One of a four-part series featuring different types of human bonds: The Human Bond
Images by John Hook & Jonas Maon
Lealyn Poponi, professional cuddler and founder of Aloha Cuddle Company, hugs and cradles a woman she has just met, squeezing her gently. They are sitting in Poponi’s Palolo home, getting to know one another while limbs and bodies intertwine innocently. The woman in her arms seems nervous and apprehensive, but as time passes she appears to relax, allowing her body to soften into Poponi’s.
The only service of its kind in the state, Aloha Cuddle Company offers scheduled snuggles that range anywhere from 30 minutes to five hours at a rate of $1 per minute. Cuddles are available to individuals looking for what The Cuddle Sutra calls “the ultimate in intimacy” (“more intimate than a candlelit dinner, more than a joint tax return and yes, even more than sex,” according to the book).
Poponi discovered the calming impact of touch while volunteering with the elderly in Colorado; how a simple handhold or pat on the arm could soothe and calm the receiver. After witnessing the power of this connection, she began researching the art of touch and discovered its many benefits, including relaxation but also stress reduction and improved mental health. These discoveries spurred a newfound personal goal for Poponi: to be more comfortable with touch. “I did not grow up in a touchy-feely family,” she explains. “So I wasn’t very comfortable with it, even hugging.” She decided she needed to get up close and personal, with being up close and personal. Poponi began making a conscious effort to use touching and hugging more frequently with people in her life. As she became more comfortable with it, she noticed that her friends and acquaintances were warmer and more open with her.
According to Poponi, who has one other cuddler in her employ, it’s only a matter of time before these kinds of services start popping up all over the country. She predicts that in 20 years, there will be cuddle centers across the United States, much like the numerous spas and massage services available now. “When you think about it, massages are far more intimate than cuddling, yet it’s far more accepted,” she says. “With a massage, you remove your clothes and a stranger touches you all over. Our services are much more innocent.”
In Poponi’s experience working within this unique industry, she has observed that Americans in particular are extremely “touch-phobic,” and are quick to assume that every touch is sexual. Aloha Cuddle Company’s services are decidedly not sexual, with providers cuddling clients as one would a child or a parent. There are rules: Hugging, dancing, and talking are permitted, while nudity, massage, and sexual touching are not. There is even a protocol for changing positions when “natural reactions” occur, which, according to Aloha Cuddle Company’s FAQs, rarely happens, due to the platonic nature of each cuddle session.
As it happens, the ability to cuddle isn’t the most critical skill a provider of these services needs to possess—being a good listener is. “We need people who are nurturers, someone that’s open and compassionate,” says Poponi, who speaks with enthusiasm about the human connection that occurs when two people touch. She explains that her clients need someone to listen to their stories, to care about and empathize with their struggles. As Poponi explains, “The real goal is to offer someone a safe space to feel loved, understood, and valued.”
This story is part of our Companions Issue.