In a large room inside an small office complex in Portland, Oregon, 10 men and women gather on a bed that covers the entire floor. Dressed in comfortable clothing, they begin snuggling each other in a group cuddle. This is not an orgy. Instead, it's a playful, platonic hug session.
This reporter was in the middle of it, at first taken aback as strangers huddled around me. But it was so ... relaxed, so non-threatening, so... Portland, that I didn't freak out.
"My goal is to change the world one hug at a time," says 34-year-old Samantha Hess, who created this place.
It all started five years ago, after Hess divorced her undemonstrative high school sweetheart because she could no longer live in a "touch desert." She was working a boring job as an installation coordinator at a security company when she read a story about a guy charging $2 for "deluxe" hugs. Something clicked.
"I was instantly like, 'Okay, if somebody comes up to me on the street and says, 'Here, have a free cookie,' I'm going to question everything about that," Hess said. "But if somebody is selling cookies, I immediately know what their intention is. I know what they get out of it."
So Hess took $500 to buy a business license and build her own website and formed Cuddle Up to Me. Friends thought she was crazy, telling her, "That's not a thing."
They were wrong.
Hess put up fliers around town, and her story was picked up by the local newspaper. "Within seven days, I had 10,000 emails. I was booked solid for two months."
No, this really isn't about sex
The problem was, very few people thought she was serious. Local authorities suspected professional cuddling was a cover for prostitution, and it took Hess nine months to find a place that would rent to her.
Then there were the potential clients.
"In the beginning, there were certainly plenty of inappropriate emails," she says. "Someone asked me to join their harem." She politely declined. "I've had three marriage proposals with doing this work, all within the first year, before I learned how to communicate better."
Hess started out making house calls, even doing overnight sessions. Sometimes she'd meet clients in a local movie theater which had large couches. "You can basically lay down and watch a movie," she says.
Finally, she found a landlord willing to give her a lease. She learned to set clear boundaries with customers. She now makes prospective customers fill out three pages of information and go through a consultation before any cuddling can happen.
"We chit chat, get to know them, we make sure we understand their consent and their boundaries, and they know ours," explains Hess.
What are the boundaries? All touch must be non-sexual and consensual. There's no massage, everyone must be clothed and there can be no touching in areas which would be covered by a swimsuit.
"You can't actually touch lips, but you can touch noses," she says. People must practice good hygiene, and every session in the Cuddle Up to Me studio is videotaped, "to help keep everybody in line."
Occasionally, though, customers are aroused. Hess says the reaction is usually unintentional, and both parties may take a break or reposition themselves. "There's been people who have blatantly crossed boundaries, of course, but I believe people are owed the right to learn this new skill," says Hess.
Meet the cuddlers
Inside Cuddle Up to Me are a half dozen cuddling rooms with themes ranging from tropical to meditative. Sessions cost as much as $80 an hour and last 90 minutes to three hours on average. Clients choose between 70 different cuddling positions with names like "Mama Bear" and "Gummy Worm."
One professional cuddler, Olivia, heard about the business and decided she'd like to participate. "I'm a birth doula, which involves a lot of affection and comfort through touch," she explains. She says her husband supported the idea of getting paid for hugs. "He's not a very affectionate person, and so when he heard that this was an option for me, he was like, 'That's perfect.'"
Tim became a cuddler after seeing his father deal with health problems. "I noticed in the hospital that there were a lot of people that didn't have access to touch," he says. Like Olivia, Tim's spouse supports his cuddling gig. "It really fulfills this part of me that wants to give and share with people."
Meet the customers
"I come here when I want to feel loved," says Paul. "I've been in love a number of times, but there hasn't been a lot of safety in that love."
He admitted the first few sessions were awkward. "It was weird — 'Oh, this is the time when we should start kissing or something' — but I had to realize, wow, that's not allowed, and that's carried over to the rest of my life...observing and obeying boundaries."
Richard is divorced. "I moved to Portland, and I didn't really know many people," he says.
He read an article about Hess's business and was terrified. He wanted to change that reaction.
"If I say that I don't want to live by myself, I want to have relationships, I want to be with people, I am sending some incredibly different vibes by my reaction, so I figured this was something that would help me," he explains. He says the occasional cuddle session has made him "less standoffish."
David comes for platonic cuddles when he's in between relationships. He says he loves cuddling with girlfriends, but it often sends the message that he's seeking a serious relationship, when he's not. At Cuddle Up to Me, the intentions are clear: "I love human touch, and I can do it without marrying them."
Women come for cuddles too. A young woman who goes by the roller derby nickname "Crash" says she started coming for cuddles because, "I was just kind of a loner and had a huge personal space bubble." She decided to get rid of that bubble after seeing the affection between her roller derby teammates. "This year my resolution is to become a more affectionate person, so that's why I'm here. I'm learning."
The Trump effect
Donald Trump's election has been good for the cuddling business in Portland. "The protest marches came within a block of our studio election night," Hess says. "It's really cool to give people an outlet where they can feel safe for at least a minute in a world that's so out of control right now."
Still, being a professional cuddler has not made Samantha Hess rich yet — she hasn't yet broken $100,000 in annual revenues. But the business has survived five years and brought her a wealth of satisfaction. In 2015, Hess made it through the first round of NBC's "America's Got Talent" after cuddling onstage with host Nick Cannon. She has also created a code of conduct to train would-be cuddlers in other states. Classes cost $299 online and as much as $3,200 in person. "Once someone achieves 250 session hours, they receive this new title, Master Cuddler," says Hess.
Her biggest mistake was taking on partners who gave her $40,000 in exchange for 40 percent of her company. "Knowing what I know now, there's no way I would've done that," she says with a laugh. "As a young, stupid kid who's like, 'Who knows if this will actually go anywhere, why not?'"
Turns out the business has gone somewhere, and Hess now even has a boyfriend whom she met outside of work. "He understands that platonic cuddling is something that is a requirement in my world," she says.
Is he a cuddler? "We cuddle every day. We literally have a cuddle alarm in the morning."
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Disclosure: NBC is owned by CNBC parent company NBCUniversal.
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