by Cheryl Alkon
At the age of 19, Vena Blanchard wanted to get into a field that would use her
talents. She was warm, caring, liked working with people and conveying ideas and
information. Initially, she tried teaching, but it didn't pay the bills.
Instead, Blanchard, now 39, works as a surrogate partner. Partners, or sex
surrogates, work with people who are already in therapy for sexual and/or social
issues. Surrogates help their clients work through problems using a variety of
exercises that foster relaxation, communication, social skills, sensual and
?Actually, the skills are not all that different,? said Blanchard, comparing
teaching to surrogate partnering. ?It's about creating a safe place to do
learning and exploring.?
After she divorced, Blanchard took a course in surrogate training simply because
a friend needed an extra woman to fill up the class. In doing so, she found her
life's work as a surrogate partner, and is the president of IPSA, the
International Professional Surrogates Association based in Los Angeles,
?I could see the great benefit of knowledge,? said Blanchard, who has since
remarried and has a seven-year-old daughter. ?It just made sense to me. I knew I
had the capacity to love more than one person at a time. The truth is, it felt
like a calling.?
Who needs a partner?
Surrogate partners see a variety of different problems. According to a
brochure on Surrogate Partner Therapy published by IPSA, clients who work with
partners suffer from physical problems relating to orgasms, painful intercourse,
ejaculation and erections. Some clients have a low libido or a fear of intimacy.
Others come to partners because they have physical disabilities such as spinal
cord injuries. And some patients have suffered from abuse, trauma or neglect.
Many simply lack the social skills required to feel comfortable dating and
?Some people have difficulty finding a partner,? said Raymond J. Noonan, a Ph.D.
candidate at New York University's Human Sexuality Program who has written about
sex surrogates and taught human sexuality. ?Some got tied up with school and
professional work and focused on extended career development to become doctors
or lawyers,? he noted. ?They lost the socialization that kids get in their
What do they do? They\re partners, not prostitutes
Contrary to popular belief, partner surrogates do not earn a living simply by
having sex with their clients. Although the field of partner surrogates is not
licensed, professional associations like IPSA or BASA, the Bay Area Surrogates
Association, pair their members with licensed sex therapists.
?Not everyone needs to work with a surrogate,? said Marilyn D. Lawrence, a sex
therapist who has had clients work with surrogate partners from IPSA. The number
of people who actually work with surrogates is pretty low, she added. In twenty
years of practicing as a sex therapist, she has referred fewer than 10% of her
clients to work with surrogate partners.
Those who do work with surrogate partners are those who aren't in relationships
themselves, added Noonan. ?If they're already in a committed relationship, you
have to ask why their (own) partner isn't willing to work with the problem,? he
said. In such cases, the relationship would better benefit from couples therapy.
Sex surrogates do more than simply have intercourse with their clients, said
Noonan. ?Surrogates spend almost 90% of their professional time doing nonsexual
activities,? he writes in ?Sex Surrogates: A Clarification of their Functions?.
?In addition, the surrogate functions as educator, counselor, and co-therapist.
Clearly, the sex surrogate functions far beyond the realm of the prostitute.?
Surrogate partnering differs from prostitution in several respects, writes
Bernie Zilbergeld, Ph.D., author of The New Male Sexuality (1992, Bantam). A
primary difference lies is motivation: a prostitute has sex with clients to earn
money, while a surrogate partner is more of a teacher and a guide. A partner
will help a client learn skills so that that the client no longer has a problem
with his/her sexuality.
What does it take to be a surrogate partner?
Although theoretically anyone can call themselves a surrogate partner, IPSA
has tried to standardize the field by developing a code of ethics and a training
program for those who want to become surrogate partners. Some people are
considered better suited to the field than others, notes a brochure from IPSA:
- ?Although there are no specific academic degrees required of a surrogate
partner, there are certain qualities and life experiences which seem to
provide valuable background to surrogate work. These include comfort with
one's own body and sexuality, warmth, concern, empathy and trust.
Non-judgmental attitudes towards choice of lifestyle, sexual activity, and
sexual partners are also important.?
Surrogates can be male or female and work with hetero- and homosexual
clients. IPSA provides training for people who want to become surrogate
partners, said Blanchard. A formal application process precedes a 60-hour course
which includes experiential and journal exercises, lectures, readings, and
counseling sessions. An internship with an experienced surrogate partner follows
Since surrogates are working with clients and develop relationships as friends
or lovers would, emotional closeness is an expected byproduct on the job.
?Unlike with a therapist, it's important to see the surrogate partner as a
peer,? said Blanchard. ?We have equalized power and a friendship. Feelings of
strong attachment and loving are meaningful and appropriate.?
Yet there is a difference between a surrogate partner and an actual partner in
that the focus is kept on the future, when a client will be able to form those
feelings about a potential partner, she said.
?We're not getting together for lunch or chit-chatting on the phone,? Blanchard
stressed. She sees clients once a week for a one-to-two hour session. During
that time, the partner and client may do relaxation exercises, evaluations in
social settings, or discuss particular issues related to the client's problem.
As mentioned before, intercourse may or may not be a part of the therapy.
Blanchard says that it's not common for a client to forget that she is a
surrogate partner and therefore, not an appropriate person to want to form a
If a client says he has fallen in love with her, Blanchard said, she will ask
him questions so that he can learn how to use those feelings elsewhere. ?If you
love me, then what is it about me that makes me lovable? Everything that
happens, we can learn from,? she explained. ?It's like a laboratory with real
As in any kind of science laboratory, safety procedures are strict to
minimize risk as much as possible. With the growth of AIDS since the early
1980s, the number of people who have wanted to work as surrogate partners has
declined, said Blanchard. However, increased knowledge about the way the HIV
virus is transmitted in the past two to four years has led to more inquiries
about the field, she added.
Working with a client about sexuality issues includes a thorough training on
contraception and disease prevention, said Noonan. ?Typically, it's the
responsibility of the surrogate to provide birth control and STD (sexually
transmitted disease) prevention. It's almost mandatory that a partner would
teach an awareness of contraception and disease protection,? he said. Some
surrogates require that their clients provide them with the results of two
different AIDS tests, writes Bernie Zilbergeld in The New Male Sexuality.
How does one contact a sex surrogate?
It may not be that easy. By all accounts, surrogates are in the very small
minority of those who work in sex therapy. Blanchard, currently the president of
IPSA, says it's hard to know exactly how many surrogate partners there are since
they are not a regulated industry. Both she and Noonan claim there are probably
about 100 people working as surrogates in the United States, with others
scattered around the world in Israel, Germany, Canada and Australia.
Geography is another factor. California seems to have the highest concentration
of surrogates working in the San Francisco or Los Angeles areas, while New York
has a smaller amount. Other parts of the country are virtually not being served,
said Noonan, and those who live elsewhere and want to work with a surrogate may
need to fly to an area specifically for the therapy or in some cases, the
surrogate may travel to the client. IPSA offers a variety of intensive therapy
programs ranging from days to one- or two-week sessions.
Price considerations vary widely. Zilbergeld writes in The New Male Sexuality
that each session with a surrogate can cost $1,000, with total therapy amounting
to $10,000. Noonan, however, lowers those figures considerably, quoting rates of
$50-$100 an hour for a two-hour session. ?It's typically as expensive as being
in therapy,? said Noonan. Unlike traditional therapy, though, sessions with sex
surrogates are not covered under any kind of health insurance.
Sex surrogates also have to contend with the perception that others have of
their field. Although surrogates usually work in conjunction with sex
therapists, it still is not considered mainstream therapy. And the notion of
sexual relationships between surrogates and clients, even in the context of
therapy, still runs contrary to what is considered acceptable in other
professional practices. ?Sex is totally forbidden, before, during, and after
therapy,? said Lucy Sanchez, a spokesperson for the National Association of
Social Workers in Washington, D.C. Having sex with a client, regardless of
whether it was consensual or done for what were considered therapeutic reasons,
has caused some social workers to be barred from the National Association, said
The decision to work with a sex surrogate is highly individual. Also, it should
be noted that the legal status of surrogates is currently undefined there are no
laws which regulate the profession. But some may feel that surrogates offer a
unique option which may be useful to those with few alternatives.