We explore the ultimate ‘hands-on’ therapy...
Emma*, 26, lies back on a purple duvet, naked, legs spread wide apart. A man in his fifties stands at the foot of the bed, his erection poised. It’s the moment Emma has been waiting for. She feels secure; relaxed; a mixture of reassured calmness and electric excitement. She takes a deep breath, and says, ‘Come inside me.’ He gently eases into her, then pauses. ‘How do you feel?’ he asks. She laughs with relief, and answers, ‘Good.’
Though the room is cosy and the situation intimate, Emma isn’t about to have sex with her boyfriend or a casual date. The man with her is her sex surrogate.
A ‘sex surrogate’ is a professionally trained sex partner, who charges between £100-£200 an hour to practise intimate physical contact with clients – including penetration if necessary – to help them work through sexual problems that prevent them from engaging in healthy sexual relationships.
Clients’ issues can be the result of past sexual abuse; toxic relationships; affairs or even dealing with trauma following difficult births. Some clients are adult virgins; others can lack confidence due to hang-ups about their physical appearance.
‘The process is usually supported by a psychotherapist, who carefully discusses the client’s emotions after each session, addressing issues of the mind and body,’ explains London-based sexologist Mike Lousada, 48.
Of the 1,000 people Lousada has counselled throughout his career, he has acted as a surrogate to 25. ‘Many of these clients had undergone talk-based therapies for years, but they needed more than conversation,’ he asserts. ‘Directly exploring sexual touch with a surrogate in a safe, controlled environment enabled them to move forward.’ In some cases, he claims the process was ‘life-transforming’.
Sex surrogacy appears to have inimitable potential because it literally reaches parts other therapies cannot. And its scope is broad. Genevieve, 27, used a surrogate to help her accept the ‘unusual’ appearance of her labia. ‘I had always detested myself too much to enjoy sex, because I felt my labia were too large,’ she explains. ‘I desperately wanted labiaplasty, thinking that was the answer. But having regular sex with a surrogate in a safe and nurturing environment showed me I was normal, natural, gorgeous and could feel incredible as I am.’
Dylan and Jenny, both 29, have both just begun surrogacy following the birth of their daughter 14 months ago and while it’s early days, they are hopeful it will be successful. Dylan witnessed his wife tear terribly during labour and almost die; now ‘flashbacks of the scene and fear of hurting her during sex’ stop him getting hard. In turn, Jenny struggles with ‘poor body image’, and blames her severe scarring for his impotence. ‘Our bodies are haunted by that experience,’ she says. ‘We hope that over time, surrogate therapy will exorcise us.’
Mare Simone, 59, has acted as a sex surrogate for over three decades. Her career was inspired by her own experience of recovering from rape at 19. ‘Trauma and fear can cause the body to put up physical armour to protect itself: freezing, panic attacks, or dissociation from sexual situations that remind us of past ordeals,’ she says. ‘You can’t always talk those things away. It can require caring, careful touching of the private “armoured” places to remove those old defences.’
Nathan, 41, and Monique, 38, approached Simone for assistance after 16 years of marriage. ‘I was extremely inexperienced when I met my wife – I’d not even been on dates with other women,’ Nathan explains. ‘I didn’t know how to interact erotically. I was so deeply afraid of messing sex up with Monique that I’d avoid trying things at all.’ Monique interpreted her husband’s fear as rejection. ‘I grew up always feeling slightly unworthy – him turning me down made my insecurity worse,’ she says.
Stuck in a depressing rut, their otherwise strong, loving relationship broke down so they sought help – but traditional therapy was ineffective. ‘I saw multiple counsellors about the issues in my head, but still had no idea what to do physically,’ Nathan says.
Then they heard about surrogacy, which presented a possible solution. Could Nathan gain confidence by ‘practising’ sex with another woman, who’d teach him techniques and wouldn’t take his anxious hesitancy personally? Could being touched by someone accepting and supportive restore Monique’s self-esteem?
The pair visited Simone together.
‘I had to drag Nathan through the door first time, he was so scared, but after our first surrogacy session I could already see him change,’ Monique smiles. ‘We’ve been five times so far. Mare’s coaching us on how to play with sex – removing the pressure and weight of expectation.’
‘I imagined it’d be horrendously awkward being nude and having Mare touch me,’ says Nathan. ‘But she’s so relaxed and respectful, it’s a huge release.’ In turn, Monique worried she’d feel jealous watching her spouse with another woman, and fretted he’d start comparing her unfavourably to this ‘sex master’. In fact, she’s been surprised by her own feelings and admits to finding it ‘beautiful’ to see him opening up. ‘It’s a deep bonding experience, and back home we have fun sharing what we’ve learned,’ she reflects. ‘Mare’s brought hope into our relationship.’
But sexual intercourse isn’t always the ultimate goal of surrogacy, says Katie Sarra, a psychotherapist from Devon who collaborates with surrogates and is sometimes ‘the practice body’ herself. ‘If it does happen, it can take a year. Initial client-surrogate interactions often won’t go beyond touching each other’s hands. Slowly working through basic exercises helps people connect with their true feelings.’
Over time, clients progress through increasingly intense activities according to their needs. ‘Once a woman is ready to get naked, I play “the undressing game,”’ explains Lousada. ‘I remove a piece of clothing while expressing a belief that might stop me celebrating my body, like, “I’m ashamed of my tummy because it’s not flat,” showing my vulnerability to put the client at ease. I’d encourage them to join in, sharing and shaking off their bodily hang-ups as they strip. Next, I might invite them to examine my genitals like a curious alien who has never encountered a dick before, handling it not to give pleasure, but just to see how it can feel rubbery, and how it bounces – it’s all about non-pressured play and discovery.’
Once the exploration phase is over, the surrogate may finally touch the patient’s own genitalia. ‘Sometimes I use “mapping”: simply placing a finger on different points – the clitoris; within the vagina; the outside of the anus; just inside the anal sphincter – so the client can create a mental ‘map’ of how each bit feels,’ explains Kian de la Cour, 46, a somatic (‘touch’) sex educator who provides surrogacy, and often works with blind people.
Provided a session is going well, the surrogate might perform oral sex or manual stimulation. Eventually, intercourse may take place – as it did with David*, who used a surrogate as a single, late-in-life virgin.
‘People ask why I didn’t hire a prostitute, or have a drunken one-night stand, but that would’ve left me empty,’ he explains. ‘Losing my virginity was about more than just sex; it was about intimacy, being nurtured every step of the way. Since childhood, I’d put up barriers that stopped me connecting with people; Surrogate Partner Therapy helped me work through that. I’m now in a loving, vibrant, sexual relationship with a woman – something I couldn’t have dreamt of before.’
But sex surrogacy is not without risks. There is the potential for some clients to become unhealthily attached to surrogates. Lousada emphasises that the crucial role of any good psychotherapist is to monitor clients’ emotions and keep them grounded in reality – but the surrogate must stay down-to-earth, too. ‘When you’re making breakthroughs and sharing wonderful moments with clients over many months, things feel deep, and endorphins are released that mimic the buzz of falling in love; you have to be very self-aware,’ cautions Simone.
So how do male surrogates get erect with patients they’re not attracted to? Surely a client’s fragile self-confidence could be crushed if faced with the limp, flaccid evidence they’ve failed to turn a man on. ‘Some therapists use Viagra,’ admits de la Cour. ‘But I’m against it as I believe everything that happens within sessions should be genuine, not fake or a performance. I view any touching that happens to me within a surrogacy context purely as my nervous system receiving input; it doesn’t matter who the input comes from – it’s a stimulus that I respond to viscerally.’
And in the rare case that he can’t get hard, it provides a good learning opportunity. ‘I talk about how a soft cock can still be fun and feel great to mess with,’ he says. Lousada admits that surrogacy is hugely demanding for a therapist though. ‘It requires so much psychologically that I’m currently having a break for a while because I’m burned out,’ he admits.
‘After spending years entirely focusing on clients’ sexual needs, I started dissociating from my own desires; I felt blocked from enjoying sex with my own partner, so I’ve changed my practice to work around this.’
Such occupational hazards are part of the job. Just finding a long-term partner who accepts what they do can also be tough. Consequently, many date fellow sexologists. Simone’s single, and struggling to find love. ‘I’m putting my energy into finding the right man this year, but my job makes it hard,’ she says. ‘It’s the price I pay to set others free.’