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No hugging allowed? City targets the snuggling trade

AP

Wisconsin’s ultraliberal capital city is a place where just about anything goes, from street parties to naked bike rides. But city officials say a business is pushing even Madison’s boundaries by offering, of all things, hugs.

For $60, customers at the Snuggle House can spend an hour hugging, cuddling and spooning with professional snugglers.

Snugglers contend that touching helps relieve stress. But Madison officials suspect the business is a front for prostitution — and if it is not, fear snuggling could lead to sexual assault. Not buying the message that the business is warm and fuzzy, police have talked about conducting a sting operation at the business, and city attorneys are drafting a new ordinance to regulate snuggling.

“There’s no way that (sexual assault) will not happen,” assistant city attorney Jennifer Zilavy said. “No offense to men, but I don’t know any man who wants to just snuggle.”

Snuggle House owner Matthew Hurtado hasn’t responded to multiple requests for an interview. His attorney, Tim Casper, said in an interview last month the business is legitimate and Hurtado has put precautions in place to protect clients and employees from each other.

In recent days, it has become unclear whether or not the house is still in business. No one answered the door there Saturday.

Madison’s concern seems to be deeper than in other cities where similar businesses have set up shop as cuddling has grown into a cottage industry over the past decade.

Police in Rochester, New York, said they have had no complaints about The Snuggery, which offers overnight cuddle sessions. Be The Love You Are in Boulder, Colorado, offers cuddles with “Snuggle Stars.” Cuddle Therapy in San Francisco offers packages that “focus directly with your current needs around connection, intimacy and touch,” according to its website.

The nonprofit organization Cuddle Party has trained about 100 people across five continents to run group snuggle sessions, said Len Daley, a psychologist who serves as executive director at Cuddle Party headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama. Betty Martin, a Seattle-based sex educator who facilitates cuddle parties in that city, said she has never had problems with government officials or police. Cuddle Party participants must keep their clothes on and go through a pre-session workshop on how to say no, she said. “People think if there’s touch happening there must be sex happening. That’s not the case at all,” Martin said.

The Snuggle House sits above a bar about a block from the state Capitol. Its website features photos of bedrooms with hardwood floors and videos of four snugglers — three women and one man — talking about wanting to help people feel better.

Zilavy, the assistant city attorney, said her first thought when she heard about the Snuggle House was “OK, this is going to be a place of prostitution.” She said Hurtado initially had no business plan, no business insurance, no training protocols and no answers when she asked him what he would do if a snuggler was sexually assaulted.

The Snuggle House’s opening was delayed about a month as Hurtado — who filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and again in 2009 — worked to satisfy the city’s concerns. He said he put security cameras and a panic button in each bedroom, promised to perform background checks on clients and adopted rules prohibiting sex, paying for sex, nudity and drugs and alcohol during a session, Zilavy said.

She said no city ordinances address snuggling businesses. She is drafting regulations that would allow health inspections as well as create licensing requirements.