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

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"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 "I wake up at 2 p.m. most days, and I'm usually very timid, very withdrawn.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."

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

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