Feeling lonely? Don't have anyone to go for a stroll with? Or, could you use a cuddle? A feel-good, platonic hug? Well, then a friend rental website or a cuddling service could be just the things you need. They could also be the very resources we need to help with loneliness, even if only temporarily.
But what's it like to spend an hour with someone you've paid to be in your company? Hosts, Jeremy and Judy, decided to find out first-hand when they booked a couple of services through Rent-a-Friend and the Cuddlist, respectively. Both companies seem to be mining the commercial potential of loneliness and claim to be growing in reach and popularity.
You'll meet Maggie, Jeremy's rented friend, and Melody, Judy's hired cuddler. And you'll also hear the hosts' honest assessments on what each of their transactions felt like. They will also ponder broader, societal implications of why in an age when dating apps help strangers meet for meaningless sex and websites secure spouses from all over the world, paying for platonic companionship sill comes with moral burdens.
Noreena Hertz, A Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That's Pulling Apart
[EXHALES] With this earth energy that we're pulling up, I'm going to focus it on my heart space and allow it to flow into where you are. As we're spooning. I'm like behind you, and visualizing sending you energy. And then you have the choice of actually opening up like a straw and taking it in. In a face-to-face cuddle session, we often just chat about whatever you feel like talking about. You know, it's a little less obvious, because we don't have our whole bodies here. But yeah, I would love to hear if you want to share anything that you're noticing or if any of this is resonating with you.
I think it makes me feel good. I think the meditative aspect of it is a little bit more relevant, or the I can feel it more right now, than any sort of physical touch.
In case you're wondering, yes, this is "Is Anybody Out There?" a podcast about loneliness brought to you by the Connectery. I'm Jeremy Warshaw.
And I'm Judy D'Mello. Today's rather unusual episode is called 'PayPal or Venmo.'
I'll explain. I first came across this notion that an entire economy has sprung from the fact that people are lonelier than ever, and in need of companionship, when I read a brilliant book by Noreena Hertz, called "The Lonely Century." She pointed to two services, Rent a Friend and the Cuddlist, that provide, shall we say, actions, that usually come with having friends, or even more intimate relationships. By which I mean that our relationships in life give us certain privileges, like companionship, attention, and in some cases touch. The only difference with these services is that you pay -- yes, as in an hourly rate -- for these privileges. So it got us thinking.
And researching. And what became clear is that these services don't exist in some dark creepy corner. Since 2015, a number of actual brick-and-mortar cuddle shops have opened in Portland, Oregon, and, of course, Los Angeles. The online version, cuddlist.com, launched in 2016, and has trained over 600 professional cuddlers, or touch facilitators, to connect with clients across the country. These clients include PTSD survivors and adults on the autism spectrum, as well as people who are lonely and just need a hug.
So I went on to rentafriend.com, and found hundreds of faces and profiles of folks of all ages, ethnicities, and interests, who I could hire for any number of reasons. So for example, if you've just moved to a new city and need a local to show you around. Or, if you don't want to attend a function on your own, or you want to learn a new language, or a hobby, or whatever. But what was absolutely clear with both these businesses is that they offer strictly platonic services. They're not dating sites, or escort agencies. They're there simply for the purposes of companionship.
So Jeremy and I decided to put away our preconceived baggage and stop being all judge-y for an afternoon and actually try out the services. I mean, if these could be solutions to help alleviate loneliness, even temporarily, why not? Okay, here's Jeremy with his "friend" he rented for an hour.
So I am now with my new friend, Maggie. And we're just off the Time Square area in her apartment building in a public area of the block. And I'm going to talk to Maggie about basically what we find her experience with rent a friend has been. So Maggie, just tell me if you can, why you joined up and how it's been?
Well, I joined up because I was living in Los Angeles. And I just moved back to New York a few years ago, and I had a roommate, and he told me about it. He said, I'm on this thing called rent a friend. And basically it's like a job website, I thought at first, where people pay for you to do various things that are non romantic. What happens is you just get these little notifications on your phone that somebody wants to meet you. Kind of like being a tour guide. So I figured, okay, this could be a fun extra job. So at first I would just do things with females because I didn't want to meet men that were strangers. So I had a lot of proposals from men. Even though it states on the website that you cannot talk about anything sexual. In fact, if you do, you will be thrown off the website. So it's very strict and you cannot touch the other person, and there's all these parameters. But I did still, even with all of that, there were men who asked me things like, will you go on a cruise with me for a few days or a week? Will you travel with me? I mean, crazy questions.
Now tell me about the ones that weren't being, at least on the face of it, sexually inappropriate, but we're just looking for what you perceive to be companionship.
Yes, I did end up meeting one gentleman. He hired me just to, you know, meet him at a bar and have drinks with him. It was really, really easy. And he was really nice. And it was public. So I figured it was safe.
And how did the conversation go in terms of him acknowledging he was lonely,
the awkwardness of the situation? Can you bring it to life, how it went,
it was super awkward, because he was like the first person I met. So I didn't really know how it worked with like money exchange. And it felt like you were like a prostitute or something but without all the, you know, the sexual stuff. And basically, I just met him at a bar in New York, and he was coming home from work, and he wanted to talk to someone. And he was very nice. And I just talked to him, you know, for like an hour. We just talked about stuff. And then he had to pay me, which is so awkward. And this was sort of before Venmo, so like to take cash from someone is just so creepy. And I did. But you know, it is a job website. So you have to keep telling people, it's a job, you know, it's my time. So he understood he was fine with it. But he kind of made like a weird face.
Do you think that there's a quite a big demand for people who can help lonely people feel that they matter for a little while?
Yes, I think it's a great idea. It's a great notion that you can have a friend that will take you around a city that you don't know. And either you get to meet someone, it's not romantic. You have an hour of time, and you want to fill it.
Something I noticed in our early conversation -- and I can well believe it -- I think your words were , "I'm pretty good at making lonely people feel less lonely." And it was a very, I thought, fair comment. Why do you think you're good with lonely people?
I'm good with lonely people because, well, first of all, I'm a professional actress. So I know how to assess a situation really quickly and get into somebody else's skin and what they're feeling. So I try to help them. And I think just being an actress, you have to pick up cues from other people, because that's what good acting is. You know, I like learning about other people. I like finding out about other people. So you have to have that in your personality.
Absolutely. No, you've got that in spades -- buckets. So let's assume that I hired the service for an hour or two. And we were going to meet up not in a bar, not at nighttime, but we're going to meet and have a lunch together, or a walk in the park. It's a sunny day or something. And I come to you because I haven't been able to get out and speak to anybody without feeling bad about myself. But I pluck up the courage to speak to you. Let's just have two minutes and pay the role.
So hi, Maggie. This is weird. I must say this this thing, but I hope it's not difficult for you. Do you feel uncomfortable meeting?
No, no, this is fine. So it's a little cold today. But you know, okay.
How does this go? Because I'm I'm so out of practice of talking to people.
We could just walk to the park. We could walk to Riverside Park or Central Park. I know you're not from New York. And I can show you some of the sights.
You know, no pressure. Just have fun. And you know, if you have any questions about the city, just ask me.
Do you have fun in New York? Is New York a fun town?
It was until March of last year and then it became like, you know, not a fun town anymore.
Got it. What would be a fun thing to do if you and a friend want to go out and just have a fun time -- a girlfriend?
You know, I always enjoy going to new restaurants. And to me that's always really fun to try new foods. So and then there's other things here to do though. There's lots of museums and amazing things like there's escape rooms.
Escape room? What is that?
Oh, you don't know about escape room?
No. What is that?
It's where you go into this place like a maze and you have to figure out how to get out of it. There's one on Third Avenue, it's called the Escape Room.
And you've done it right?
Well I didn't do that one but there's about 100 of them.
Have you ever got stuck and you can't get out?
Yes, I died. I died many times. Yeah, I couldn't get out. So if you if you don't get out, you die, you know. You basically die.
You know, I have to say, even though this is an experiment, I feel, even if I don't want to say anything, because I'm a bit lonely and awkward and so forth, I could listen to you telling me your story. And it makes me feel Oh, there is a world out there that's kind of interesting. And I'm glad I spent the hour with you, very much.
You know, I have to admit, I went into this with so many negative thoughts and questions, like, should I be paying for a service that ought to be free? And, don't real friends spend time with you because they want to, not because they're being paid. So in my head, I was hearing all these voices like, What the hell are we doing? Where we going with this?
Then, I actually found that Maggie is a perfectly lovely person. Smart, articulate, funny and full of good stories. Somewhere in that hour, I realized that I not renting a friend, but merely spending time with a friendly person.
When we were discussing this idea, I liked how you summed it all up. You said, "If I have a mental health issue, or go to a therapist, if I want a nice dinner out, I'll go to a restaurant. And if it so happens, that I miss companionship for whatever reason, what's the problem with spending a platonic hour or two enjoying someone's company?"
And you know, here's a funny little post script to my time with Maggie. As I was packing up my equipment, she got a phone call from a friend of hers who's also English. Maggie had asked her friend to call and make sure she was still alive. Happily, she told her friend that all was well, and that I wasn't a creepy predator type. At which point I said, you know, let me speak to this English person and just enjoy a little touch of home. Well, it turns out that Maggie's friend had gone to the same grade school as my sister, and they were there at the same time. She could also recall my sister, even though we were talking 50 years ago. I was gobsmacked. There I was sitting on a roof deck in Times Square during a pandemic, talking with a pleasant person who I'd rented for the hour. And then her friend tells me about an event that happened decades ago, in a small school in London. It felt like a real connection was made. Something physical in its impact. And I understood how such connections remind us what it can feel like to be more fully human. Okay, now it's your turn. Tell us about the cuddlist you hired.
Okay, well, I found Melody Joyce on the Cuddlist.com. Like you, I had this full on internal conversation, because with a cuddler, you're paying to be hugged. And it usually takes place in someone's home, either like spooning on a couch or a bed -- that's what the website said. And that was like too much for me to process. But Melody looked really kind and sweet. She's listed as a trained cuddlist and her profile said, "Has social distancing got you a little blue and lonely? Longing for authentic connection? I understand how these uncertain times can be intense and I'm here to help. Whether you need to talk, borrow into a cozy nest, or simply bask in the presence of kindness, it's a safe bet that you're overdue for some tender loving care. Welcome. I'm here for you!"
Okay, well, look, there's this pandemic raging so there's actually no in-person cuddling right now. It's only virtual and okay, it sounds odd, but somehow I felt better about it, a little safer. So, Melody and I arranged to have a zoom session.
So you mean cuddling by zoom? Is that what you're saying?
That's an interesting one. All right.
So how does the in-person cuddling work?
So the way a cuddle session usually unfolds is we may lie on the bed together, or sit on the couch together, fully clothed, as it's non sexual touch. So the cuddlist code of ethics is that if become sexual, we end the session. So it's platonic touch, and we do a check in and the cuddlist agreement is that we promised one another, I'm not going to endure something that doesn't feel right. Feel good. And some people want to spoon. Some people want a foot rub. And if I am totally comfortable with it, I'll be like, gladly.
Right. Got it.
[DEEP BREATHING] Well, how about if we grab a pillow? Great. I'd like to do some sort of energetic connection. So starting with the eyes like we just did. Again, breathing. And as you breathe, bring your attention to your shoulders. And on the next exhale, imagine a root growing from the base of your spine, going down through the floor, going down through the sand, and the gravel, and aquifers, and the crystallin and rock structures deep into the earth. And now knowing that energy follows intention, we're going to imagine my roots spreading out through the earth, toward you in East Hampton. And if you would visualize your roots spreading out through the earth, toward me up the Hudson River Valley. And our roots spread out searching like the roots of two great trees until we connect. And just kind of resonate with the beating of your heart. And with your permission, I will place my hand in your energetic heart space. And I'll place my other hand -- I'm actually placing it on the other side of my computer -- but I'm leaning into my pillow, kind of like a hug. Again, energetic hug...just any new energy. So you might want to hug your hands around your pillow, pull it up to your chest and just breathe with me. What are you noticing?
Mostly calmness. A nice soft feeling inside of me.
How about we experiment with mirroring one another's touch. And I'll lead. In this sort of experiment, you'll see all the different parts of your hand that don't normally touch other things. Like the back of your hand, or the inside of your fingers, maybe on your ears, or wherever. And just see how that feels. If you notice anything unusual or pleasurable. Yeah. This exercise is called 'Awakening the Hands.' It's about slowing down and noticing. But this is something you can practice, anytime, anywhere. I used to do it in the subway on my backpack. And it was amazing, like how I could enjoy my backpack. Pleasure when it's coupled with a repetition can rewire neural pathways. So if a person has a habit, or a belief around loneliness, there's some pretty deep grooves, neural grooves that have formed. And it's very hard to just not focus on something. Easier to choose something else to focus on. And focusing on the pleasure that can be had in the hands by just very slowly touching an object, can offer the brain something new to focus on. And if it's repeated over and over, it can create a new pathway.
So think of the last time that you felt lonely. How do you know you feel lonely? What does it feel like in your body?
Like a sadness which I feel in my chest. A sort of heaviness. And I feel a little cold and I think a need to be wrapped up by something or by someone. And I feel it also in my throat, the sadness is sort of constricting my throat.
Alright, thank you. If the heaviness in your chest had a color, what would that color be?
I think...dark gray.
Dark gray. And if you were to imagine the dark gray begin to be infused by a different color, say the opposite of loneliness, what would that color be?
Orange. So can you take a breath into that area of your chest and imagine the dark grey like a sun shining through it at sunset, creating an orange color in your chest. What do you notice?
Warmth, I think. I see the image of a sunset and some warmth to my chest.
Can you bring the warmth up to your throat? And breathe. Kind of breathe and imagine the energy flowing up into your throat. Warm orange energy. What are you noticing now?
Yeah, definitely the the orange color just rising up and making me warmer.
Yeah. Oh my cat! Penelope, dear. Honey...
And, hypnosis is...how long does that take in general? If you if you want to do a hypnosis session?
I think an hour is a typical hypnosis session. But what time is it now? We might even have time to do one particular--
Oh, 5:38. Let's do it. So just relax. Again, kind of breathe slowly. Nice, deep breath in. And exhale twice as long. Nice, deep breath in, and exhale twice as long. Now imagine you're at the top of a beautiful staircase. And we're gonna go down the stairs. And as you go down each step, imagine yourself relaxing more and more. And slipping deeper and deeper into your subconscious.
So ten...deeper. Nine...more relaxed. Eight...even more...[FADES OUT; MUSIC PLAYS.]
And...one. At the bottom of this beautiful staircase, you see a beautiful door. So go ahead and open that door and meet what we'll call your wise advocate. And feel yourself in their presence. Feel their love, their wisdom, their presence for you. And you can go on in and you can sit. And you can have some time to talk with your wise advocate. If there's a question you want to ask, you can go ahead and ask. This is your time. [MUSIC]
[EXHALES] Go ahead and say goodbye to your wise advocate in whatever way is meaningful for you. Knowing that you can return here anytime. Anytime you feel lonely, or want to connect and receive support, wisdom, caring, you can return to this beautiful room at the bottom of the staircase and speak with your wise advocate. So yeah, come on back. Here you are. Flutter your eyes. And moving your toes and your body, kind of come back into this space. And what was that like for you?
Oh, it was a very deep feeling. I sort of slipped into sort of semi conscious, a very deep state, which felt good.
Beautiful. Terrific. Yeah.
I think that's that's incredibly helpful. And I think it's fantastic service. And I'm glad I found you and I'm glad we did this. And let me know how to pay you. Is it through PayPal?
PayPal or Venmo whichever one is easier. Yeah.
Thank you so much. Really appreciate it.
Oh, you're very welcome.
Well, there you go. Now you've had a moment to reflect on this experience, what's your overall takeaway from it?
I was definitely nervous and awkward at the beginning. I thought this was a little too. I don't know, like...
Yeah, it was a little too new age-y for me at the beginning. But it was really interesting how quickly I got into it. And I was feeling the effects of being a little bit more mindful. And of course, she had this beautiful voice that just washed over me and affected me in such a way that I really enjoyed myself. And so it was within 10 minutes, I was already really into it and feeling like I could relax and just go through this experience.
Yeah, it sounds to me like she was the best of a caring person, a therapist, or a therapeutic like approach to the issue. And, a companion.
Yeah. Mostly, I was really impressed by her knowledge of how to attack loneliness. So, she got to some of those points that we have actually touched on on previous episodes. Like being more mindful about what it is you're experiencing. When she was asking me what color represented loneliness, or what color represented the opposite of loneliness, I was blown away by that. Those techniques can be very helpful to somebody who is deeply depressed or lonely, because as some of our guests previously have said, it is when you identify what it is you're feeling, and you even give it a name, or give it a color, or write down the name of the emotion that you're feeling, that's when you can be aware of your feelings and start to make the changes that one needs to make in order to get out of that situation. So okay, over to you. First of all, I thought it was really brave that you did go out and actually meet with someone face-to-face. So tell me as you were walking towards her building in Times Square, what was going through your mind?
That's where my mind started changing from relaxed researcher and podcast chap to, Oh, what am I doing right now? I'm out of my comfort zone, because although I wasn't fearful for my physical health, I was kind of concerned about the weirdness of this. So we'd agreed to meet in her lobby of her high rise building in Times Square. And as I was waiting for her to come down, I was feeling a little awkward, like a sort of a teenager on prom night, I guess. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know what she looked like. I didn't know how she would carry herself, and all those things that we use to judge people, which are ridiculous after a few seconds, but you do it. And so she comes down and actually within a second of seeing her and saying hi to her, I felt totally comfortable, because she has that presence. So we met in a sort of a patio, halfway up the 50 stories, open space, and we sat there, no one else was there. It was a very windy day. And I was feeling awkward at sort of trying to, you know, make conversation a little. But there came a stage where I just gave in. And it may be a bit like you and the cuddlist. You know, it's just one human being to another human being. And one who can provide something of value to me. You know, in my case, it was companionship. In your case, it was obviously healing or comforting.
Yeah, I think these are interesting times that we have that we can actually go to services like this. And I think some people will look down on it and say, what's the world come to that we have these services where you can pay. But on the flip side, if they can temporarily relieve somebody of some sort of emotional pain, then I think they are just as, if not important, as necessary as going to a therapist.
Yeah, but it is complicated, isn't it? Because if you feel I'm lonely, or I could just do with another human to go for a walk with, and you like the person, then to realize at the end of the session, actually, they only did it because they're being paid, I don't know if this is a rather sad moment. So I don't know how you find the balance between solving some pain or wound, but not creating a deeper wound.
Yeah, it is complicated. Much like loneliness itself. All right. Well, we'll be back next week with our episode, 'A Lonely Planet,' for a bird's eye view of how various countries are helping to curb loneliness. We'll travel to the UK, Australia, Japan and Sweden, to learn about the many programs, big and small, that these countries have introduced.
"Is Anybody Out There?" was created and written by Judy D'Mello and Jeremy Warshaw.
Music by Seaplane Armada.
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For more information about what you heard today, please visit theconnectory.com. Let's stay connected.