Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week's Chicagoan is Shawn Coleman, professional cuddler.
"A professional cuddler is someone who gets paid by the hour to cuddle. It could also include things such as having a conversation while holding hands or eye gazing. It's very much about connection and being there for whatever the client wants.
"I've been going to cuddle parties for several years. Cuddle parties are specific, structured events where strangers establish a nonsexual, safe, consent-focused space in which to play and cuddle and connect. Exchange massages, tickle each other, whatever they want to do within the guidelines.
"When I walked into my first cuddle party, I didn't fully know what I was getting myself into. I wasn't as good with my boundaries as I thought, and I ended up agreeing to forms of touch that I didn't really have an enthusiastic yes for, like a shoulder rub with people I didn't know well. I didn't go back for two years. When I did come back, I was much more equipped to state my enthusiastic yes
es or my honest no
s as needed and to make requests as well. Now I feel much more comfortable and confident, which makes it possible for me to do this job.
"Clients get in touch through my website
, and I e-mail them back and get a sense for what they want from the session. I do take safety precautions when interacting with people I've never met before. Thankfully, I have quite a few friends who live in the area and are happy to have me call them before and after the session. It also helps that I have a roommate.
"So far it's been all men except for one female friend. Mostly guys over 50. These aren't necessarily guys who've never had a girlfriend or a wife. Many have been married, but then got divorced or were widowed. They are in a place of not getting consistent touch. I get to help fill that need, which feels nice and like I'm doing something important in this world.
"I have a little sunroom area, and I have a futon mattress on the floor, and lots of pillows, and the softest blanket that I have ever felt in my entire life. Around the windowsill I have candles. I also have a white-noise app for clients who want to chill out and snuggle and fall asleep.
"Back scratches are a common request. Spooning, obviously. Some people like to lie in my lap, with me sitting up, or vice versa. Hand massages. Head scratches or head rubs. People sometimes like slow, gentle caresses on the face.
"I haven't had a single inappropriate request so far, surprisingly. It's pretty clear right off that it's a nonsexual thing. Yes, guys might get erections. Arousal happens. The agreement is that we're simply not going to act on it. That said, there's no shaming done by me. We simply shift positions, or maybe take a few moments to be apart.
"I love connection. I fall deeply in platonic love with lots and lots of people on first meeting them. I feel like I can see them and understand them much more quickly and easily when I am either cuddling with them or having a vulnerable and authentic conversation with them. I believe in connecting deeply, in bringing my whole self and allowing the walls to fall. That's the way I show up in the world."