Recently a major scandal emerged surrounding an a professional cuddler in Arizona.
If you did not read about it, you may do so here.
I have a lot of opinions about this, and many of them are quite strong. When someone in my field does something so clearly unethical as this, I usually have something to say.
But what makes this situation wrong is much more complex than it seems. This whole situation was a gross abuse of power. So let's go through the whole thing and break this down piece by piece.
This was a female client and a female cuddler working together. They had several sessions over a two month period before the incident happened.
This is important to note because it means the cuddler had time to develop trust and comfort with their client. (And vice versa.) It's harder to say no to someone you have a history of trust with.
Do I think the cuddler purposely tried to build trust to manipulate the situation? No. I think she herself had a level of trust with the client before she felt comfortable suggesting this. She thought that she was doing good for her client in an unconventional way. That does not change the fact that this client was violated.
Also noteworthy: I'm happy to hear that a woman was looking to get professional cuddling because this is needed. This situation might not have been taken as seriously or appeared in the news if the client was a man.
The cuddler insisted that sessions would not be sexual and clothing would be on at all times.
This was said upfront, but clearly it did not happen. I imagine, however, the cuddler saw this incident as her acting in a nurturing, maternal way as opposed to sexually. But that being said, I disagree.
The client had admitted that it was a dream of hers to be held naked by a woman. To which the cuddler responded that she could it, but that it would not between the two as cuddler and client but rather "it would have to be between us."
This is where I put my foot down. This is misconduct. The promise that another co-existing relationship could happen is not okay. Even if it is not a mere promise, it is unethical.
Listen, it's still iffy with how client relationships *should* be outside of cuddle settings. (I've seen clients in public settings before and let them decide if they want to acknowledge me or not.) But this in particular is purposely going out of your way to promise a relationship.
If you're going to change the relationship with a client (especially like this), they first need to stop being your client. Stop seeing them for cuddle sessions before you change the relationship dynamic. And when you do change the relationship, make it super clear that the cuddler-client relationship does not exist anymore. This is something we request in the minimal standards of ethics. This was not done well, with consent, or with any particular clear boundaries. The only thing that was clear was that this does not follow the general code of conduct at all.
The fourth session was when the cuddler and the client removed their tops at the end of the session. The cuddler then gave her five extra minutes for free. Then she instructed the client to suck her nipple, to which she claimed, "I am channelling nurturing energy to you through my breast."
The unethical nature of everything in this is a real mind fuck.
I said it.
No seriously. I read this quote and internally screamed, "WHAT THE FUCK. NONE OF THIS IS OKAY."
First off, they removed their tops at the end of the session. I don't care if you're on the clock or off the clock, this is not okay to do with a client at all.
I've had clients change in front of me, removing their clothing without thinking anything of it before. What did I do? I turned my eyes, left the room, or politely asked them to change in another room.
This clearly wasn't just changing though. This was intentional. And based on this article, the cuddler was the one that started this, not the client.
What stands out to me even more is that the article makes a point to say that the cuddler gave the client five more minutes for free after the cuddle session ended and then she was instructed to suck her nipple.
I imagine that in the cuddler's mind, if the client is not paying for her time, then it's no longer a cuddle session and therefore falls outside of her responsibilities as a professional cuddler.
I've had many male clients use this same logic to try to solicit sex from me. They claim they want it after a session with the promise of a "bigger tip" for the cuddle session. I think they think by not directly paying me for a sex act, I'm not really doing sex work.
Except... that's not how this works. At all. You’re still incentivizing a sexual act, be it with money or promises of healing.
It doesn't matter what you do in your free time with a client. If you're creating an inappropriate relationship with the client that extends beyond the platonic, therapeutic nature of the business, then you're acting unethically.
And no, saying you're "channelling nurturing energy to you through my breast" does NOT make it therapeutic. It makes it manipulative.
How so? Well, first of all, the client had said before that she dreamed of being held naked by a woman. Sucking on a breast is very, VERY different from what she said. This was the cuddler acting on her own initiative. Even if she did say that she wanted to do this, claiming that you're "channeling nurturing energy to you through my breast" is a grossly coercive way to make the client partake in the activity.
Even if the cuddler was acting 100% non-sexually in this manner (though adult nursing can be seen as this), she shouldn't have been the person making such a suggestion as this goes against her conduct guidelines. By suggesting this, she is using her power to suggest something outside of the their agreed relationship. The client, if she wanted to keep seeing her for sessions, probably didn't think she could say no even if she wanted to in the moment.
Power dynamics are real, and they can affect true consent a lot. Especially if someone feels like they can be disincentivised from saying no. This is grossly unethical, even if the cuddler wasn't aware that she had wielded this power over her client.
The client called the police and they told her nothing illegal had happened
I hate this part so much because from the information we have in this article, it's true. Technically nothing illegal happened.
The client did not ask for this, but she ultimately “consented” and did the act. She was not forced into this scenario against her will (at least, there's little that can be used in court to prove that point).
Even if she was physically forced to do the act, I think this would have been scrutinized by the media. She ultimately consented, gave feedback even that she "felt so good" and then, after the fact, realized that this was not okay with her. Legally, there is not a whole lot which can be done because she was withdrawing consent after the fact.
However, just because it was technically legal does not mean this was ethical! This shouldn't have even escalated to this point.
The cuddler was certified through Cuddlist, and upon receiving the info they promptly de-certified the cuddler.
Madelon Guinazzo is one of the founders of Cuddlist and a professional cuddler herself. She is someone I have nothing but respect for in trying to make the field a safer place. She's de-certified perhaps 5 people from among the over 1300 Cuddlists she's certified. I fully support the decision to de-certify the cuddler.
That said, this ultimately doesn't stop this woman from doing this again.
I've said it before-- like being a life coach, you can call yourself a professional cuddler tomorrow if you wanted to without needing anything backing up the fact that you are. I did this for nearly three years in my own practice without receiving any specific training for cuddlers (though I received other types of training that complemented cuddling).
We're still only about 16ish years in the industry here, so there's not a whole lot of regulation going on yet. I think it'll start to regulate as we have instances like this show up more often (but hopefully that doesn't happen).
The client contacted the massage therapy board since this cuddler was also a massage therapist.
Spoiler alert: they couldn't do much.
Why? Because she wasn't working as a massage therapist with this client. This was outside of their jurisdiction.
However, one thing they did do ask her to separate her massage therapy business and her cuddling business since they couldn't really have any power over her on her cuddle practice. Massage therapists have a code of conduct that they hold onto in order to practice with their intensive licensing, and she clearly acted out of the ethics of this while advertising herself as a professional cuddler and a massage therapist. So the board asked her to separate her practices to avoid confusion for her clients.
I wholeheartedly agree with this decision too. As someone that is a professional cuddler and not a massage therapist, I want this separation from massage therapy too.
I get asked to give massages by clients and I have to tell them flat out that I'm not a massage therapist and the most I'll do is a shoulder rub while we're cuddling. I don't want people to come to me for massages; I want them to come to me for therapeutic cuddling. Maybe we can safely mix the two someday, but I honestly have no interest in learning more massage skills. That’s what massage therapists are for, not me.
Some final thoughts
1. This was grossly out of conduct for the professional cuddling field overall and should not be considered a standard thing that happens in the field.
2. Both the massage therapy board and Cuddlist did a great job responding to this situation as much as they could. Laws for licensed professional cuddling are probably not that far now; maybe a few years.
3. Power dynamics are a real thing that all practitioners, professional cuddlers and massage therapists alike really need to be aware of around consent.
4. Educating professional cuddlers is not enough. We need to educate clients on what to expect with professional cuddlers and hold professional cuddlers accountable to when they don't meet the bare minimum of this conduct.