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Body Talk: Sexual Surrogates' Healing Touch 

Wednesday, Mar 30 2016
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Surrogate partners and other hands-on practitioners provide their clients with a safe space to investigate the dark realm of desire, offering a rare therapeutic bridge between talk and touch. Through them, clients can experience sensual pleasure as potent medicine, and connect directly to its innate healing potential.

Surrogate partners remind their clients that sexual expression doesn't happen in a vacuum. Nor does it require a body that is free of blemishes or the marks of age and experience. Clients learn to be at ease with sexual desire, to approach potential partners with confidence, and to be free of damaging assumptions about themselves and their lives.

Our sexual expression is deeply entangled with the marketplace — with sports-like talk of achievement, business prowess, and large portfolios — and with religious, social, familial, and other norms (whether we cloak ourselves in them or angrily throw them off). Surrogate partners and other somatic practitioners help their clients navigate that complexity and strengthen the connection between body and mind.

For them, this work is more a calling than a profession. As they pursue it, they come face to face with the judgmental, juvenile, and puritanical ideas about sex that remain deeply entrenched in our society.

Even in San Francisco.


Surrogate partner therapy follows a "triadic" model: Partners always work with a talk therapist with whom they communicate before and after sessions with clients. In other words, if you want surrogate partner therapy, a therapist will have to agree it's necessary beforehand. Therapists and psychologists who recommend SPT for their clients recognize it as an effective complement to the more analytical processing that can happen with words alone.

They suggest SPT for clients suffering from an array of difficulties — from obvious sexual problems such as premature ejaculation in a man, or vaginismus (vaginal closing) or the inability to orgasm in a woman — to the subtler difficulties of shyness and awkwardness that can lead to decades of unwanted celibacy. SPT might also benefit individuals suffering in other ways, by teaching breathing and relaxation, and encouraging people to land in their own bodies before attempting to connect with others.

For clients working through difficulties arising from sexual expression — whether they are simply awkward in their approach to potential partners, or have difficulty on a physical level — giving and receiving erotic touch with someone can be revolutionary.

"SPT is an excellent clinical tool for men and women who come to sex therapy without a partner," says Dr. Martin McCombs, a psychologist specializing in clinical sexology. "Sex therapy is at once insight-oriented and behaviorally driven. There are real clinical limitation challenges for single people addressing sexuality or intimacy dysfunctions. Professionally supervised, appropriately trained surrogate partners who are members of IPSA and bound by its code of ethics are a gift in the field. "The three surrogate partners I interviewed spoke highly of the training that they receive through IPSA, which has provided resources, certification, and ethical guidelines in the United States and internationally since 1973. IPSA has certified surrogate partners working in England, Switzerland, and Israel (which is currently the only country with health insurance that covers SPT).

Currently, there are about 50 certified surrogates, most of whom are based in the United States. The IPSA training is not for everyone, however.

The application process is rigorous. There is a lot of writing about why the applicant would like to do this work, including his or her own sexual history, a letter of intent, and three letters of recommendation from either therapists or educators. They'll also need a rundown on how much study the applicant has done in the field of sexuality (in or out of school) and a list of books regarding sexuality the applicant has read.

After passing the screening process, the applicant is required to participate in two-and-a-half weeks of daily, 10-hour workshops, a period of work with a supervising talk therapist, and a one- to two-year apprenticeship with an established surrogate. Finally, in order to work on one's own as a surrogate partner, one would have to earn the stamp of approval from a committee of established surrogate partners (hence the varying length of the apprenticeship).

Mark credits famed sexuality researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, whose studies from the 1950s to the 1990s make up the bedrock of received wisdom on human sexuality, as the originators of modern surrogate therapy. Masters and Johnson began their studies at Washington University in St. Louis, and went on to establish their own research institute. Their work with nearly 700 volunteers was described in what are considered the classic texts about sexuality: Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy, and their lives are the subject of the Showtime TV series Masters of Sex.

"Our work is based on Masters and Johnson's 'sensate focus' model," Mark explains. "We take our clients through a slow progression from talk to touch. We meet the client where they are. We don't just get right on the plane to cure the fear of flying."

Eileen Chao, a 35-year-old surrogate partner and kink coach who is currently pursuing a master's degree in psychology — and who currently has four surrogate clients — expresses tremendous respect for IPSA. "I would caution anyone seeking this type of therapy to be sure that their surrogate partner is IPSA-certified," she says, noting that many people who advertise sexual healing services online or elsewhere have not been IPSA-trained.

IPSA-certified surrogate partners may have websites, but they connect with clients through referrals from therapists, not through advertising. Chao credits IPSA with maintaining high ethical standards and providing critical resources for surrogate partners — not only insisting on regular testing for sexually transmitted infections, but also offering counseling and support for the surrogate partners themselves.

Because their work can be intense and emotionally draining, the surrogate partners, like other therapists, seek counseling to help them remain psychologically healthy. The training helps people who are living well in their own skins develop the skills to help others relax and enjoy having a body, rather than seeing it as a burden to be overcome.

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Elizabeth Costello

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