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August 21, 2014

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No hugs allowed? Madison targets pro cuddlers

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin's ultra-liberal 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 touching helps relieve stress. But Madison officials suspect the business is a front for prostitution and, if it's not, fear snuggling could lead to sexual assault. Not buying the message that the business is all warm and fuzzy, police have talked openly 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.

"The concept is obviously a novel one and you can see where they (the city) might be a little skeptical," he said. "Could something happen? Yeah, I suppose. But they're taking every precaution."

In recent days, it's become unclear whether or not the house is still in business. No one answered the door there Saturday. A posting on a Facebook page claiming to be the Snuggle House's site said it had closed, but the page owner wouldn't identify themselves — or confirm if it was the home's official site. Neither Hurtado nor Casper have returned phone and email messages.

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.

Madison might seem like an ideal spot for snuggling. Former Gov. Lee Dreyfus once described the Democratic stronghold as "30 square miles surrounded by reality." The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates for atheists, is based here. Every year UW-Madison students hold a blocks-long party to celebrate the end of the school year and biking enthusiasts pedal through the streets in various stages of undress each spring.

The Snuggle House sits above a bar about a block from the state Capitol. The only indication it's there is a welcome mat that reads "Snuggle House." The business's 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, 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.

She said no city ordinances address snuggling businesses. She's drafting regulations that would allow health inspections as well as create licensing requirements. She also planned to take Hurtado up on his offer to watch security footage of a snuggle session and view client rosters.

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."

Associated Press news researcher Monika Mathur contributed to this report.

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