Howard Sesser, 72, loves coming to the dimly lit room across from Roseville City Hall.
During a recent visit, the Napa man cozied up with Faviola Rodriguez, 27, on an oversized beanbag chair. Rodriguez, wearing sweats, pressed her face against his head and gently stroked his thinning red hair.
This was a paid cuddle session.
Set inside the Holistic Light House wellness center in downtown Roseville, Cuddle Connection is the first cuddling business in the Sacramento region and part of a growing industry across the nation.
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Proprietors tout the benefits of touch therapy and an open ear. The going rate at the Roseville store: $60 an hour.
“I have learned more about human nature in the past few months than in the last 70 years,” said Sesser, a regular customer here.
Sesser, who comes from what he described as a “stoic family,” said he can’t get touching or the same connection anywhere else. The retired firefighter lost his wife to multiple sclerosis in 1998 and has struggled to cope ever since. Now, he often drives more than an hour to Roseville in search of comfort from professional cuddlers.
Kelly Peterson, 49, a former schoolteacher, said she started Cuddle Connection last February after a friendly hug sparked an idea for a novel business. She said she understood the need for human comfort after going through a divorce.
“I want people to know they are not alone,” Peterson said. “We’re all hurt and broken in some way.”
Peterson said she saw a surge in new and returning clients during the holiday season. Her phones were “ringing off the hook” because “people want to be around other people” near Christmas and New Year’s.
The cuddling industry began about three years ago when Jacqueline Samuel, 31, opened a shop in Rochester, N.Y., to sell hugs in order to pay for graduate school.
“I wondered how people would respond,” Samuel said.
In the first month, she made $8,000 with a fully booked schedule. She had to hire two more “snugglers” to keep up with demand.
Since then, other entrepreneurs have opened their own cuddling businesses, ranging from storefronts like Cuddle Connection to websites that arrange overnight cuddling sessions at hotels. Demand for paid cuddles comes largely from middle-age men, according to professional cuddlers.
Some experts say the industry blurs ethical and legal boundaries.
So far, Roseville city and police officials said they haven’t had problems with Cuddle Connection.
“There’s nothing that would indicate anything illegal going on,” said Roseville Police Chief Daniel Hahn. “We haven’t had any complaints. It looks all good to me.”
But other cuddle businesses have drawn questions about whether they may lead to illicit sexual activity.
Evan Carp, 26, matches cuddlers and clients remotely from his Marlton, N.J., home. He describes his service, The Snuggle Buddies, as a “girlfriend rental.” The cuddling occurs without any oversight, and one session led to sexual activity, Carp said.
“A large portion of clients are married men,” Carp said. “They don’t cuddle with their wife anymore, so they seek an outside service.”
From a legal standpoint, paid cuddles are a “very gray area,” because cuddling can easily lead to other intimate actions and then to sex, according to Michael Vitiello, a criminology professor at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law.
“You start to do more and more in exchange for money,” Vitiello said. “Then outright, you cross the line.”
He added, “The only way to uncover illegal transactions is through undercover sting operations. Ask for a little bit more than a hug.”
In Roseville, Peterson employs stringent security measures to deter people from seeking more than a friendly cuddle. A surveillance camera watches overhead, and a “panic button” is only a reach away. Clients are required to read and fill out an extensive form spelling out the parameters of the service.
Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness views the cuddling industry with skepticism. During his decades-long law-enforcement career, he said certain tanning salons and massage parlors frequented by “nothing but male patrons” ended up being fronts for prostitution.
“Someone is always going to try to find an angle to engage in prostitution,” said McGinness, who called the cuddling industry “dangerously close to violating the spirit of the law.”
The professional cuddling industry has also drawn questions about whether it is an effective form of therapy. The industry is so new that it is not regulated like massage or other health services.
When Cuddle Connection first opened on North Sunrise Avenue nearly a year ago, Roseville officials sought to regulate the operation under the city’s massage ordinance, which requires the fingerprinting of therapists along with a tuberculosis test.
However, police determined cuddling wasn’t the same as massage so the rules wouldn’t apply, according to Roseville police spokeswoman Dee Dee Gunther. Massage ordinances are common in cities to ensure operators have clean criminal and health histories.
Marya C. Endriga, chairwoman of the psychology department at California State University, Sacramento, suggested that cuddling with strangers could do more harm than good.
“She’s not trained to recognize the signs,” Endriga said. “Someone who is coping with grief could have their trauma triggered.”
Peterson disagreed, saying she fills a void for people. Of the hundreds who visit, she said, most have endured tragedy, from a family death to divorce.
“Our love is like a mother’s love,” Peterson said.
During a session last month, she donned a black sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “professional cuddler.” Peterson wore a smile throughout the hourlong appointment, arms stretched over Grass Valley resident Tracie Laiosa, 58. Across the room, cuddling associate Rodriguez grasped Sesser’s hands.
There are limitations on what Peterson can do. By law, she isn’t allowed to dispense advice, unlike trained psychologists who complete board examinations and are licensed by the state.
Endriga said cuddling can be detrimental, especially for the vulnerable populations that are the target audience. She raised questions about the legitimacy of the industry, explaining that marriage therapists and other counseling professionals must obtain a license and receive hundreds of hours of training.
“Cuddling assumes there is a relationship. You don’t just get touched by strangers,” she said. “What happens if a client falls in love with the cuddler?”
Still, cuddling is taking off. Peterson now works as a part-time consultant to help others start similar businesses. She has poured $80,000 into Cuddle Connection but declined to provide other financial information.
“We are blazing the trails for everyone across the country,” she said.
Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.