Sexual healing

According to therapist Bryce Britton, "sex" is a 13-letter word, and it's spelled "communication."

Published August 22, 2001 7:08PM (EDT)

With her porn-star name and smoky purr over the phone, one conjures Bryce Britton as a cashmere sex kitten. But the Los Angeles sex therapist who answers the door of a salmon stucco bungalow is earth mama incarnate: a 50-ish, huggable redhead in a breezy violet dress. If male clients fantasize about crying on Britton's pillowy shoulder, their baser impulses are reserved for the surrogates she pairs them with to experientially cure them of premature ejaculation, impotence or other dysfunction.

Britton is one of the few therapists to employ surrogates, whom she prefers to call "sensual guides," since the term "surrogate" implies a substitute. In the past 15 years, she has helped more than 1,200 men and currently employs one male and two female guides. An average course of therapy is three months or 15 to 20 sessions and can cost up to $5,000.

No neon sign swings outside her Santa Monica, Calif., office, winking Sex Therapy! Still, strolling neighbors swivel their necks in "Exorcist"-worthy contortions and a mailman insists on hand-delivering her mail. Clients are referred from other therapists or respond to Britton's ads in holistic magazines. Britton can discern from a phone conversation if someone just wants a shag -- for instance, if the caller is panting.

Her two-room bungalow has hardwood floors and watercolor landscapes on walls painted shades of "Persian melon" and "ember light." Native American flute music swirls with Indian guru incense, but the decor is more Martha Stewart's weekend home than Playboy mansion. Of course, Martha probably doesn't furnish her study with a massage table, a Mr. Hard Throb vibrator, plastic speculums and a dildo that would make Godzilla feel inadequate. Nor would her kitchenette contain a fruit bowl for an exercise called "Tom Jones feast," in which a guide and client feed each other peaches or lick whipped cream off one another.

Since this is calorie-conscious Southern California, yogurt may be substituted. Speculums may be heated before a "sexiological," where the guide and client examine each other's genitalia, using flashlights for dark crevices and diagrams for reference. "Some men are terrified of kissing," Britton explains. "So one guide created the mango exercise, where the client puts his tongue on the mango to get used to the moisture of a kiss. Other props include a foot bath for water rituals and lion and rabbit masks, as the lion mask allows an alpha male to wrestle a woman to the floor."

Surrogate therapy peaked in the swinging '70s, after sex researchers Masters and Johnson reported a 75 percent five-year cure rate using surrogates. After a client sued the pair, claiming abandonment because his wife had sex with a surrogate, surrogate therapy was closeted along with the lava lamps and bell bottoms. In the '70s, Britton founded the (now defunct) Center for Sexual Education and Sensual Enhancement. Seminars were conducted in the sensorium, a simulated bedroom covered in tie-dyed plum silk, with audio-visual controls for dimming lights and tuning in the sounds of ocean surf or a forest rainstorm. A 24-week guide-training curriculum included masturbating while being hooked up to a recorder that measured changes in pulse rate and temperature, along with study groups where classmates have sex with each other. Homework might include observing people at strip joints or swingers' clubs.

Aware that sex therapy is seen as having as much relationship to therapy as massage parlors have to massage, surrogates hasten to explain that "sex is the least of it." On average, penetrating intercourse makes up 5 percent of a typical three-month course of counseling. "Many exercises are done fully clothed and the surrogate is not a stranger to the client," Britton explains. "The surrogate-client connection should emulate a real relationship. A surrogate has to be genuine, because she is modeling how to be truthful, how to communicate likes and dislikes."

Britton's success rate is her best advertising: With premature ejaculators, it's 98 percent; with impotence, 90 percent; and for lack of desire, 70-75 percent. People with fetishes or sex addictions prove the most challenging -- with them Britton has a 30 percent success rate.

Britton's clientele is about 40 percent couples, 25 percent women and 35 percent single men. Of the latter, a third are virgins in their late 40s, another third suffer from impotence and the rest are trigger-happy. The majority of couples are married.

"'Sex' is a 13-letter word," says Britton. "It's spelled 'communication.'" Some couples can't spell while others talk too much. "I truly believe that talking will only go so far in matters of sexuality and sensuality," Britton says. "At a certain point, you have to make the heart and pelvis connect. I had a female client in her 50s who couldn't orgasm without a vibrator. She was getting out of a 28-year marriage where she'd never experienced an orgasm with her husband. She'd wait until he was in the shower and pull out her vibrator. She started having affairs after meeting guys through chat rooms. Obviously, there was a communication problem."

Britton doesn't always suggest surrogacy when counseling a couple, but she often does when the wife feels the man is to blame or when couples are trying to conceive. "A surrogate can defuse the situation," Britton explains. "The woman is anxious and making a lot of demands and the man loses interest. With a surrogate in the room, some couples feel they can speak more freely." Britton refutes the notion that a couple may be forcing alchemy when there is just no chemistry.

"Sometimes flow is there and other times it's not," she shrugs. "What helps to make it flow is to move from one step to the next; couples who say they don't have chemistry are usually the ones who go from point A to point F."

Some female clients have contradictory impulses: They want to be in control, even if they claim they're striving to be more passive. Some of that could be the investment they've made in such therapy, or that they feel strange about getting excited during the session. "All of my female clients have had genuine relationships before, but I do have some male clients who are older virgins," says Britton.

"Some still live with their parents. Others are borderline; they have to check out of reality at times. But then I also see some very successful men, like this entertainment attorney who always had a beautiful woman on his arm. But he was very self-conscious about being short and was still a virgin, though you'd never suspect it. Some of the virgins are very inhibited and went to brothels and tried to befriend the prostitute first, which didn't work. Others have put women on such a tall pedestal that it's difficult for them to accept her as a real person."

For hermetic males, a surrogate relationship is akin to a first girlfriend. They may even need a course in hand-holding. Surrogacy is a remedy because there is no risk of rejection. "I'll have them do a dating service in conjunction with the therapy, and go to something like a happy hour with the surrogate to practice social skills or putting his arm around a woman," says Britton. "Or I give them homework, like they have to ask if they can cut in front of someone at the grocery store so they get used to rejection."

Couples are usually matched with a female surrogate because it's less threatening to the husband than a male one. They might work with Alexis Lucca, a 46-year-old guide with a body built for speed. She typically sees two or three clients a day and earns $150 an hour. Because Lucca has nine years of experience, the bobbed brunette is at the top of the salary scale -- less experienced guides typically earn $110 per hour.

Britton meets with each client for an hour before the client and the guide meet for another hour to do an exercise deemed appropriate for that week. Britton may be tapping on her computer in the next room while the session proceeds on the couch, massage table or futon, or she goes to her nearby home. When she returns, the three discuss what occurred during the session and the guide completes a written protocol that details the interaction, such as: "Client able to nurture tactile and oral tastes and smells. Good energy, less needy. Client had erection before manual stimulation. During front caress, client worried about me seeing him with an erection."

Alexis teaches technique with a Girl Scout's sense of duty. "You can't just say, 'Yuck! That was awful!' You say, 'Can you make your lips softer?' 'OK, let's try to put your tongue on my lip.' At first, it's all about instructions and then when you want them to enjoy it -- because they're not enjoying that -- you say, 'Give me some body movement; start grinding a little bit.' They get performance anxiety because they're spectatoring: They focus on how they look doing something instead of what it feels like."

Another exercise to diminish fear of sexual failure is "stuffing" or "quiet vagina," when a surrogate straddles a man's flaccid penis and puts it inside her. "I have to calculate when a client is emotionally ready for intercourse. I want them to return to what it was like as a teenager, when they would make out and fondle and kiss for hours -- and then have to go home."

All of her female clients have "body image issues," as Britton puts it. Many can't orgasm during intercourse, meaning they've had clitoral but never vaginal orgasm. Susan Romesh is one of Britton's most successful cases. The 36-year-old zips through Hollywood in a convertible BMW, has blond ringlets to a willowy waist and doe-brown eyes. Romesh recently ended a nine-year relationship that was never consummated. She'd felt the ripples of the big-O with a clitoral orgasm, but technically, she was still a virgin. When Romesh turned 35, her biological clock was a bomb, but every foray into intercourse made her tear ducts expand and vaginal muscles contract. She had tried remedies ranging from hypnosis to rebirthing when she stumbled across Britton's ad.

"I knew that, even if I found a reason for my phobia, it wouldn't have solved the problem," says Romesh. "I thought, How will I know I'm cured unless I practice? And I didn't want to tell someone I was dating and work on the problem during a relationship.

"I trusted my guide, Mark Thomas, more than I would have trusted someone I was dating. I wanted to know that if I said stop, he would." At first, every exercise made Romesh flinch. "I just wanted to get it over with. In the first session, we had to do a hand caress and I was like, 'Eeew!' I said, 'I don't want to hold hands. Can't we just do it? I didn't worry too much about whether I was doing something correctly or the way Thomas wanted. I was very clear that I was paying this money, so I was in control and he was here for my goal.

"I hadn't been with many men and I thought, This sexual thing is so different than a relationship," says Romesh. "You could put a paper bag over someone's head and do this stuff!"

When Romesh and Thomas finally sealed the deal, it wasn't exactly the Big Bang. "It was such a letdown," Sue shakes her head. "I thought, This is it? This is what everyone makes such a big deal about? I wasn't even sure he was inside me!"

Romesh credits the work for making her more comfortable sexually -- and she flashes the engagement ring to prove it. "I spent close to $4,000, but it was worth every penny," she says. "I'm cured in the sense that I'm no longer afraid to have intercourse. But I still need practice to become experienced. It's like riding a bike!"

By Denise Dowling

Denise Dowling is a freelance writer.

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