If you're uncomfortable being hugged by a robot you can pay a stranger to do it for you. The Snuggery in Rochester, New York offers a kind of surrogate hug therapy where customers (predominantly men) can buy 45-, 60-, or 90- minute sessions of spooning with one of the company's two professional snugglers. As with the discovery that forcing yourself to smile even when you're not happy eventually leads to a slight increase in contentment, services like The Snuggery operate on the presumption that going through the motions of intimacy is, if not ideal, a reasonable way to achieve the same ends.
Unlike smiling, however, touch is especially sensitive to context, a reason why The Snuggery's owners have discovered the few women customers they have often feel uncomfortable cuddling for money and instead wind up preferring to simply talk during sessions. A study from California Institute of Technology last year found that a person's perception of a caress changed dramatically based on the visuals test subjects were shown alongside. The study used all heterosexual men as subjects and showed them photos of either a man or woman while a real woman caressed their leg. Men who were shown a picture of another man while being touched found the experience distressing and uncomfortable, even though the touch itself was being given by a woman.
It's scary to admit that the emotional meaning given to gendered physical relationships can be so easily manipulated. With that realization would have to come a reinterpretation of all of the correlated social structures about courtship, marriage, and the morality of monogamous physical affection. It's not that these things would be impossible to maintain in a culture where touch itself became an ideal good, but their existence would depend on a redefining them in ways that aren't rooted in anatomy, gender signification, and its corollary sexual orientation. Using machines to mediate physical affection would risk dissolving the logic of this entire structure, and throw into question the market logic of all the industries that depend on these socio-sexual mirages, from apparel to fitness. Instead, we seem to be stuck with technologies that entrench our pre-existing values—Viagra, erotic webcam services, OKCupid—while technologies that challenge them drift away in pointlessness.