It’s happened again.
I’m now up to seven inquiries in a row on Cuddle Comfort profile who have stopped talking to me when I shared a link to my client agreement and asked them to review it to make sure the session sounded like a good fit for them.
The first time this happened, the person was kind enough to respond to my follow-up inquiry about what had changed. “Your agreement is too constricting,” they told me. “I’m very affectionate and if there’s mutual chemistry, an agreement would limit us from anything further.”
They understood my agreement correctly. It’s in place to be clear that, when I do this work, it’s not a gateway to “anything further.” Even if there’s chemistry. Even if they find me attractive. Even if I find them attractive, for what it’s worth. I treat this work the same way I treat my coaching work, which means keeping a therapeutic boundary in place is a necessary component of the work, and something I take seriously.
I’m really glad this individual (and all of these individuals) are clear enough about what they’re looking for from a professional cuddler to recognize that the service I’m offering isn’t a good match for those goals. I’m a little frustrated from a business perspective that my clarity seems to be scaring people off from my business.
The terms of my agreement aren’t more restrictive than average for the cuddle industry. The Cuddle Comfort site where these interactions are happening even includes terms of service that are very similar to my client agreement. Specifically, when you sign up on that site, it asks you to agree to these statements:
“You agree to never use this Website for the intent of meeting another member for sex. You also agree to never attempt to progress a meeting, organised via this website, to a sexual nature.
When communicating with another member, you agree to never indicate a desire to cuddle while doing any of the following: (1) being nude, (2) wearing only underwear, (3) kissing, (4) groping, (5) satisfying a fetish or kink, and (6) anything of a non-platonic nature.”
Why is clarity such a challenge in interpersonal relationships?
There are a variety of factors at play here, from our own expectations, to the desire to have a power position, to the allure of ambiguity.
Our expectations do not include clear words to define the parameters of a physical interaction. While culture is shifting, we’re still not past the idea that it’s ridiculous to talk about physical interaction before we engage in it. We have heard lots of people deride the very idea of asking before kissing someone. In families and communities where affection is less common and more private, we may have never seen someone ask for consent before initiating physical interaction.
When we see it in the movies or on TV, there very frequently isn’t conversation about what sort of interaction is going to happen. Also in the movies or on TV characters the scriptwriter knows (creates) the deepest desires of each individual, and is able to make sure things turn out the way they want. We grow up on stories where everything turns out okay, where the characters get to a happy ending without ever having a conversation, and we get the mistaken idea that works in real life.
Things we haven’t tried or seen modeled are foreign and often uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable for people when I answer clearly and without embarrassment questions like “what happens when I get aroused” because they’ve never talked openly about that, especially not to a stranger. The clarity of my communication is unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable
Being clear about what you want in any interaction is not only vulnerable, it can reduce the amount of traditional power you have in that negotiation. When you are haggling over the price of a car or a starting salary, you don’t want to be the person who says the number first. The power position is the one who says the number last because that person has the benefit of learning more about what the other party was thinking, and the opportunity to have more information before they commit to a position.
In clearly stating my boundaries, I’m signaling that I want a different power balance with my clients than they may be accustomed to. I’m not going to try and hide my agenda in the belief that will help me get more out of the interaction. I also mess with the power dynamic by not accepting tips or gifts from clients. I recently had an inquiring client who found me on Yelp stop talking to me shortly after I let him know I don’t accept tips. He wanted a multi-hour session, and after we’d scheduled he stated that he was very excited and that I would be happy because he would be a very good tipper. I replied “I don’t accept tips. I hope instead that my happy clients will schedule additional sessions” he stopped replying. He ultimately no-showed on the session. I won’t ever know if the shift in expected power dynamic was what threw him, but it’s my hunch based on the way the conversation changed at that point..
The Allure of Ambiguity
Ambiguity is a communication strategy that allows the other party to create and maintain their own stories about how an interaction is going to go. This is extremely effective in a variety of business and interpersonal situations. It can provide flexibility and allow each party in the communication to do their own work in making sense of the interaction. There are books and articles on this strategy, lauding it as a way for organizations to avoid pigeonholing themselves in a changing world.
Ambiguity certainly has its appeal as a business strategy. There are lots of people doing this work who are ambiguous enough to draw in clients who want to preserve the possibility in their minds that sexual interaction isn’t completely off the table, even if it is. This might well be a smarter strategy than what I’m trying to do.
My Dubious Decision to Continue with Clarity
But I’m intentionally trying to do something different. I want Holding Space to be intentionally, unambiguously, and openly platonic. I want my clients to know up front that I am focused on the therapeutic benefits of platonic touch. I want my clients to know that they are paying me for emotional and nurturing labor, and I want them to value and serve the parts of themselves that need to be nurtured and cared for in that way.
Too much of our culture implies that value is tied to sex appeal (and so inherently to virility and the culture’s ideas about attractiveness.) We don’t make space for needing to manage our physical and emotional health. We don’t pay attention to what would help us to heal and feel whole. Clearly valuing the nurturing of my clients, rather than leaving open the possibility that the “real goal” is sexual is apparently kind of a buzz kill.
Which is sad, really, because cuddle buzz is nearly as good as yoga buzz in terms of having a beneficial, healing effect on the body.
I want Holding Space to be part of the effort to change those things, so I continue my dubious strategy of not accepting tips, and of requiring my clients to explicitly agree to my client agreement before we schedule a session. I understand that this thing where clients are interested until I’m clear about what I’m offering is going to keep happening. But it’s the only way I know to do this work in the way that speaks to me.
I wish I knew how to reach more clients, to create an environment where more people could have those experiences. If you’re looking to spend some time in the healing rest and digest state, I hope you’ll be able to overcome the challenges posed by clarity and give it a try anyway.