The ad in New York magazine said they needed women who were “bright, articulate and enjoyed helping people.” A little skimpy on information, but I decided to call. I’d just returned from an eight-month dance-teaching gig in Brazil, and I had no idea what to do next.
I know many women wouldn’t take the job they were advertising, but I’d had my own sexual trauma in the past, and needed healing from that. Since I had spent many years in self-destruct mode, I wanted to use my need for sexual connection to help others. Finally, I had my answer: working as a sex surrogate.
Like Helen Hunt’s character in “The Sessions,” a sex surrogate is a therapist who helps people overcome their bedroom dysfunctions. Yes, it involves sleeping with strangers, but unlike prostitution, these men weren’t in search of a good time. They were in pain and filled with shame. They had tried everything. Usually, a sex surrogate is a last resort. And over time, they taught me more about intimacy and vulnerability than I could have imagined.
It wasn’t always easy to get close to these men. Bruce was a limo driver, and though he was warm and engaging, he was so unkempt that I worried I’d have trouble being intimate. (I’ve changed the men’s names and identifying details to protect them.) I felt guilty about this, because it was a point of pride that I didn’t judge my clients, but Bruce was a challenge in this department. He was in his mid- to late 30s, bald except for some fuzzy patches, and very heavy. His shirt was always halfway tucked in and had food stains on it. Most of his weight was in his stomach, which lay over the top of his pants.
But my heart went out to the guy. With a sheepish grin, he would sit awkwardly on the couch and describe his problems. He had little experience with women and knew almost nothing about female anatomy and how it worked.
So I taught Bruce how to move his hips in a thrusting motion. Starting with our clothes on, I demonstrated for Bruce simulated intercourse positions: doggy style, female on top, side to side. He was so confused about how to find the entrance to the vagina in rear entry. “It’s all turned around now,” he said.
At first, I was astonished to find that men like him existed. I always thought men were born with an innate understanding of how to have sex. But what I discovered over the years was just how wrong I was. I’ve learned that men are extremely sensitive about being able to “perform” and that they often have no idea how their bodies work. They are terrified that women will find out they don’t know what they are doing, and they will be humiliated and shamed.
Some problems are more complicated than that. David was tall, slim, in his early 30s, and I liked him instantly. He was successful as a commercial artist, but not in relationships. But whenever he got hard, he would usually lose his erection.
I found out his family history, and it wasn’t pretty: As an adolescent, David was subjected to the inappropriate gestures of his very attractive and seductive mother. Several times when he had his friends over, she would sunbathe topless in the backyard. One day, with teenage hormones raging, David made an advance, and she flipped out. Enraged, she told him he was a freak and pushed him away. Their relationship changed forever – so did his relationships with other women.
David’s romances were doomed before they began. Every time he got to the point of penetration, he would go limp. He felt overwhelming embarrassment and guilt during these moments. On the rare occasion that David could maintain his erection, he would come soon after penetration. Through therapy it became clear that David kept reliving the humiliation of that first awful experience. He wanted to be close to a woman, but he wanted to avoid it, too, which was an impossible equation. But over time, David began to trust me, and his fears started to fade. By the time he left, he was dating with optimism for the first time.
Watching “The Sessions,” I was powerfully reminded of the strange vulnerability that existed in those rooms. Of course, the setup was quite different. I was supervised in a clinic by a certified sex therapist, while Helen Hunt’s character works from the comfort of a friend’s place. And while her six-session limit might work better for the time constraints of a film, I needed 12 sessions over a three-month period just so the patient could learn, practice on his own and gain enough confidence in the newly acquired skills to “fly on his own” in the real world. But the movie is a reminder of how fragile and fascinating sexual intimacy is. It reminded me how happy it could make me, watching a man discover his own sexual power.
The job could be a challenge, of course. As effective and amazing as the work was, it was still largely unknown or misunderstood. I felt like I had uncovered a hidden treasure but was up against a society of puritanical fools. And while my boyfriend got it, I didn’t always believe him. I wondered if he worried about my loyalty. I had to learn to be disassociated from my body enough to be able to share it in this way and yet it was clear I had a rare mission.
That job was one of the great honors of my life. I felt self-conscious being naked, at times, but it was a nakedness we shared, and since the focus was always placed back on them and their bodies, it didn’t last long. I wasn’t myself with them so much as I was “everywoman” – they could tell me things they’d shared with no other woman and not be shamed: I was their bridge between a hopeful new beginning sexually and the women in their lives with whom they’d be returning to renewed.
There was nothing magic about those sessions, even though what happened could often feel magical. But those conversations don’t have to take place only inside clinics. I wish both men and women would realize that slowing down and being present is the key to discovering what their bodies need and that communicating openly about this process creates intimacy. Everyone is afraid of being inexperienced and inadequate in the bedroom.