Sleeping mats lined the floor of the main conference room at the Crowne Plaza O’Hare Hotel, an unusual sight for a convention center that attracts a lot of professional gatherings. Instead of business casual attire, attendees for this conference wore pajamas.
It was the first ever Cuddlexpo: a conference of professional cuddlers.
Professional cuddling is where practitioners charge clients to simply be held, or lie together, or whatever feels like safe, nurturing touch, according to Cuddlexpo founder Fei Wyatt.
“Touch is a real human need,” Wyatt said. “In society these days, we are finding ourselves a lot more physically isolated. … So a lot of people are coming to terms with the fact they are touch starved. That they have touch hunger.”
Professional cuddling emerged about five years ago and is growing rapidly, according to Wyatt. About 60 people attended the Cuddlexpo, which has the slogan “Exchange. Embrace. Elevate.” The conference featured talks like “At Our Fingertips: Addressing the Loneliness Epidemic with Nurturing Human Touch.”
Wyatt, who runs a cuddle practice in Los Angeles, said she charges her clients about $80 an hour. She said while cuddling is intimate, it is not sexual.
“We’ve gotten very good at communicating that our service is completely platonic,” she said. “We screen our clients. We have phone calls, interviews. Some people meetup with them in a public place just to make sure that what they are looking for us on the same page.”
That can be tricky at times. During one marketing session, professional cuddlers talked about how their ability to easily find clients has been hurt after Craigslist decided to close down it’s “personals” and “therapeutic services” sections. The online classifieds giant made the decision after President Donald Trump this year signed a set of bills cracking down on online sex trafficking.
Samantha Hess, who traveled to the expo from Portland Oregon, got interested in cuddling services after splitting with her high-school sweetheart a few years ago.
“I was in a place where emotionally I didn’t have anything to give. I wasn’t ready to date,” she said.
Now a professional cuddler, Hess said tries to give her clients an intimacy common to being a child.
“We get people back into that state of mind of feeling as safe as a child would,” she said. “Before we know what trauma is. Before we know what those challenges will be. And feeling that safe is that space we all need to thrive.”
Miles Bryan is a reporter for WBEZ. You can follow him at @miles__bryan.