Professional cuddlers on the benefits of therapeutic, nonsexual sessions

  • Professional cuddlist Danielle Eernisse sits down and chats with client John McGovern of Connecticut near the start of a session in her Northampton office. Before she accepts an appointment, Eernisse says, she gets a verbal commitment that the caller is seeking non-sexual touch, which is defined as contact that does not incite arousal. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Eernisse has seen cuddling lead to a decrease in stress and a boost in general sense of well-being. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Professional cuddlist Danielle Eernisse and her client John McGovern of Connecticut hold hands and chat for a bit before cuddling during a session in her Northampton office. Eernisse is affiliated with the New Jersey-based company, Cuddlist, that connects people for therapeutic, nonsexual cuddling sessions. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTIN

  • Eernisse says that many of her clients, like McGovern, who is divorced, get no platonic touch in their lives. “I kind of felt no affection for the longest time,” McGovern says, “ and I saw this cuddling thing and I thought I definitely need to try it.” GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

For The Recorder
Tuesday, January 09, 2018

John McGovern is tucked under Danielle Eernisse’s arm, his cheek rests on her collarbone, her arm curls around his back, as they lay motionless. He is wearing thick, black sweat pants and a pristine, white T-shirt, and looks as if he just woke up on a lazy Sunday morning in a natural embrace with Eernisse.

“It’s just so calm here,” McGovern says, his eyes closed, his voice deep and gravelly. “It’s just really nice being held by somebody.”

The room is no bigger than a small bedroom, but this is not a bedroom. This is Eernisse’s office in Northampton on Main Street where she meets with clients. She is a professional cuddler and she spends up to 10 hours here every week cuddling with strangers for $80 an hour. Many of her clients, like McGovern, would otherwise not get any platonic touch in their lives, she says. McGovern, 60, drove a little less than an hour from his home outside of Hartford, Connecticut, to cuddle here on a futon on the floor, something he does about once a month. During the sessions, he says, the tension in his body, the anxiety that he feels on most days, melts away.

“It’s good to know that you can feel relaxed,” he says.

An accountant with short salt-and-pepper hair, McGovern talks slowly, softly and with some hesitation. “I’m kind of an anxious person and this is one of those moments where I can just calm down.”

During the session, as Eernisse, 26, holds him in her arms, he talks about how he spent 28 years in an affectionless marriage. She caresses the back of his head and asks him if the pressure is OK, as he talks about how he and his wife never cuddled. They didn’t even hold hands and they slept in separate beds for most of their marriage, he says. After separating from her two years ago, he found professional cuddling online.

“It was something that I wanted to try,” he says. “I kind of felt no affection for the longest time and I saw this cuddling thing and I thought I definitely need to try it.”

Strictly platonic

Eernisse is part of a nationwide movement to normalize platonic touch and fill a void for those who might not be getting enough of it. She is certified through Cuddlist, a company based in New Jersey that connects people for therapeutic, nonsexual cuddling sessions.

Before she accepts an appointment, Eernisse says, she gets a verbal commitment that the caller is seeking non-sexual touch, which is defined as contact that does not incite arousal.

When she occasionally notices that a client is becoming aroused during a session, she says, she will mention it and ask, “How can we redirect that energy?”

That might mean taking a break from cuddling or talking about something not likely to be physically stimulating, she says. It is part of the Cuddlist mission of teasing apart the need for platonic touch from sex and seeing that they are separate needs, she says.

“I feel like this field is doing some really revolutionary work decoupling sex and touch and normalizing the need and the desire for touch.”

Roots in a cuddle party

Cuddlist started in 2016 by business partners, Adam Lippin and Madelon Guinazzo, who saw the healing potential of platonic touch, while noticing that people generally seem to not get enough of it, Lippin said in a recent telephone interview. Founder of the restaurant chain Atomic Chicken, he had spent the last 25 years running the business, but having just turned 50, he wanted a change, he said. He wanted to do something that aligned better with his interest in wellness. He had heard of events called cuddle parties and the thought of a professional cuddling business seemed exciting. After some research, he found a cuddle party in Chicago, and bought a plane ticket. That’s where he met Guinazzo, who was a facilitator at the gathering. He floated his idea. She loved it, he said, and the company officially launched in January of 2016. Now, they have 106 certified Cuddlists around the country — two in western Massachusetts.

There is no state or federal regulatory process to become a professional cuddler. Cuddlers don’t need a license like massage therapists do, but the Cuddlist training program, that typically takes about two weeks, weeds out about 60 percent of people who start, Lippin said. It includes discussions of consent and boundaries and one observed practice session.

Once certified, practitioners can create a profile to advertise on the Cuddlist website.

Practices differ

Each practitioner has his or her own way to screen clients. Eernisse does it over the phone. Though she works with both genders, nearly all of the calls she has received have been from men, she says. So far, she’s met with dozens and has never felt worried or unsafe, she says.

Some Cuddlists specialize in specific populations. Nellie Wilson, 35, who is based in Easthampton, works primarily with people who have disabilities or chronic illnesses. Touch for them in everyday life is often clinical, in a doctor’s office or under the florescent light of a hospital room, she says. This can cause feelings of isolation, which can be soothed by some cuddles. “Cuddlist offers them space to be a whole person and ask for exactly what they want,” she says.

In other instances, hiring a professional cuddler could be a way for people to overcome some forms of trauma around touch, says therapist Ruth Pearlman, a social worker who has a private counseling practice in Northampton. She says that as long as cuddlers have the proper training, they could give people a way to ease anxiety around touch. “For somebody who has been sexually abused — it puts the person back into a place where they have the control and that can be really restorative because control was taken away from them,” she says.

A place to feel loved

Eernisse has seen cuddling lead to a decrease in stress and a boost in general sense of well-being. It’s an act that is so simple, so essential, but sadly, out of reach for so many people, she says.

“I believe everyone deserves to feel loved. Feeling connected to other humans is essential for happiness,” she said. “When we feel connected, when we feel loved and understood, supported and lovable, we’re able to share our truest selves with the world.”

Clients come to her, to this sparsely furnished office on Main Street, to curl up on a futon on the floor and snuggle among a few pillows. For McGovern, his experience here has been the first time he has been able to ask for touch, like a soft caress on his head or a back rub.

“I would never stand up for myself in any situation, especially asking for touch,” he said. Since coming here, he’s noticed a shift in how he feels about himself and is looking to date again.

“I think my self-esteem is getting a little better. I feel like I am more comfortable in my own skin.”

From farming to cuddling

Growing up in a Catholic family in Missouri, Eernisse says she was an imaginative child with dreams of becoming a quantum physicist and a librarian. She says she spent her teen years in a spiritual quest, reading books by spiritual teachers. When she went to college, she began studying organic farming and social justice at Dominican University outside of Chicago. “I wanted to be a farmer and a world-changer,” she says.

In college she heard about professional cuddling and thought “I could do that,” but figured she should probably finish up her degree, so she pushed it out of her mind. After graduation, she got on a Greyhound bus, with a duffle bag, no plan and no money, and headed to an organic farm in southern Vermont.

“I was planning on spending a couple weeks there, but it’s been like three years since then, I just couldn’t leave.”

Eernisse says she fell in love with New England, but out of love with farming. Still hanging around the area, she started learning more about platonic touch through a form of dance called contact improvisation, which is practiced at the Montague Retreat Center in Montague. “It’s been so, so helpful to go to dances and experience touch through dance and also through the cuddle puddles that happen naturally on the sidelines,” she said.

Professional cuddling came into focus again in the summer of 2016 when she went to the music and yoga festival Unifier in Tolland and met a professional cuddler, Amanda Ananda, who would later become her mentor. Eernisse ended up working in Ananda’s office in Connecticut, helping with cleaning and administrative tasks, while also going through the Cuddlist training.

Once certified, Eernisse took on a few clients using Ananda’s office before renting out her own space in Greenfield and then moving to Northampton a few months ago.

It’s been a year since she started, and, she says, it’s one of the best decisions she’s made.

“It feels really great to give people love and nourishment through touch and make a good living doing it,” she said.

In the process, she says, she has learned a lot about herself, about her own boundaries, and how to communicate what she wants or doesn’t want. It has enriched her personal life and made her more comfortable communicating with her boyfriend, she says. It has also given her the chance to do work that she finds rewarding and fulfilling.

Throughout sessions, if the client is open to it, Eernisse will offer advice or other words of comfort.

“I think the ego part of me wants to be a healer that heals people, fixes them and changes their lives, but this whole process has been so humbling for that part of me because it is so clear to me that if someone doesn’t want to change, I have no right to try and change them.”

Feeling stronger

When McGovern visits, Eernisse encourages him to take care of himself, to take deep breaths while at work and to accept himself for who he is. Since coming here, he says, he feels better and is able to project confidence as he contemplates starting to date again.

“I’m not perfect. I don’t look like George Clooney, but I’m OK,” he says.

Eernisse laughs. “There are a lot of people who don’t look like George Clooney, who have loving partnerships,” she says.

Soft melodic flute music plays in the background during the two-hour session. A stick of incense burns on a mostly empty bookshelf in the corner.

They weave in and out of different positions, spending some time with McGovern’s head rested on a pillow in Eernisse’s lap while she caresses his scalp.

“It’s hard for the average person in our culture to get their touch needs met,” she says later. “There just aren’t many socially acceptable avenues for it to happen except for dating or sex. Maybe you got it in your family as a kid or maybe you’ll get it from your partner when you grow up or maybe you hug your friends sometimes, but we need so much more.”