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Body Talk: Sexual Surrogates' Healing Touch 

Wednesday, Mar 30 2016
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When Kai Wu was stuck in an unsatisfying romantic relationship, she began having physical, as well as emotional pain — particularly in her pelvis.

It was an ache that was difficult to ascribe to anything in particular — she hadn't pulled any muscles she could think of, but the pain was strong.

Rather than work solely with a therapist who would analyze her situation and talk her through it, she decided to take a somatic — or body-based — approach to healing.

After a massage therapist helped her release the mysterious cramp in her pelvis, Wu realized its source: She had been carrying sexual trauma in her body for years.

"I didn't know I had trauma, which I thought was due only to rape and molestation," she says. "But we all carry sexual trauma."

Wu defines "trauma" broadly, as an accumulation of discomfort, rather than a response to a cataclysmic or violent event. She realized her relationship was not satisfying to her sexually, and that her body was sending a clear message about her sensual and emotional life. Her trauma was an experience of being sexually undernourished.

Expressing herself sexually was of central importance, she realized, and not a secondary consideration in a relationship with someone she knew to be a "good man."

"Sexual energy is primal energy," she says, "and with the pelvic healing, I realized I had trauma in my pelvis and was disconnected from that part of myself. I realized I was starving for wholeness."

To connect with that primal energy — and to live "more honestly" with her sexual desire — she began an exploration of somatic techniques, which may include an array of massage styles, as well as movement and breath practices such as yoga or tai chi.

In the process, she found her calling. These days, Kai Wu is a love, sex, and relationship coach — and she is also a "sexological bodyworker," providing healing for sexual trauma and dysfunction via a form of touch similar to the one that healed her.


A member of the Embodiment Arts Collective, a group of holistic wellness practitioners in the Mission, Wu is part of San Francisco's long tradition of seekers and healers. A former entrepreneur who worked in her family's restaurant for six years and then in corporate finance for 12 years, she describes herself as "non-woo." Yet her own experience with pelvic healing led her to realize how powerful body-based therapeutic work can be.

Exploring somatic therapies, which encourage clients to use sense experience to strengthen their understanding of themselves and their lives, she became interested in "sexological bodywork," a somatic practice that may involve touching a client's genitals, but does not include actual intercourse.

Though the term "sexological bodyworker" may lead people to assume otherwise, this type of therapy centers around "one-way touch."

Wu's sexological bodywork clients receive her touch, but they generally don't touch her. (In some instances, Wu serves as a relationship coach rather than as a sexological bodyworker. Then, the touch can be two-way, as Wu's clients do a kind of "dress rehearsal" of erotic play.) Whatever approach she takes, Wu remains fully clothed, even in intimate positions.

"Recently, I entwined with a client — a woman in her late 60s — who said that she had seen others do it, but had no experience of this herself," Wu explains. "She asked me to teach her how, so we wrapped our arms and legs around each other and had a really sweet session, where we talked and practiced different kinds of touch on our arms and legs."

Though intercourse with clients is a boundary Wu does not cross, she believes wholeheartedly that sex can be part of a successful therapeutic approach to healing traumas, big and small.

Sexual trauma isn't necessarily rooted in one particular extreme experience, but often arises in response to the accumulated pressures of modern life, she explains. As we deal with work, family, and other difficulties, our ability to express ourselves sensually and to connect with others pleasurably can suffer. And our relationship to intimacy reflects our relationship with ourselves.

Wu bases her practice on a laying-on of hands that allows her clients to relax, breathe, and be present with their bodies, free of shame. Her training is based in part on what she calls Neo or California tantra — a Western interpretation of a Tibetan tradition of working with the breath and the physical body to connect to that primal creative energy. Primal energy is often difficult to tap into, particularly because desire and shame run hand-in-hand. Many Americans still suffer from the Puritanical repression of sexual feelings — and no doubt even the most confident and liberated lover among us has fumbled somewhere along the line in her sexual life.

Yet experts say many people operate under the assumption that everyone else is having great sex, and believe they alone are missing out on fulfillment. Such assumptions can have physical as well as emotional repercussions.

And sometimes, it takes a hands-on guide to correct those assumptions.

"Surrogate Partner Therapy," or SPT, is perhaps the most radical form of somatic therapy focused on intimacy and sexual expression. Surrogate partners engage in "two-way touch," receiving as well as giving. They provide a truly unique space: an opportunity to explore intimacy without the additional concerns that arise in romantic partnerships.

This can include intercourse with their clients — but you should look elsewhere if you're looking for a fast ride to a happy ending.

"I get a lot of inquiries from reality TV show producers seeking titillation, but [they find that] SPT is like watching grass grow," explains Mark, a surrogate partner who works with the International Professional Surrogates Association. (SF Weekly is withholding his last name to protect his privacy.)

Reality TV producers and the public alike might imagine SPT as a legal — or at least not illegal — way to exchange money for an orgasm. But surrogate partners aren't prostitutes, and what they offer their clients is more than simply relief from unbearable urges.

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Elizabeth Costello

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