Hannah Rode wants to share her snuggles with the world — but for now, she'll start with Madison.
As a professional snuggler and manager of The Snuggle House, she's used to the strange looks and whispers. Will it really just be cuddling that takes place within the walls of the business, located just above the Argus Bar & Grill on East Main Street near the Capitol Square? What kind of people would cuddle for money? And why?
Even her friends and family don't always understand, Rode said. But when she saw the Craigslist ad seeking employees for the business, which will hold its grand opening Oct. 15-22, she knew it was her dream job. Clients can schedule appointments on the website now for the opening week.
"I'm so passionate about it," Rode said. "It's almost like a cause for me: bringing more hugs and touch into this world. Because we are, I feel, often disconnected. This is for people who have partners and don’t have partners."
In Rode's opinion, it's an alternative form of therapy. Like The Snuggery, the New York business it was modeled after, and the "cuddle parties" of the mid-2000s, the Snuggle House promotes cuddling as a form of "touch therapy."
The physical contact — even with a stranger — can lower a person's blood pressure, reduce cortisol ("stress hormone") levels and increase oxytocin ("love hormone") levels.
"For me, it's more than just holding somebody," Rode said. "It is making any interpersonal connection with somebody, and that is something that is super needed."
From what Rode has experienced so far, people usually want to talk while they snuggle — but they don't have to, she said. The benefits stay with clients long after the snuggle session, just as a result of the physical touch, she said.
Cuddling as a form of therapy could benefit all kinds of people, Rode said — whether it's someone who needs stronger interpersonal connections, someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or another form of mental illness or someone who just wants to spend time next to another person. She said she plans to reach out to nursing homes and hospice care centers, in particular.
With an undergraduate degree in psychology and experience as a yoga teacher and in the social work field, Rode is interested in pursuing a graduate degree in therapy someday — but she can see herself professionally snuggling for the rest of her life.
"This is like my life calling," Rode said. "That one-on-one relationship and connection with people, in addition to this alternative healing technique."
The Snuggle House goes to great lengths to make its clients feel comfortable, as well as to ensure the safety of its staff. The screening process for new clients is thorough, to make sure they're seeking the service for the right reasons — and also to make sure the staff can provide the best possible experience. Before any cuddles can happen, boundaries and goals are discussed.
The snuggling takes place in a bed — with sheets changed between sessions — and clients can purchase sessions in hour-long increments, at a starting rate of $60 per hour. Eventually, for established clients, Rode said an overnight service will likely be offered, for people who want to sleep next to someone for the evening.
"As soon as you start cuddling, it is comfortable," Rode said. "Something about it is fun, and it feels good initially. My clients that I've had so far, we both just start giggling. I think people will probably be nervous initially, but they will realize, it just feels good to be close to somebody."
As for whether cuddle positions are pre-determined, Rode said she usually starts as the "little spoon," but since everyone's body is different, every cuddling pair will fit together differently.
One of the hardest things for people to understand, she said, is that it's non-sexual, non-romantic touch. If someone did become aroused during a snuggle, she would simply adjust into a position that was appropriate and comfortable for both of them.
While friends and family have expressed their doubts, Rode said her boyfriend is completely understanding of her passion for cuddling, and supportive of the new venture.
There will be security measures in place to prevent anyone from trying to take a cuddle in the wrong direction, but Rode doesn't foresee that as a problem.
"You trust and respect people, and they're going to give that to you back," she said.
The people who make jokes about it being an escort service or a similar operation are generally operating with a fear of the unknown, she said, adding that she wants people to come in and experience it for themselves to see what it's really about.
"It's an alternative therapeutic session," she said.
The location itself isn't marked, just in case visitors are uncomfortable announcing their visit to the Snuggle House — and there are several other businesses in the building that could serve as 'covers,' she said.
Eventually, Rode hopes that touch therapy will lose some of the stigma it seems to carry now, and it will seem just as normal as going to see a psychiatrist.
"It's a positive energy," Rode said. "You are energized by this, because of that positive energy that's just kind of a part of that. Both people leave feeling uplifted. Their spirits and souls are not as heavy."