bow.” The icebreaker is designed to help participants practice identifying and following physical cues.

Kinney knows Venaglia through mutual friends, and he signed up for his first cuddle session in early March. As a grown man, Kinney says, he doesn't feel like he can ask friends and family for emotional or physical support.

"I do find it hard to connect with people," Kinney says. "I know it hurts me more than it probably hurts anyone else, because it does close you off."

He met with Venaglia for a half-hour cuddle one recent Thursday evening before meeting friends at a bar. Kinney says romantic interactions make him nervous, and it put him at ease that Venaglia doesn't allow tickling, hair pulling or hands on "swimsuit areas."

After just a brief cuddle, he says, "I was chatting it up with everyone else there," Kinney says. "I just felt a lot more energetic, my mind was a lot more open, I just felt more like sharing."

Baker, who's also been cuddled by Venaglia privately and in group sessions, agrees that social expectations attached to masculinity can be a barrier to asking for affection. Before Baker—a trans woman—transitioned in college, she had to be cautious about expressing platonic affection: "I've seen firsthand just how much that is looked down on by all the dude-bros," she says.

The tables turned after she transitioned. "People seemed more willing to make contact with me, and it was also more permissible for me to make contact with other people. Whereas before, filling a male societal role, I had to be extremely vigilant of showing physical comfort around other guys, and also not being perceived as a creep for wanting to just hold someone and it not have to lead to anything more than just cuddling."




Venaglia says that friends and cuddle clients often bring up their deepest insecurities with little prompting. But Venaglia is more guarded. Venaglia grew up in Billings in a family that demonstrated the opposite of warmth and affection.

click to enlarge Participants at Venaglia’s Cuddle Co. snuggle party at BASE Missoula relaxed, cuddled and napped together after group activities. - PHOTO BY CELIA TALBOT TOBIN
  • photo by Celia Talbot Tobin
  • Participants at Venaglia’s Cuddle Co. snuggle party at BASE Missoula relaxed, cuddled and napped together after group activities.

"I have a pretty rough childhood story," Venaglia says. "I've come a long way from those roots of total—what's the word—dysfunctional? A very dysfunctional world. It's a blessing and a curse to come from a really rough place like that."

Venaglia—who prefers the pronoun "they"—does say they've been diagnosed with anxiety, persistent depressive disorder and complex PTSD stemming from long-term trauma. At age 14, Venaglia was mugged on the street by masked robbers. Afterward, Venaglia took a self-defense course that was life-changing.

"For the first time I was taught that I was allowed to have boundaries, and I was allowed to have a bubble, and when people entered my bubble I was allowed to see that as a red flag and defend myself," Venaglia says.

Even as Venaglia learned to say "no," they also learned how to seek out close friendships for comfort and safe touch, which can be hard for many people to do.

Asked what that healing journey was like, Venaglia is at a bit of a loss to explain it.

"I don't know—I've been very lucky that I just have an innate emotional intelligence, and that's been awesome," Venaglia says.

click to enlarge “Cuddling and being close with people, since I didn’t get that from my own family, is something I’ve always gotten from friends,” Venaglia says. - PHOTO BY CELIA TALBOT TOBIN
  • photo by Celia Talbot Tobin
  • “Cuddling and being close with people, since I didn’t get that from my own family, is something I’ve always gotten from friends,” Venaglia says.

For Venaglia, the cuddle business is all about fostering an understanding of how people can respect each other's physical and emotional boundaries while still reaching out for help. After experiencing the most toxic kinds of relationships, Venaglia wants to help teach people what a positive relationship can feel like.

"I've had to heal so much, and I can help other people to do the same," Venaglia says. "Without me really meaning for it to happen, it's shaped me into a healer, and that's become my calling in life."

____

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Cuddler"

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