Image: Courtesy of Keeley Shoup
Most would raise their eyebrows at the term “professional cuddler,” but for Keeley Shoup, this is just a part of her everyday reality. Shoup is a full-time therapeutic touch practitioner with the Cuddliest, where she partakes in private cuddling sessions and facilitates Chicago-based cuddle parties. Echo spoke with Shoup about her practice while addressing the misconceptions.
How did you get your start cuddling?
I jokingly tell people that I’ve been professionally cuddling since I was a little kid. When my sisters and I watched Saturday morning cartoons, I would charge them a quarter an hour to do what they called “magic fingers” where I would tickle their arms and scratch their backs. I kind of always intrinsically believed in the power of healing touch and how so much connection that can bring to people.
Then about seven years ago I moved to Chicago from my hometown in Indiana. In that transition, it was very difficult for me. I come from a close-knit family and coming to the big city was very successful for my career, but I was feeling very miserable and I couldn’t place why. On all accounts, I was being successful. Later on, as I come to find out, it was because I was missing a human connection and missing touch. So I came across cuddle parties, and the very first cuddle party saved my life and changed my life.
How did your first cuddle party change your life?
It was after that first party where I had a complete emotional breakdown in a beautiful and wonderful way. After that party, that I realized all of the things I had missing. It was very overwhelming because I was in a situation where I loved what was going on so much and I had no idea it was what I needed so much. For the next two years, I went to every cuddle event, every healing touch event, platonic touch event—whatever I could do to get more involved in this community. It was then that I subsequently realized that I was in an abusive relationship that didn’t honor my yes and my no. Because in addition to getting a healthy of dose platonic affection, I had people teaching me about boundaries and acceptable communication.
So that’s why I said that going to those events saved my life and changed my life because it was through that community that helped me get out of that abusive relationship. Now my full-time career is my private practice of individual cuddle therapy sessions and group cuddle party consent workshops.
How do people go about reaching out to you and scheduling private sessions? Can you describe what those sessions are like?
I am part of an organization called Cuddliest—that’s who I received my training from. If you go to the cuddlist.com, there are different types of professional cuddlers that you can contact. After a brief screening, you can set up a session that really is 100 percent catered to what you’re needing. So people with a history of trauma who are trying to reintegrate touch into their lives in a very safe way can come and approach us. I have clients who are on the autism spectrum where connecting doesn’t necessarily come naturally to them—so they have this outlet. I also have clients that just through a series of tragedy have no more close family left or close loved ones, and they still need platonic affection—they still need nurturing. There are a 100 different reasons for why people come and see me but that’s just a few. But we can set up that appointment and go from there.
Can you tell me more about the process of your training and what that entails?
I’ve gotten the Cuddliest Certification and I’m currently in the process of going through the Cuddle Sanctuary that’s a little bit different. With Cuddliest, I think the training is much more centered around the boundaries, consent, and communication. My experience is that it’s more centered around empowering clients to find out what they want—much more like cuddling with life coaching. With the Cuddle Sanctuary program, it’s a little more treatment orientated. So if people are looking for more of a treatment-based cuddle session, that’s what their specialty is.
There seems to be a lot of misconceptions about cuddle parties to the general public. Is there anything people would be surprised to know?
I think people are most surprised to find out that the first almost hour to 45 minutes of [the event] is a workshop. You’re not coming and cuddling willy-nilly. Everyone is not free-form and going with a flow. It’s about teaching people a very specific style of communicating where we are empowering them to figure out their own boundaries and set their own boundaries. I think people are surprised how comfortably structured it is and are often relieved. The level of authentic vulnerability and connection that you’re having with these people is not something you’d expect to experience. It’s much more heartfelt and much more sincere, and it’s less desperate and creepy that I think people think.
Is there anything else that you wanted to add about yourself or your work?
I think there is a taboo or a stigma about receiving this that you’re maybe admitting to being pathetic or appearing that way. But in a way, you’re honoring yourself if you’re participating in some of these things. I actually find it as some of the most invested people of being the most compassionate person that they can be who find this event and resonate with it. Also, in September, I am directing a convention called the Cuddle Expo, along with other incredible people, for therapeutic touch professionals in the industry.