Stars of an '80s documentary about this intimate form of therapy talk about how it changed them, and how it didn't
“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.
More Related Stories
- How I ended up in a pyramid scheme
- My bipolar partner beat me
- Teenagers care more about online privacy than you think
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- El Salvador court delays ruling on abortion case while woman's life hangs in the balance
- Kicked out of the mall -- for an anti-cancer hat
- Why do men pretend to be women online?
- Pa. governor "can't find" any Latinos to work in his administration
- Conservative group blames military sexual assault on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal
- Is Pittsburgh the next Portland?
- Tornado survivor to Wolf Blitzer: Sorry, I'm an atheist. I don't have to thank the Lord
- Donald Rumsfeld worried that marriage equality will lead to polygamy
- San Francisco Giant Jeremy Affeldt apologizes for homophobic past
- Wall Street firm's "Golden Pitchbook" is totally sexist, full of lies
- Federal court strikes down Arizona abortion ban
- I'm not achieving my dreams!
- The most popular Tumblr porn
- Slave descendants seek equal rights from Cherokee Nation
- Snapchat is secretly storing your photos
- Peace Corps to allow gay couples to volunteer together
- Facebook's hate speech problem
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11