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Client says Arizona massage therapist's 'cuddling' session turned sexual

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We spoke with a co-founder of Cuddlist.com about what cuddle therapy is and how her company handles complaints about its therapists.
William Flannigan, azcentral

PHOENIX – In new age America, if you need emotional comfort, you can pay someone to cuddle you.

It’s legal and unregulated.

But where do you complain if a cuddling session goes too far?

A Phoenix woman says it happened to her in May when she visited an $80-a-session cuddle therapist and the session turned sexual. She wound up with the cuddler’s nipple in her mouth for five minutes.

She called police, who told her that nothing illegal had happened.

She called a national group that certifies cuddlers. It promptly decertified the cuddler, Susanne Woodward, for breaking its code of conduct.

Finally, she filed a complaint with the state board that regulates massage because the cuddler is also a massage therapist. It’s illegal for massage therapists to engage in sexual activity with clients.

But Woodward’s attorney, Flynn Carey, argued before the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy that cuddling is beyond the board’s regulatory authority because the woman was a cuddle client, not a massage client.

Carey told the board that if they took jurisdiction of the matter, “you are actually going to be now the massage therapy board and the cuddle therapy board.”

The board found no violation of massage practice but ordered Woodward to separate her cuddling business from her massage business, including maintaining separate websites to avoid confusion.

The unusual complaint underscores the limits of state regulatory boards. The cuddling controversy also illustrates how one type of therapy may be regulated and licensed while another, newer concept – that also involves close body contact – is not.

What do professional cuddlers do?

Professional cuddling – essentially paying someone to snuggle in a consensual, non-sexual manner – has been around about two decades. Professional cuddling can be one-on-one or in “cuddle parties,” where people wear pajamas, eat snacks, chat and snuggle.

The theory behind cuddle therapy is that people feel increasingly isolated and disconnected. Many were raised in families where platonic touching was uncommon and suffer from “touch deprivation.”

Cuddle therapy is designed to make people more comfortable with others, said Madelon Guinazzo, co-founder of Cuddlist, a leading company in the cuddle industry.

There is no professional licensing, but some companies offer training and even certification.

Cuddlist provides online training and certification for those who want to lead one-on-one cuddling. It has a code of conduct. Cuddling is a platonic service, the website says, where everyone must be clothed. At a minimum, they have to wear a tank top and shorts that extend to the mid-thigh.

Guinazzo said that Woodward, the Tempe massage therapist, was “promptly decertified” after Cuddlist received the recent complaint. “It breaks everything in our code of conduct,” she said.

She said Cuddlist has since 2015 trained more than 1,300 people in more than 40 states and five countries, and she can count “on one hand” the number who have had to be decertified.

“This is rare, thank goodness,” she said.

Perhaps the most high-profile cuddle controversy involved a Madison, Wisconsin, business called the Snuggle House that advertised an hour of cuddling for $60.

City officials raised concerns about the potential for sexual assaults and a lack of regulations for such a business, even before its opening in November 2013. The owners maintained that sex was forbidden inside the Snuggle House. They installed security cameras as a precaution and had a panic button in each snuggle room.

But after just three weeks of operations, the owners shut the doors. They told the Associated Press that they were sick of the city’s harassment and the negative publicity.

Client says cuddling went too far

In Arizona, the woman who filed the complaint said she began visiting Woodward in April at her Tempe business, Restoration Healing Spa.

Over two months she saw Woodward for four cuddle sessions.

“She told me she would be able to help me with my sexual trauma and help me find my voice,” the woman wrote in her complaint to state regulators. “She insisted that it would not be sexual and that clothing would be on at all times.”

(The Republic is not identifying the woman because the paper generally does not identify individuals who may have been victims of sexual misconduct. The state massage board also does not identify complainants to protect their privacy.)

The woman admitted in her complaint that in an early session with Woodward, she told the therapist it had always been her dream to be held naked by a woman.

She said Woodward told her she could do that, but that it was outside her boundaries as a cuddlist and “it would have to be between us.”

On her fourth cuddle session, the woman alleges Woodward told her, “I can hold you, how you want.”

Both woman removed their tops. Woodward told the woman to rest her head on Woodward’s breasts, according to the complaint.

“She then told me to suck her nipple,” the woman wrote, and the therapist said, “I am channeling nurturing energy to you through my breast.”

Then Woodward told her time was up, “but I will give you five extra minutes for free.”

Woodward and Carey, her attorney, declined to comment to The Republic. But their 10-page written response to the massage board tells her version of the incident.

Woodward said the client told her in an early cuddle session that the woman was “starved” for maternal, nurturing touch. She said the woman suggested they cuddle without clothing. Woodward responded by telling the woman she would consider the request but it would not be part of her cuddling services and would have to be non-sexual.

In a later cuddle session, Woodward said the woman initiated contact with Woodward’s breast and the conduct was consensual.

Afterward, she said the woman smiled, said she was feeling “so good” and thanked Woodward. She scheduled another cuddle session for the next week.

Woodward’s attorney wrote to the massage board that, in retrospect, Woodward recognized she should have declined the request for additional contact and should have set boundaries to prevent the woman from involving herself in Woodward’s life.

“Had this been a massage client, she would not have had any contact with the client outside of the therapeutic setting,” Carey wrote to the board.

The client said when she got home, the “severity” of what happened hit her, she believes Woodward took advantage of her.

The woman contacted Tempe police, who told her they could find nothing illegal had occurred.

‘Not in the cuddle business’

Guinazzo, the co-founder of Cuddlist, said a “fair amount” of massage therapists also work as cuddlists.

In Arizona, the state massage board oversees about 11,000 therapists and has the authority to discipline those who break state laws or board rules.

Woodward, who has been a licensed massage therapist since 2008, has had no discipline before the board. In July, the woman’s cuddling complaint against her came before the massage board for review.

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Woodward’s attorney asked the board to dismiss the cuddle complaint for lack of jurisdiction because the woman was a cuddle therapy client, not a massage therapy client.

Board member John Ortega agreed. He likened the cuddle complaint to a licensed massage therapist who also teaches karate. If a student busted his lip in karate and complained to the massage board, the board would have no authority to act on the massage license, he said.

“We’re not in the cuddle business,” he said.

But other board members had concerns that advertising massage therapy and cuddle services on the same spa website could lead to confusion and cause clients to misconstrue the services offered.

The board voted to send Woodward a nondisciplinary letter, ordering her to separate her massage therapy business from her cuddling business and maintain separate websites. The letter becomes part of her state licensing file and, while nondisciplinary, could be factored into future board discussions if she were to receive another complaint.

Other states, like Arizona, don’t regulate cuddle therapy, said Guinazzo, the co-founder of Cuddlist. The cuddle industry “is really where massage therapy was 30 years ago,” in terms of regulation, she said. But she expects it’s only a matter of time before professional cuddling is regulated.

For now, she advises a “buyer beware” approach to hiring a professional cuddler.

“Really interview someone,” she said. “Make sure it’s someone you feel comfortable with and can trust.”

Cuddle therapy is over for Woodward. She told the board in July that she takes her job as a massage therapist seriously and has closed her cuddling business.

“I don’t want any confusion in one area to compromise or define me as a massage therapist,” she told them.

Follow Anne Ryman on Twitter, @anneryman.

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