Sex surrogates: an alternative type of therapy

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 sexual touching.

?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, California.

?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 developing relationships.

?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 teens.?

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 the training.

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 relationship.

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 feelings.?

Health concerns

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 Sanchez.

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.