Gina Maray is a pet portrait/energy artist, Reiki practitioner and a single mom living in Kewaskum, a small town near West Bend.
She’s also a professional cuddler.
For $100/hour, Maray brings clients into her home and onto her fold-out couch for a platonic cuddling session. During her pre-visit screening call with potential customers, she’s very clear: This isn’t sexual, and she’s not a sex worker.
It’s just cuddling.
“I’m a very cuddly person,” says Maray, who is certified through Cuddlist.com. “The training was easy. The hard part was working through my fears of being judged by people who didn't understand that it’s purely platonic, and considering the safety side of someone trying to take advantage of me in my home.”
Fortunately, after more than a 100 cuddle sessions since January 2018, Maray says nothing scary has happened, and she credits that to knowing how to spot potential red flags during the vetting process. “I've had boundaries pushed just a little bit,” says Maray. “As soon as I've said, ‘Not that,’ it has been OK. I've never had to end a session early, but that is something I'm always willing to do if necessary.”
Maray says her typical client is someone who lacks access to physical touch in their life “to the level they desire.” That could also include someone who wants to vent or cry or chat in a “safe space,” in which they won’t be judged by their partner. Her clients include both men and women – Maray says about 85% are men.
So what’s a cuddling session like? Well, since this journalist is always willing to experience a story for the benefit of our readers, I went through the process on the day I interviewed Maray.
In a word, the experience was … unusual.
I didn't really know what to expect, and yes, everyone I told before my visit rolled their eyes. I wasn't exactly nervous, but I expected the cuddle session to be awkard, at best.
I had heard of "cuddle parties" from a story that Molly Snyder wrote back in 2004, but I was not familiar with professional cuddlers; the whole concept sounded strange to me. In my research, I did learn about a Madison business called The Snuggle House, which failed to get off the ground.
Like every client, I went through the screening process on Cuddlist.com, which answered some basic questions for both of us. I wondered what to wear, and settled on sweatpants and a T-shirt. The site suggests, “Pajama pants and sweats are popular cuddle wear. A minimum of shorts and a tank top is required for both practitioner and client.”
And then we went over the ground rules as she led me to her fold out couch in her living room. The lights were dimmed and soft music played. It felt like getting ready for a fully-clothed massage. According to Maray’s bio on her website, “We begin our session by agreeing to the safe and nurturing boundaries of platonic touch and then make space for your individual preferences to guide us from there.” I probably don’t have to mention the ground rules for which body parts cannot be touched, and I assure you, they weren’t.
Maray asked me which cuddling positions I would like to try, and nervously, I asked her which ones are the most popular. She said, “Lying side by side with one person's head on a chest is one, and spooning is definitely a classic.”
I said we might as well try them all.
I didn't know if I should talk or not; Maray leaves that up to her clients. While I didn't do my interview during the cuddling session, my reporter's mind did ask a lot of questions which Maray answered, but that's not out-of-character for me: When I'm feeling out of my comfort zone, I tend to blab to avoid awkward silence.
As someone who does get enough cuddling in my life, the hour felt comfortable and familiar, but also peculiar, as the cuddler is a stranger and not someone you’re intimate with.
For example, when you’re lying that close to someone, you might have the tendency to kiss or expect to be kissed, and that’s definitely not happening here. Also, this isn’t the kind of cuddling you would do with your kids, or for me, my friends, either. It’s close contact, yes, but not gropey or arousing in any way. Just sweet and nice, and certainly not at all sexual (or at least I didn’t find it to be).
The hour actually passed quickly, and I left feeling like I took a mid-day nap or had a massage – relaxed but a little energized – and only slightly weirded out. Not because Maray did anything weird at all; rather, because my body told me I was spending time with someone I care about, while my brain told me I was receiving a professional service from someone I just met. It’s not an experience I personally need to repeat.
But I can see how valuable it would be for a certain type of client. Maray is clearly a kind, warm, maternal figure, who found a job that, in her words, “is a source of income that would be in alignment for doing something good for the world.”
In fact, I asked her if she actually enjoys cuddling for a living. Maray’s answer was humble and and circumspect. Maray says she loves it, and only knows of one other person offering professional cuddling around Milwaukee.
“I’m grateful that I get to do this, that I get to share my love in this way,” she says, handing me a mug of tea as we wrapped up. “I guess I'd like people to know that it's an option for them if they are sad, or just having a hard time or just desiring connection, that there's access points out there that are beyond the typical.”
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.