Meanwhile, Back in Wisconsin: Madison’s Snuggle House Goes Out of Business Amid Fear…and Loathing
One thing for sure, this is not the Seventies, and this is not the New Age or California. More and more, I am convinced that this surely is the uptight, and not alright Midwest. Madison may pride itself for being several square miles of liberalism and common sense, but compared to the Bay Area then up to now, it’s got a hell of a long way to go to rid itself of certain assumptions of what sexuality truly is.
How do I know the New Age and the Bay Area? Because I was there.
There were businesses that offered training in or provided therapeutic massages, and offered hot tubbing and saunas. Those that were created under false pretenses in certain cities were quickly smoked out and sent packing or were brought to court by the authorities. Those that were unsanitary or were found to have given customers hot water-passed germs or infections were also cited, and if they did not come up to standards, were denied licenses—and also sent packing.
Why do I cite massage? Because, like snuggling, it’s personal. It involves a loved one or a stranger (in this case) touching you. Snuggling and massage are two different things. However, both go under the rubric of touch therapy. It’s something that is good for you, not exploitative. Both can be non-sexual or sexual, but there was nothing sexual in what I experienced.
I used to patronize a massage center in the San Francisco Peninsula regularly, while I was getting over the devastating conclusion of a relationship. I made an appointment for a man to give me a massage for 45 minutes, which cost between $50-$60. This went on every two weeks and then every month for about four months. It was a very nice, clean, quiet, nondescript place in a small, ground-floor office building. There was no neon, but there was a discreet sign in the window. Residents in the neighborhood could go past the building without knowing that it was there—unless they paid close attention.
I recall muted light and firm massage tables, and soothing music. There was a place to shower. There were no cameras or panic buzzers. A few times, I was alone with just this white man—who was not gay—and we would make small talk, and then I just relaxed.
Those massages were restorative; I felt that I was worth being touched once more. It made me think that I could face life again. Thereafter, I would usually go and have dinner and a glass of wine afterwards and then go home. I could sleep without interruption. This was a gift that I gave to myself.
Imagine how an extended hug could be for a grieving individual who has lost their wife or husband of several decades.
Everything was thoroughly above board; nothing inappropriate happened; and so, I had nothing to fear. I am sure that if he had tried something stupid, I would have certainly reported him. But it wasn’t that kind of place where crud and rust collected at air vents. Trust was the currency here as well as the fee I paid for this man’s services. Trust is something that’s completely gone out of regular interactions these days.
That was a time when I also had disposable income, too.
Places like my massage center survived for several years, if not decades more; some changed management or ownership, until they ran their courses as businesses that provided a service. Or they moved elsewhere. In other words, the businesses were still allowed to flourish as long as they did not endanger public health or received a reputation for prostitution. Otherwise, they became one of those respected middle-class pursuits. Cops showing up at places like this one above are totally unheard of.
Frankly, based on my personal experience, I didn’t think that The Snuggle House was going to turn into the nucleus of a prostitution ring. Hell, with all the action on Craig’s List here in Southern Wisconsin, why bother having a fixed address? A whorehouse is soooo 20th century. A hooker can meet a john in his hotel room or his apartment or even his car. I suspect that there was something else going on with the authorities that had nothing at all to do with crime.
Perhaps owner Matthew Hurtado had other ideas that rang too many alarm bells to certain people. like assistant DA Jennifer Zilavy, who seems to have had a previous problem with an African American bar on the South Side of Madison. But I truly doubt it. If Hurtado was suggesting doing outreach to elderly people, or to having overnight snuggles, these were in line with what was happening elsewhere in the country with these kinds of businesses. It wasn’t something out of the ordinary.
And so, when the news media delved into Hurtado’s past—he’s a former stripper who’s written an improbable tome about a sex addict who meets an extraterrestrial, and he’s declared bankruptcy twice—the gloves came off. Hurtado became the issue as well as The Snuggle House. He became a weirdo with problems who was going to cause even more problems. To me, all of it was an exercise in shaming, harassment and overkill, reminiscent of what occurred with R Place, which had its own set of problems:
“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.”
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, according to federal court records — 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.
Police have been keeping an eye on the Snuggle House as well. Lt. David McCaw said police planned to send an officer into the business as a customer “and test the boundaries of what they said they’re doing.” He likened the operation to routine undercover compliance checks at a bar.
“It’s right at the edge, isn’t it?” McCaw said. “This business is about personal contact between two people for money. … People have different opinions of what they think Madison is and sometimes people are shocked by pushback.”
What in the hell?
These people were straight tripping. Big time. McCaw was revved up over inappropriate behavior that hadn’t even occurred. One wonders what else was playing in his brain. Zilavy doesn’t know any men who are only interested in snuggling? Really? Wow, what a small life this woman leads to be able to make such sweeping generalizations about something she absolutely knows nothing about. But that’s what power can do to people who are not exercising common sense and just want to throw their weight around. I’ll bet you nothing was going to happen.
And now, nothing will, as Zilavy and McCaw and the rest of the crew over-protecting Madison’s morals—so to speak— have effectively shut down this business that never really got off the ground. Hurtado just hollered and threw up both his hands Monday, so whoever (or whatever) is working Zilavy’s levers can turn over and go back to sleep along with the rest of the city, and she can have her champagne celebration. But this is getting par for the course. The Majestic, R Place, and now The Snuggle House. Anything to make sure that they aren’t successful or can’t even open their doors. This is what they do, people. The recipe hasn’t changed.
An attorney for a new snuggling business in Wisconsin’s capital city says the operation has shut down.
Madison’s Snuggle House offered customers cuddles with a professional snuggler for $60 an hour. The business opened Nov. 15. A posting on the Snuggle House’s Facebook page late Friday said the business had closed. Attorney Tim Casper, who represents Snuggle House owner Matthew Hurtado, confirmed the closure to The Associated Press on Monday.
He says Hurtado was tired of scrutiny from city officials, who were concerned the business could be a brothel and the potential for sexual assaults, as well as negative publicity.
Casper says the business had several dozen clients. But he says Hurtado didn’t open the business to make money. He did it because he believes non-sexual touching can relieve stress.
What’s also interesting is that there are already at least two massage parlors here in Madison. And the word is that these businesses are the kind where crud and rust do form at air vents, no matter what the complaints. The masseuses certainly don’t seem to be licensed, either. And yet, these businesses are allowed to thrive. Hell, even when I happened to share a cab with one of the employees who was late for her shift, the cab driver indicated more or less that she was a sex worker at this particular joint where she was let off.
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, N.Y., said they’ve had no complaints about The Snuggery, which offers overnight cuddle sessions. Be The Love You Are in Boulder, Colo., 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. Police in San Francisco and Boulder didn’t respond to The AP‘s inquires about those businesses.
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, Ala. Betty Martin, a Seattle-based sex educator who facilities cuddle parties in that city, said she’s 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.
“If that’s been her experience, then I feel really sorry for her,” Hess told The Oregonian Monday night. “The world is so much bigger and brighter and positive a place than that. Jennifer should really seek a professional cuddler.”
While cuddling rubs close to Oregon’s definition of “sexual contact” under the state’s prostitution statute, Portland police have said they don’t plan to put the kibosh on the practice.
That means Hess is moving full speed ahead with her own business plans. She told the Oregonian on Monday that her company, Cuddle Up To Me, is flush with investment cash, a recently-registered LLC and on the hunt for retail space.
Hess also said she’s finishing up a book that explores the benefits of human touch. “It will include about 40 different cuddle positions,” she said.
See what I mean about legitimate businesses sprouting up to accommodate a need or interest? When the fad dies down, the owners could probably diversify or fold and move on. And in Portland, cuddling has proven to be a lucrative business. No one is filing complaints based on inappropriate behavior, which means that the cops have no basis to move against Hess.
Well, one of these days, I’ll be leaving Madison for good. But if someone asks me, the Berkeley of the Midwest this city sure isn’t. It’s a place of suppression and repression, from Governor Walker all the way down to this recent sad series of events. Would I have tried out The Snuggle House if I could afford it? I think that I would have. Why? Just for old times sake, and to remind me of home.
- Attorney confirms Wis. snuggle business has closed (host.madison.com)
- Madison Officials Still Targeting Snuggle House (chicagoist.com)
- No hugs allowed? US city tries to regulate a business that offers professional cuddlers (vancouversun.com)
- No hugs allowed? Madison targets pro cuddlers (sfgate.com)
- Snuggle House shuts down after 3 weeks (wxyz.com)