Kimberly Kilbride, a self-described "social butterfly," knew she could cuddle strangers for money. The 33-year-old waitress, who lives in Highland, New York, stumbled onto the strange world of professional cuddling last year when she Googled ways to supplement her waitressing income. She found The Snuggle Buddies, a New Jersey-based company that provides cuddling services in a number of states, including New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. 

“I have the personality for this from customer service and waitressing,” she said. And her bubbly and endearing personality shone through even on the phone. “I’m very maternal and caring, the person my friends go to when they need a shoulder to cry on.” Her mother wasn’t surprised she started professional cuddling and thought it suited her, she said. And although her boyfriend sometimes gets jealous, he supports her decision to be a professional cuddler.

If the words “professional” and “cuddling” together sound weird to you, you’re not alone. Is it a form of sex work, massage therapy, talk therapy – or all of the above? Is it regulated and safe for participants? And how do professional cuddlers, predominantly women, who spoon with, hold hands with and cuddle with their clients – all while clothed -- keep their clients, predominantly men, from being inappropriate, pressuring them for sex, or even raping them? Cuddlers often do “outcalls,” after all, going to a client’s home -- whom they might not have seen or even spoken to before -- for one-hour cuddling sessions and even overnight sleepovers.

There are fewer than a dozen businesses in the U.S. that provide cuddle services for a price, says Samantha Hess, founder of the Portland, Oregon, cuddle service Cuddle Up To Me. She's also the co-organizer of the world's first cuddle convention, Cuddle Con, to be held on Valentine's Day in Portland. Hess told IBTimes that she would like to see more standardization of the services, and she is starting a 40-hour certification program that delves into how to take cuddling to the next level. How to turn it, essentially, into a safe business.

As Hunter S. Thompson once said, “When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.”

'I'm Not A Therapist'

In person, New York City-based Scott Cameron, who also works for The Snuggle Buddies, has movie-star good looks, a friendly smile, and an earnest -- if wary -- demeanor. Like Kilbride, he wanted to supplement his bartending and catering income, and less than six months ago, he found a help wanted ad for a professional snuggler. The 28-year-old sometime model and actor said that since he had worked in the entertainment industry, it was a "natural transition into professional cuddling."

"I'm not a therapist," he said. "I'm not qualified to diagnose [clients'] problems. But can I be an open ear and provide the framework for someone to open up in a therapeutic setting? Yes, I can." Cameron said he's good at maintaining boundaries and staying centered, in part because of his meditation practice and because he takes care of himself. 

Although he's the Snuggle Buddies' only New York-based male cuddler, there is not a lot of demand for male snugglers. “They may get 5 to 15 hours of work a month,” Evan Carp, the business' 27-year-old founder, said. A female snuggler, depending on her demand, can get anywhere from 5 to 40 hours a week. In describing the primarily female clients he has now -- Cameron has also cuddled with men -- he says that they may suffer from chronic illnesses or they’re going through a major transition in their life. Or maybe, he added, “They don’t want to swipe on Tinder anymore.”

Like Kilbride, Cameron has a partner, a girlfriend, and although she was initially jealous and wanted him to have only male clients, she understands his work better now. And she knows it's "100 percent platonic," he said.

This is the ideal, anyway. The brave new world of professional cuddling is largely unregulated, or at least haphazardly self-regulated, with few real safety standards in place.

Workers at Snuggle Buddies screen potential clients on the phone and allow their contract workers -- around 100 employees -- to decide for themselves whether they want to meet clients in public first before taking it to a bed or couch. This laissez-faire policy leaves the decision-making up to the cuddler. 

“I feel them out,” said Kilbride, “whether it’s via text messages, email or phone. If I get a vibe, like texts from people who sounded like they were soliciting sex, I’ll tell my boss I don’t feel comfortable meeting with this person, and he’ll say: ‘That’s fine.’ We’re independent contractors.”

Kilbride's boss, Evan Carp, started The Snuggle Buddies in 2013. He, too, found out about professional cuddling through Google, and as someone who had suffered from depression and chronic pain, he told IBTimes, he was inspired to provide “therapeutic touch” to people who need it. His clients, he revealed, are usually men over 50 who are widowed, divorced, single or married but don’t get along with their wives.

Spooning For Cash

For Kilbride, professional snuggling can be both personally gratifying and emotionally stressful.

“Any time I’m with someone, I say, this is someone who needs compassion right now," said Kilbride. "The fact that they trust me with that, it makes me feel special. I’ve met some amazing people.” All of her clients are men, she said, and she divides them into three categories.

“There’s the curious person who has an extra $80,” she said, referring to the cost of a one-hour cuddling session, of which she keeps half. This person tends to want only to talk. Regarding the second type: "Maybe they were in a relationship and now they’re divorced. Maybe they’re in a marriage that doesn’t have affection.” Kilbride understands that morally it's a “grey area” when she’s with someone who is not technically cheating on their spouse but who is also not telling them they’re hiring a professional cuddler.

The third type of client, she says, is depressed or “socially awkward,” and their decision to hire a professional cuddler comes from “need.” Hess, too, said that her clients ranged from people who wanted to treat themselves to “self care,” all the way to people with autism, disabilities and disfigurements. Some are sexual- and physical-abuse survivors, Hess said, referred to her by local counselors. These clients "need to reacclimate to touch” and need someone “who will not push the boundaries of physicality.”

“Dealing with those clients can be emotionally stressful,” Kilbride said. “There was a client I was seeing regularly who didn’t grow up with any physical affection. He broke down crying when we first snuggled together. ‘I’ve never experienced this before,’ he told me. He was in his forties.”

When asked if she was ever nervous about meeting a total stranger and doing something so physically intimate with them, she laughed and said, “If you don’t have a little bit of anxiety meeting a stranger and being in an intimate situation with them, then you’ve probably lost your mind.” She said she's only once had to threaten to end a session because a client wouldn't stop trying to talk her into having sex with him. And in one unnerving cuddling scenario, she had an overnight session with an insomniac. "I'd wake up," she said, "to find him staring at me." Those overnight sessions can cost almost $500.

'I Don't Want To F--- You'

And what do professional snugglers do when their male clients get physically aroused from being in "spooning" and various hugging positions with their female cuddlers? "I ignore it," said Kilbride. "Drawing attention to it makes it worse. If they bring it up, I'll say, 'Is it time to think of something disgusting?' or make a joke out of it. Or if they suggest we do something more, I'll remind them that prostitution is illegal in New York City, so that I'm not in the position to say, 'I don't want to f--- you.'" As for Cameron's approach, if a client insinuates they want sex, he just shifts the conversation elsewhere. 

Although some cuddlers at The Snuggle Buddies carry mace with them, Kilbride doesn’t because she’s worried her clients will sense her fear and it will affect their experience with her. “I try to go into a situation thinking everybody’s good until they prove me wrong,” she said. “Unless someone is an out-and-out rapist,” she said, “if you say stop, men will stop.”

For Samantha Hess, who mentored The Snuggle Buddies’ Evan Carp, this is unacceptable. Hess claims that although she made recommendations to Carp on safety and training when she mentored him – at present, the only training provided is the illustrated book The Cuddle Sutra -- he has disregarded them. “What he’s providing is unsafe to the cuddler and not beneficial to the client,” she said, expressing particular shock over hearing that Carp sent workers to hotels on overnight sessions lasting up to 8 hours with clients.

“Someone is going to get hurt,” Hess said. 

When asked to respond to Hess's claims, Carp was dismissive. “I haven’t had safety problems,” he said. “It’s been a while since I talked to her. Things are worked out. There are safety procedures and screeners.” 

Although Kilbride doesn't use mace, she does have safety measures in place. "We all have a safety contact person. I have two -- my boss and my boyfriend." Both must hear from her within half an hour of an ended session -- "or they'll call the cops," she said. She also has a location tracker on her phone.

In an AMA ("Ask Me Anything") forum on Reddit in 2014, a former Snuggle Buddies cuddler laid bare what really happens in the unregulated space of a cuddle session. She discussed how she smoked pot with her clients; would reprimand them -- but not end the session -- when they tried to put their hands down her pants; and that she even engaged in light "fetish" behavior, including "age play" and letting them touch her stockings. She eventually left for more "mainstream" work, she said in the Reddit AMA, because she was tired of the risk involved in going to strangers' homes and having to tell clients she wouldn't have sex with them.

Ultimately, the reasons a person may seek a professional cuddler are as varied as the type of people who provide the cuddling. But for the Snuggle Buddies' Evan Carp, the reason is simple. “You can go talk to a psychologist,” he said. “But you can’t snuggle with a psychologist.”