Flipping the script

Everyone knows how business works. You open-up shop, get as many customers as possible through the door, and hope enough come-in to cover costs and turn a profit. When Erez Benari of Redmond, Washington decided to open a cuddle club, however, he decided to flip the script. Instead of trying to make as money as possible, Benari decided to ‘flip the script’ and do things differently…at a cost.

“There are many organizations and companies that organize social events, just like me,” says Benari, “and whether they are for-profit or not, they all have the agenda of getting as many people as possible in and make as much money as possible. But that was never my purpose,” he adds. Instead, Benari started his community with two goals. Goal number one was to make his events as safe as possible, and goal number two was to make them available to everyone, not just to people who have extra money. “For the vast majority of the American people, spending $25 (let alone more) on a social event is a luxury they cannot afford, and I wanted to eliminate this bar,” says Benari. “This is even more important to members of the LGBTQ community, as research by the Williams institute shows they are 37.5% more likely to be poor (*). In fact, many of my guests don’t have a car, and quite a few live without proper heating” says Benari.

* According to a study by the Williams Institute published in 2019, 22% of LGBTQ people in the U.S. live in poverty, compared to 16% of cisgender straight people

In terms of safety, Benari realized that cuddling, even though it is inherently a non-sexual activity that promotes health and benefits us in many ways, is seen by many as a gateway to sex. “When I started hosting my events, I kept hearing potential (male) guests asking, “Is this a good place to cuddle women?” or “What’s the ratio of females to males?”. These kinds of questions showed me that these people are mostly or only interested in cuddling in the hopes that it would lead to sex” says Benari. “While I understand the desire for sex, and I don’t want to be anyone’s mom or dad, my purpose was to create a safe environment where people don’t feel pressure to engage in sexual activity.”

To address this, Benari developed his vetting system, which he has employed successfully for the past 3 years. “As part of this, no one is permitted to attend my events before being personally vetted by me, and this is a lengthy and stringent process,” he says. Benari was unwilling to share too many details of his process, so as to not provide people a means of hacking or circumventing it but said that it involves 2 main components. “First, I explore every guest’s social media, which often reveals right-off-the-bat if they are highly sex-focused. Secondly, I conduct a personal 1:1 phone call with every participant, which let me gauge their personality, style, tone, history and activity.” If during these I sense the individual doesn’t really care about our community, and is just looking to satisfy their carnal needs, I reject them.” Says Benari. Benari also avoids making the contact process too easy. “Potential guests have to go through several pages on my website to find how to request to be vetted, and that’s on-purpose” admits Benari. “If a person is too lazy to read a few pages on my website, that means they will likely not be good community members, and we don’t need those in our midst.” He says.

“Doesn’t that mean your community is pretty small?” we asked Benari. “Indeed, it does, and that’s OK. I am creating a community, not a business, and both me and my guests only want to spend time with high-quality individuals who will bond with us, rather than just show up occasionally when they don’t have something better to do.” He says.

We asked Benari how do people respond when they are rejected, and he said this doesn’t always go that well. “Most people accept it and move-on, but occasionally I get an angry curse like “Nobody cares about your stupid club”, and some have even used rougher language. One or two even used some racial slurs against me, since my name is obviously Israeli” admits Benari. “This isn’t fun, but I’d rather have 30 guests who are decent, loving and caring human beings than 100 guests who will turn my events into a sex-party.”

Benari’s guests certainly appreciate his work. A. Jacobs from Seattle was quite enthusiastic about it. “I’ve been to events all over the region, but I’ve never felt so safe as I do at Erez’s events,” says Jacobs. “He spends a lot of time talking to each of us before the events, and really makes sure we align to the values of the community he created,” she added. J. and K. Fields of Burien had similar feelings. “When a guy at one of the events tried to touch me without consent, Erez was on top of it, and immediately took care of it, and banned him.”

“Yes, occasionally someone might slip through the cracks, despite all the work I put into it, which is why I monitor activity at my events closely,” informs us Benari. “Also, since we are a tightly-knit community, my guests help me keep an eye and report to me anything suspicious, and in that case, I take swift and decisive action, as you might expect.” To this day, Benari only ever had to ban 3 people from his events. “I feel terrible about these incidents,” says Benari. “3 of my guests have been hurt and nothing I can do will wipe that away but considering the fact that I had over 2000 people at my events over the past 3 years, I think 3 incidents is a fairly small number. Still, my aim is to be at zero, and so I keep refining my protocols and process and I always tell new candidates “I don’t want to assume anyone is good or bad, but I have to be very clear: consent is the foundation and building block of our community. This isn’t something we have any leeway with.”

In terms of Benari’s 2nd goal, things are a little more difficult. “I’ve always strived to make my events as accessible to my guests as I can” says Benari. When he started running his events back in 2018, it was at a commercial venue called “the Stream House”, which charged $25 per event. While Benari himself did this work voluntarily and never collected any salary for this, he felt $25 is quite a burden to many, who also had to spend $10-25 more on gas, tolls and parking. “When I opened my own venue in Seattle in 2019, I still had to collect admission to cover the rent and utilities, but middle-of-the-week events were only $10, and I subsidized the operation heavily” says Benari. When his club closed in March 2020 following COVID-19 restrictions put in-place by King County leadership, his subsidies totaled about $20,000. “This means that I subsidized each guest by about $15 on average,” says Benari. Today, Benari runs his events at his home in Redmond, where admission is totally free. “Since I pay rent here anyway, the only expense I have are the food and snacks I buy, plus some more on stuff like the mattresses, sheets and other supplies,” says Benari. While money is not collected, Benari has a donation-jar where guests occasionally put some money in, if they can afford it. “Quite a few of my guests are quite affluent, so an average event brings in between $40 and $100 in donations. This doesn’t quite cover the expenses, but since I have a well-paying full-time job with a tech company, I can afford to lose some money on this, “says Benari. “There are worse ways to lose money than to provide a place for people to connect, socialize and spend time together in a non-judgmental and accepting atmosphere.” Says Benari. We agree!

Christopher Stern

Christopher Stern is a Washington-based reporter. Chris spent many years covering tech policy as a business reporter for renowned publications. He has extensive experience covering Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Trade Commissions. He is a graduate of Middlebury College. Email:[email protected]

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