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Body Talk: Sexual Surrogates' Healing Touch 

Wednesday, Mar 30 2016
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One hopes this means more women are investigating their own potential for pleasure. The surrogates themselves also fit a pattern that suggests something about the way gender and power are expressed in our society.

Mark estimates that "80 to 90 percent" of surrogate partners are women.

"Most are heterosexual and work with male clients, although some do work with women as well," he says. "Many surrogates, both men and women, work with men, women, and transgender [populations], or the disabled. Some work just with men. Some work just with women. I'm bisexual and work with all four populations. There are a few gay male surrogates, and a few bisexual male surrogates, but many more female surrogates work with both men and women."

Chao and Wadell made similar estimates regarding the gender and identity breakdown of surrogate partners and clients. Their findings seem in line with Wu's statement — which she recognized as a generalization that is most appropriately applied to cisgender heterosexual people — that women are often moved by concern for others, while men struggle more with the need to perform, or to be the aggressor.

Learning to deal with that performance anxiety might lead a single man toward SPT, while being socialized toward empathy might lead women to take on the role of surrogate partner, and to being open to working with a larger segment of the population. SPT sessions cost about as much as talk therapy sessions, but unlike other types of therapy, insurance in the U.S. doesn't cover it. So access to this important resource is constrained by the almighty dollar. What may be more troubling than the cost barrier is the potent combination of a lack of sex education and the proliferation of sexual images online.

Today, many young people learn about sex through watching porn or Hollywood movies, and they have few other outlets for investigating and understanding their sexual urges.

"Sometimes, people know very little — sex education is terrible in this country," surrogate partner Chao says. "Only 10 or 12 states actually offer any at all, and generally it's a rudimentary discussion of pregnancy and disease. I'm blown away by the shaming of this desire. Have you heard the abstinence-only people talking? Saying that 'no one will love you if you allow yourself to be touched in this way.'"

We can find out a lot about a society by looking how it deals with sexuality. Whether inherited from the religious zealotry of the Pilgrims or the mores of Victorian-era WASPS, America's puritanical streak is alive and well.

Abstinence-only programs block people from learning the truth about their physical nature — that we are animals, and that our bodies can be sources of joy. These approaches to sexuality often serve, consciously or unconsciously, other systems of social control.

As Williams S. Burroughs once said, "Is Control controlled by its need to control? Yes."

As children, we learn by modeling our behaviors on what we see around us, Wadell observes. Young people who learn about sex through Hollywood and porn often neglect the slow unfolding of sensual pleasure — foreplay absent from films both dirty and artistic — surrogate partners attempt to teach.

None of the practitioners argue that porn should not exist, but they make the point that it follows a "drive-thru orgasm" model, which suggests that sex is all in the genitals.

"We're substitute teachers," says Wadell, acknowledging that the lack of access to information about sex can plant the seed for a lifetime of anxiety and suffering. "Intercourse is the least of what we do."


Surrogate partners don't solicit clients or work the streets, and though some of their friends or relatives might not understand what they do, law enforcement has never brought criminal charges against a surrogate partner.

"I've heard that some years ago, an undercover cop in Los Angeles tried to bust some surrogate partners for prostitution," Mark says, estimating that only about 2 percent of the time surrogate partners spend with their clients involves intercourse. "Finally, he gave up, saying, 'I've spent $1,000, and I haven't even taken my clothes off.'"

In the absence of a legislative ban, surrogate therapy is not technically illegal — and it doesn't seem as though California is predisposed to outlaw it.

In 1997, Kamala Harris, now the state Attorney General, told the San Jose Mercury News, "If it's between consensual adults and referred by licensed therapists and doesn't involve minors, then it's not illegal."

In spite of that, Chao says that she has known some therapists who are hesitant to use SPT because they fear that their license could be imperiled. They also express concerns that their clients will become overly attached to the surrogate partners.

Yet it is difficult to find any therapists who have actually used SPT and who say it has a negative impact.

Run-ins with the law are not the only risk. I asked the practitioners if their clients have ever fell in love with them, or misunderstood the boundaries. None had encountered that problem, and of the three I spoke with, none had found a lover or partner through serving as a surrogate partner, either.

"No one's ever fallen in love," says Chao. "I've had clients feel weird within the constraints of this structure imposed on this sensual thing, but we acknowledge and work through that. And if they've never been in love or had those feelings, it's a safe space to explore that."


Grace Paley wrote that "sex is common, like bread." Like bread, it nourishes, it sustains, and it is a big part of our lives. And like bread it could be stale or dry or poorly held together, and it requires the right conditions to be what it can be: delicious and life-giving and — sometimes — sublime.

It was certainly so for Brian, who found in SPT a way to address a lifelong problem of premature ejaculation.

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Elizabeth Costello

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