Some of Samantha Varnerin’s clients travel a lot for business. Some have trouble sleeping, or are on the autism spectrum, or have a vast circle of friends but are stressed from being the go-to support person. Sometimes there’s been a hard breakup, or a close family member has moved away. And sometimes a person just needs a hug—who hasn’t had a day like that? Varnerin’s got you, no matter the reason: she’s a full-time, professional snuggler.
Wait… a what?
“My introduction to professional snuggling was sheer accident,” Varnerin says. “I was a construction engineer. Somebody I was following on a sales website mentioned it, and I said, ‘There’s no way this exists.’ So I Googled around and found a national agency that works across the country, with business going on in Boston.”
The business isn’t all about loneliness: multiple studies have shown that even just a few minutes of cuddling will cue your brain to release a lovely cocktail of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin and reduce your adrenal glands’ production of cortisol, immediately lowering your stress levels and boosting your mood and immune system. Oxytocin is pretty magical (you may have heard it referred to as “the feel-good hormone”), with the power to lower blood pressure, decrease physical pain, help you sleep and even reduce your risk of heart disease.
Varnerin didn’t quit her day job immediately; for almost two years, she worked with the agency around her usual 9-to-5. In February, she left both, and took to snuggling full-time with her own company: Snuggle With Sam. “I feel like a lot of people have to fit themselves into a box that someone else makes for them,” she says. “And instead, this is something that is genuinely me.”
How does a typical professional snuggling session even begin? First, potential clients get in touch through a contact form on her website to establish a place, time and session length. Varnerin can do house calls all around New England, or clients can visit her own shared apartment, just a short bus ride from Davis Square. Once these details are squared away, Varnerin sends an email with location directions, clothing requirements to ensure a comfortable platonic session (she suggests the “newspaper test”—would you go out on your front steps wearing it?), a basic hygiene request (shower at least 12 hours before a session) and a waiver for them to sign. Upon arrival, Sam does a check-in with the safety supervisor she’s hired. Then payment is exchanged and a timer is set, and the session officially begins.
Many people like to start with conversation, and what they need to talk about can guide Sam on how she can help. But reading body language is key, too. Empathy, Varnerin says, is a huge part of what sets her business apart from other professional snugglers, who tend to either be more clinical or retail-based. Varnerin has been trained in reiki (she’s currently working to level two) as well as “circling” (a meditative group exercise focusing on remaining present and developing connection with one another). She’s always looking to match her energy to what a person needs in the moment, even while many of us have difficulty articulating what that may be. “Certain people are looking where to direct their affection, and as a snuggler I’m trying to figure out if they’re looking to give, receive, or both.”
Once the client is ready, she asks them to lay down comfortably. Most first-timers, Varnerin says with a smile, tend to “plank,” or lay on their backs with their arms stiffly at their sides, suddenly self-conscious and uncertain about what “lay down comfortably” looks like. But Sam is quick to let them know that they can always ask for something else. In a blog post she published recently about the importance of boundary-setting in her work, Sam writes:“I give permission to ask for a different position, even if they’re unsure what else they would like to try, I thank them when they voice wanting to try a different cuddle position, I ask them if I can touch their hair or if a position is comfortable with them to encourage them to ask questions as well, I say ‘no’ or ‘I’d prefer not to’ if they make a request I would like to not do.”
Sounds like the kind of language that might have a bigger impact on our culture over time, no?
“If we hold people to a higher standard for things that are not sexual situations such as a snuggling session,” Varnerin adds, “then we can play a part in creating a world where people are asking us what our boundaries are and being able to express them back and expecting them to be honored as a default.”
Resting a hand on an arm or collarbone is one way Varnerin establishes touch with someone new. “Once I get the okay, I might put my hand on their arm and just stroke them a little bit,” she says. “I try to do some kind of motion with my other free hand just because it helps them get grounded and recognize that ‘this is a person, I’m not just a doll that’s here to be moved back and forth, I’m here with you.’” She’s actually familiar with a whole “Cuddle Sutra” of 50 platonic cuddly positions. That may seem like a lot, but she has a top five of go-tos for her sessions that most of us, even the cuddle-uneducated, would be familiar with. Sessions can last from one hour to twelve, but generally Sam recommends an hour and a half: just enough time for a good talk without sacrificing cuddle time, or getting too sleepy.
Afterwards, clients are encouraged to take their time to prepare to face the day again, full of happy cuddle brain chemicals.
“It’s almost immediate satisfaction to see people being helped in real time,” Sam says. “It’s such a basic thing, to be able to give somebody a hug and make them feel better.”
This story appears in the September/October print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.