Before Madison Powell sees her clients, she sets the mood. Her bedroom is softly lit, the scent of a candle fills the air, and spa-like music plays in the background.
Don't get the wrong idea: Powell isn't a sex worker. She's a professional cuddler, and her services are strictly platonic.
If people have any doubts about that, they might want to take a look at her bedsheets. They're adorned with comic superheroes — intended to make people smile and feel at ease.
"It's a little bit more nerdy rather than sexy," Powell laughs.
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Her employer, The Cuddlery, requires clients to sign a contract explicitly forbidding any sexual contact. To protect cuddlers' safety, clients must also provide ID before their appointments, which are videotaped for security purposes.
Powell, 26, started working for The Cuddlery in January 2015. It's one of several paid cuddling agencies that have sprung up in cities across Canada over the last year, bearing names like CuddleCo, Cuddleme.ca, Cuddle up to me and The Snuggle Bunnies.
Prices vary between agencies, but an hour-long cuddling session generally costs between $60 and $100.
Most of Powell's clients are men, and she's only had a few cases where they've become "too handsy," hoping that "cuddler" was code for "undercover sex worker."
Powell said she quickly and politely put a stop to those advances, reminding the clients of the terms of the contract they had signed. Only one man persisted to the point where she had to ban him.
The majority of people who pay for cuddlers really do just want human contact, Powell said. Her clients range in age from post-secondary students who are away from home to widowers in their late 60s to early 90s "whose spouses had passed some years ago and they simply missed the touch or the act of laying beside someone."
Lately, Powell said, she's noticed an interesting demographic of clients: men in their mid-30s and early 40s working in high-stress financial industry jobs.
"[Often] they don't have a lot of interaction with friend groups because of the long hours they hold and they're just sort of missing that connection," she said.
Although Powell, who studied sociology, emphasizes she is not a trained therapist, people often want to talk in addition to cuddling. Some clients struggle with anxiety or depression.
"A lot of people who suffer from anxiety and depression oftentimes also have low self-esteem," she said. "So they don't feel that someone would want to take the time to listen to them, let alone touch them."
The rise of paid cuddling services in Canada reflects a broader problem of loneliness, Ami Rokach, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, told CBC News.
"We are becoming, in my opinion, more and more alienated from each other," said Rokach.
Advances in technology and social media mean that people don't have as much personal contact in real life, he said, yet research has shown "the incredible importance of touch to the human body and the human soul."
Rokach, who has studied loneliness for years, has mixed feelings about the role of paid cuddlers.
"Of course … being in a relationship and being touched out of love rather than as a service would be preferable," he said. "But it is such a human need that if a person cannot get that out of love then he's going to get it as a service."
"Our wish and our need to be close to people is legitimate and needs to be fulfilled."
The owner of The Cuddlery, Marylen Reid, said a need for "real connection" prompted her to start the business in Vancouver more than a year ago.
Reid said she began thinking about the need for a cuddling service five years earlier, when she was in law school. Stressed out, she was unable to get the hugs and physical affection she felt she needed from her friends.
Reid said she turned to online dating sites to try to find "cuddle buddies," but found it was hard to set clear boundaries.
"Even if I was saying 'no sex,' I had men pushing, and it was really not a comfortable situation," she said.
Powell agrees that cuddling services fill a void in people's lives while providing boundaries. She remembers one client in particular, who had "functioning Asperger's" (an autism spectrum disorder), describing how he had tried to cope before he started seeing her.
"He just turned to me and said, 'Thank you. I've been seeking this out with sex workers. They tried to push me into sexual scenarios because they assume that that's what I'm there for … but all I wanted was to talk and cuddle.'"
Reid hired Powell when she expanded her business from Vancouver to Toronto. She has also hired cuddlers in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax and St. John's.
Cuddling services are gaining so much traction in Canada that one of her biggest challenges now is the number of competitors, she said.
Although it might not be great for the bottom line, Reid said one of the most rewarding aspects of her business is when clients no longer need her services.
"For example, one guy, he didn't have a girlfriend for years. And then he found a girlfriend just after our sessions," she said. "It shows that they learn how to feel more comfortable with someone."