“Take my hand and stroke it for your own pleasure,” Maureen says softly. Kipper’s face tenses, he presses his fingers to one eye and sighs. The 25-year-old college student with tight blond curls and crooked teeth looks like he might cry.
This is his first session of sex therapy — and it was all recorded for posterity back in 1983 in the award-winning Kirby Dick documentary “Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate.” While browsing streaming Netflix movies recently, I stumbled across the movie, which was re-released on DVD last year. The controversial topic and the sexy, modernized DVD cover, which belies the film’s early-’80s aesthetic, were irresistible. Little did I know that it would be so compelling I would be driven to track down Maureen and Kipper nearly three decades after it was filmed. (I also contacted a second client featured in the movie, but got no response.) What I found about how their lives have changed since then makes the documentary seem tame in comparison.
In the movie, Kipper comes across as the sort of sweet, socially challenged man that people build sunny, altruistic pro-prostitution arguments around: The idea of merely touching a woman’s hand made him blanch, and yet he wanted so badly to be able to do it with confidence. Maureen successfully coaxes him from his fumbling, fully clothed explorations of her extremities to practicing fully nude body rubs toward the end of his therapy. In an emotional moment he manages to hit on part of why female affection is both so terrifying and desirable for him: He didn’t get much of it from his mother as a child.
But after therapy ended, he went back to his avoidant ways. “I still struggled greatly with my fear of initiating intimacy for many years,” he told me by email. Kipper, now middle-aged, “forced” himself to go on a few dates, “but for years I was unwilling to even try to hold a woman’s hand,” he said.
In the late ’80s he started seeing a woman who was “willing to make the first move” and they were able to casually date for a decade, having sex a couple times a week — but he says “it never became very intimate on an emotional level.” He “wanted more intimacy” and tried dating around, but “was discouraged to find that initiating sex was as hard as ever.” The relationship eventually fell apart and he says he “hit another low point,” so he set a “deadline” with a therapist “to either get into a relationship via dating, or via finding a fiancee online.” Dating once again proved difficult, so he went, in his words, the “mail-order bride” route: “I focused on finding a fiancee from the Philippines,” he said. “I did find one, and now I’m married and have a three year-old daughter.”
You might expect such a shy person to have anxieties about having had such personal therapy made public, but he says it actually made him feel more open to the experience: “Seeing myself as being a participant in a documentary film about therapy was a way for me to intellectualize the situation. I wasn’t in danger of being rejected by a woman in ‘real life.’” All that said, he doesn’t feel all that changed by the experience: “I think it helped me to feel a little less fearful, but certainly not to the degree that I was any more willing to risk rejection,” he said. “The only negative feeling I have [about the experience] is mild disappointment that it didn’t seem to help much.”
Ironically, Maureen, his mentor, has undergone the bigger transformation. At the time, she was too busy with her surrogate work to seriously date and didn’t maintain any relationships for longer than six months. Despite teaching intimacy skills to men, it was clear in the documentary that she sorely lacked real emotional closeness in her personal life. She was also adamant about being “not real good at being in love” and nowhere “even close to getting married.” All that changed rather quickly: Just a few years after the movie wrapped she left surrogacy and married the man she’s been with now for 23 years. The reason for this drastic shift: A head-on car crash that nearly killed her and left her severely disfigured.
“I had no eye socket, no cheek bone, no nose, a broken jaw, two punctured lungs, too many punctures in my intestines to count, all my ribs on one side were broken — yeah, was I lucky to live,” she told me over the phone. And yet as soon as she could, she tried to resume surrogate work, only her reconstructive surgeries got in the way: “I had 17 reconstructive surgeries on my face. That’s one surgery every three months for five years.” You can hardly tell from talking to her that she’s experienced something so traumatic. “The accident really changed my perspective on friendships and stuff. I kind of had to pay more attention to family and friends and the people who care about me.” It also made her feel more open to her husband and the possibility of an intimate relationship when they first met.
It wasn’t just the accident, though: She says that her eight years as a surrogate helped get her relationship-ready. “I really didn’t have any good role-modeling as a child,” she says. “My dad was a wife-beater [and an alcoholic]. There wasn’t a lot of affection, sharing or communication between my parents. I learned the basic skills of relating through my surrogate training.” Maureen also had an opportunity in the case of a client who reminded her of her father to specifically work through some of her feelings toward her dad, whom she hated in some ways but also desperately wanted to be loved by. She says every client — and she had hundreds — offered her a new way to practice being a good partner.
What the documentary and their lives afterward make clear is that surrogacy isn’t really about sex so much as all that can be tied up in it — insecurity, loneliness, a desire to feel loved. People attempt connection in all sorts of ways — from self-help books to sex surrogacy, pickup artist workshops to international arranged marriage. Mentally, I keep returning to a shot of Maureen cradling Kipper in her arms like a baby during their very first session. Here we have a woman searching for her father’s love and a man longing for his mother’s affection. It’s an exquisitely painful cliché — and just another way that people find company even in great loneliness.