Q: I’m in a pickle. All I want is to experience touch, intimacy and sexual pleasure – but without freaking out. I grew up with a lot of negative messages from men due to developing early, as well as having some other physical/sexual trauma (no rape or abuse), but the combination has me seriously fucked up. Whenever I get close to physical intimacy with someone, I run away. I actually faked an emergency once and physically ran away because I knew sex was a possibility that night. I’m not a virgin – but in those instances, I’ve been really drunk (and experienced no emotional/physical pleasure). This is not what I want for my life. I want a relationship and love, and to be open and comfortable with someone expressing their care for me in a physical way without panicked thoughts flooding my brain. I’ve done lots of therapy, which has helped, but not enough. I recently heard of something called a sexual surrogate. From what I understand, it’s somebody who is trained to therapeutically provide physical touch and intimacy in a controlled and safe environment. Are they legit?
– She Can’t Adequately Release Extreme Dread
Sexual surrogates are legit, SCARED, but please don’t call them sexual surrogates.
“We’d like to see the language shift back to ‘surrogate partner,’ which was the original term,” said Vena Blanchard, president of the International Professional Surrogates Association (IPSA). “Masters and Johnson originated the concept, and their treatment program was based on the theory that many people had problems that required the help of a cooperative partner, and some people didn’t have partners. So they trained people to work as ‘partner surrogates.’ The media took the term ‘partner surrogate’ and changed it to ‘sexual surrogate’ because it sounded sexier. But ‘sexual surrogate’ implies that the work is all about sex.”
So if surrogate partner therapy is not about sex – or not all about sex – then what is it primarily about?
“Surrogate partner therapy is a therapeutic treatment that combines psychotherapy with experiential learning,” said Blanchard. “It’s a program designed for people like SCARED, for people who struggle with anxiety, panic, and past trauma – things that can distort a person’s experience in the moment.”
Surrogate partner therapy happens in stages, with each progressive stage representing another “teeny, tiny baby step,” as Blanchard put it.
“The client first works with a legitimate therapist until the therapist thinks the client is ready to work with a surrogate partner,” said Blanchard. “You may start by sitting in opposite chairs and just talking. At some point, they might sit and hold hands, practice relaxation techniques, and focus on simple sensations. In the next session, they might touch each other’s faces with their hands.”
Sex can and does sometimes occur in the later stages of surrogate partner therapy, SCARED, but it doesn’t always and it’s not the goal – healing is.
“By having these repeated safe experiences, in a context where there’s no pressure, and consent is emphasized, and the patient is in control,” said Blanchard. “Someone like SCARED can learn to manage her anxiety, and her prior negative experiences are replaced with positive new experiences.”
While I had her on the phone, I asked Blanchard the first question many people have about surrogate partners: Are surrogate partners sex workers?
“A sex worker offers a sexual experience – that is the primary intention of what is a business transaction,” said Blanchard. “What a surrogate partner offers are healing and education. And while healing and education might also take place in a sex-work environment, and while some form of sexual contact might take place in surrogate partner therapy, the primary intention is different. A patient working with a surrogate partner is there to heal old injuries or break out of bad patterns so they can have a relationship in the future. People go to sex workers for an immediate experience – the agenda is sexual and about right now, not therapeutic and about the future.”
Then I asked Blanchard the second question many people have about surrogate partner therapy: Is it legal?
“There’s no place that it’s illegal,” said Blanchard. “There’s never been a court case challenging it. In California, where surrogate partner therapy is most common, no one has ever in 50 years challenged it.”
If you’re interested in working with a surrogate partner, SCARED, you can contact the referrals coordinator at IPSA’s website: surrogatetherapy.org
Finally, SCARED, the number of trained and qualified surrogate partners is relatively small – IPSA has just 70 members – so you might need to go where most of those trained and qualified surrogates partners are in order to work with one. (The part of California that isn’t on fire is lovely this time of year.)
“Since there aren’t many qualified surrogate partners available,” said Blanchard, “people sometimes need to travel to another location and work intensively. People will come for two weeks and work every single day with a therapist and a surrogate partner.”