I saw a male sex surrogate for five months last year. It started with a date at a café and ended with a date at a café, and in between there was a relationship that took place mostly at a private clinic. I don’t know his full name, his phone number, or where he lives. He doesn’t know any of that about me. Money was never exchanged between us, as the clinic’s administrators handled logistics and finances. Now that it’s over I am heartbroken, because while I understand what I experienced was therapeutic role play, it felt very real in my head.
I’m a 44-year-old spinster. I hate that word – "spinster" – but it’s the most succinct way of describing me. I turned to Surrogate Partner Therapy (SPT) in a desperate attempt to change my life, because I could count the number of sexual encounters I’d had on one hand. Dating makes me extremely anxious. I haven’t experienced any obvious trauma, like rape or molestation. I have no physical handicap. The reasons for my anxiety are complex and nuanced, a combination of screwed-up circumstances and family dynamics, augmented by self-imposed physical obstacles along the way, like weight gain and scars. Habits of living alone and being independent are part of who I am now. I make the most of my situation by traveling and investing in various forms of personal growth. But these habits have built a shield around me over the years, and this shield was suffocating me.
I’ve been hyper-sensitive about intimacy and sex since I was a teenager, so overwhelmed that I usually preferred to go without. In my 20s and 30s it was less of a priority; I had time to work it out. But as I edged into my 40s, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I could no longer accept my curre...
I had tried online dating; clearly any woman can get laid if she really wants to. I didn’t experience any intimacy. It was more like something I was proving to myself. I felt like I was constantly lying, pretending to be someone I’m not. A confident, experienced, sexy woman. She’s not me. I needed a fundamental change in my character or attitude. How much can people change? How much can I? I have no idea.
So I started to consider SPT. It sounded lurid at first, but so did the mere thought of really talking about sex. SPT was right for me, because it’s an emotional challenge, albeit one with a major physical component to it. Sex is a straightforward, set goal, but the physical intimacy is a clear result of a deep emotional one. I told a small circle of friends, mostly women but also a couple of their husbands. They encouraged me, though a few were shocked at first. But ultimately, they all seemed to think I was courageous to try it. In truth I am a coward and a fool to have reached my 40s without benefiting from one of life’s fundamental joys. It took me years of “regular” therapy before I was even willing to consider it.
But I was ready to admit defeat and face my problems. It was clear in my first meetings at the clinic that these therapists have seen the likes of me often enough, to the point where I sometimes felt like a stereotype. The sexually stumped neurotic woman who focuses on her career instead of love.
I was given a talk therapist I’ll call A. While I spend my days online, or buried in presentations and spreadsheets, A. sits around talking about sex and relationships. The ease with which she discusses the most intimate of details is astounding. Over time it became contagious.
A. met me at the clinic, which is located on a quiet city side street. Most people walking past the clinic have no idea it is an oasis for the likes of me, because from the outside it looks like a law firm, or a dentist’s office. There is a huge, old ficus tree right in front of the entrance. It has an uneven, thick trunk with roots bulging out of it like strained veins.
I met with the head of the clinic only once. She is a renowned, global leader in her field and has a strong, stern, austere presence. She spent the first few minutes of our meeting quietly going over my talk therapist’s notes, while I sat there watching her read about me. I was terrified and ended up sobbing throughout most of the session. She was impressively observational, pinpointing my anxiety so quickly it felt almost embarrassing. I later told my sex surrogate partner this story and he reverently explained she’s a Dumbledore: wise, knowledgeable and the epitome of goodness. The Dumbledore of intimacy and sex.
S., my surrogate, was selected for me out of a group of male surrogates in the clinic’s team. I made only one request, which was that he not be too thin. Not that S. is fat, but I am, or have been, and body image is a major problem for me. I didn’t want to feel more self-conscious than I was going to anyway.
Although the time I spent with S. was a lot more conversational than physical, I was beyond nervous in the beginning. My left eye started twitching lightly in the days before our first date. I meet with men on my own all the time, but that’s for work. This was different. I spent most of our first date actively distracting myself from crying. There was no obvious reason to be upset, because S. came across as a warm, kind man. Comfortable in his own skin, which is more than I could ever say about myself. He seemed to be the opposite of me, to the point where I was concerned we’d have nothing in common. But I am accustomed to lying to men about my predicament and in this case he already knew about it, so all the energy I usually devoted to insincerity became a welcome, available resource. I shifted it toward dealing with the moment. The opportunity to speak honestly and openly with S. was a huge relief.
S. is a 38-year-old artist. The clinic’s surrogates must all have other sources of income, so besides his work as a musician, S. also teaches art and film to kids. And he’s a bartender, although I don’t know where. He’s originally French and has gorgeous hazel eyes.
Our last date “outside,” before sessions at the clinic, was on the beach. S didn’t own a bathing suit because he prefers to mostly skinny dip at night, but he made an exception in my case and kept his underwear on. We went into the water for a while and then hung out drinking cold beers he brought, ending up in an intense discussion about the meaning of intimacy. S. has had numerous sexual partners – he wouldn’t tell me how many, but I’m pretty sure he’s in the triple digits. So I shot off a statement about it not being intimacy if he can experience it with so many women. He seemed to take it in stride, but I felt awful, like I’d crossed a line. Rude and judgmental. Childish, cynical and mean. I became anxious about the whole thing in the following days.
SPT includes a report from the surrogate about every session, which my talk therapist read to me in between sessions. I always met with her after seeing S. He also met with her after every single session we had together. They were essentially a therapeutic team.
It turned out he’d enjoyed our discussion at the beach. In fact, he said it had been our best date up to that point. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t hit me back with the obvious rejoinder -- it’s definitely not intimacy if you don’t have it with anyone at all. But S. didn’t get offended as easily as I do; sex and intimacy are a few of his favorite conversation topics. I’ve naively gone through life thinking there is a single correct definition for intimacy, one that is morally superior and therefore clearly the right choice for me. That day I came to realize it was a completely subjective term and started to think about what it really meant to me as an individual.
The more I got to know S., the more preoccupied I became with this whole relationship being fake. I was growing attached to him. But at the end of each date, we both went back to our “real” lives. I had no way of communicating with him in between sessions. I was a job and therefore he probably felt some of what I feel about my own job, which isn’t all good. He’d never meet my friends or family. He wouldn’t visit my great apartment.
When S. saw I was having a hard time trusting the process, he tried to comfort me. He suggested that what we had between the two of us was more real than everything else going on around us and compared it to when the kids he’s teaching ask him whether scenes in a fictional movie are real. He tells them it doesn’t really matter because it’s real to them in the moment. So I stopped concerning myself with what he was up to when I wasn’t around. I stopped debating his motives or questioning his sincerity. He was helping me deal with my problem and very much present in doing so. That’s the only thing that mattered. Every other date I’d ever been on was a big lie and a waste of time.
I started worrying I’d fall in love with S. I was definitely developing a crush. My therapeutic team didn’t worry. They said they wanted me to experience the relationship to its fullest and if that meant I ended up with a broken heart, so be it. From their perspective it would enhance my therapy and was therefore a best-case scenario.
Our first meetings inside the clinic were about practicing sensate focus. Sensate focus was developed by Masters and Johnson in the 1960s to heighten physical and emotional awareness. It’s almost a form of “intimacy for dummies.” It’s about touching the body in a supposedly non-sexual way – arms, legs, face, neck – and basically enabled me to slowly get used to physical intimacy with S. It can be erotic, serving as a gradual turn on. But it started with strict rules of not touching sexual parts and we practiced it over several sessions as my anxiety reduced.
I was extremely embarrassed when we started, even though the boundaries were clear and I felt safe with S. I’d been on my own for so long that I wasn’t used to being touched, not even holding hands.
The face and hair session was a turning point. We sat on the couch across from each other, S. running his fingers through my hair and massaging my scalp for 10 minutes. He asked me to close my eyes. I don’t like my body, but my hair is one of the few features I’m confident about. It’s straight and soft and unusually thick, so it often gets compliments. I assumed S. was impressed. Then I touched his hair for 10 minutes.
S. moved behind me to feel my face. I leaned on his chest and somehow my embarrassment disappeared in his warm embrace. He touched my lips, my neck and eyelids. I started to relax as I felt his face right next to mine. It was the first time I’d ever given a man complete control over my senses, and I was drowning inside him. His hands were all over my head and face, his breath warm and sweet. S. stroked my hair and I found myself listening to his heavy breathing. It was amazingly sensuous. When he stopped, we just sat there for a while inside the magic. I felt like I was under a hypnotic spell. I would gladly give up every orgasm and shared joke and deep debate that came after if I could only go back to that one moment.
This is the love spell everybody talks about, the connection so many movies, songs, books and paintings try to capture. I don’t understand it; I was just happy to finally experience it. When I woke up at home alone the next day, I could still hear S. breathing in my ear.
I was becoming obsessed with S. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I found myself at business meetings thinking about things he and I had done to each other at the clinic. I work in technology and most of my colleagues are men. They’d be discussing some innovative new product feature while I would drift into an erotic daydream. I had to make a real effort to focus. Maybe it wasn’t love, just lust? It was definitely one of those two options. My therapist said it was a good sign. She told me to enjoy it while it lasted. I was already starting to anticipate the end: I would make it to the top of this cliff, enjoy the view for a few minutes and then fall off the edge, crash-landing back into reality. I knew it. But I wasn’t willing to stop. I hoped that a broken heart would lead me to the change I needed.
S. seemed genuinely fascinated by my frigid state, like he reveled in the challenge of thawing me out. By the time we had sex, I felt very close to him. What did I know about my surrogate partner? He likes fresh lychees, beer (Stella) and wine (red). Quotes George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” in the middle of an intense moment for comic relief. Owns a cat. Cycles. A huge Harry Potter fan, but stresses he means the books. When I told him about some of the stupid things men had said to me over the years, S. complained that 90 percent of men give the remaining 10 percent a really bad reputation.
I adored him and yet despite all this, I was a wreck during out first “penetration session.” It was all pre-scripted by my therapist: We were to start with me on top, not moving, in a position she seriously called “the quiet vagina.” This was meant to put me in control, giving me a chance to reflect about how I feel.
I rarely get drunk, but I couldn’t face this sober. I got some whiskey and drank three glasses before heading to the clinic. I brought the bottle with me in case S. wanted some, but he didn’t. He was clearly looking out for me, the responsible adult. He tried to postpone the deed when he saw I could barely walk straight, but I insisted. The room was spinning as I experienced a mixture of pleasure and shock and pain. S. talked about the act throughout; it was all strangely verbal. At first the narration was an annoying distraction, but I later realized he really helped me focus on myself and think. I wanted to be here, and S. made me feel completely protected in this environment. My life had led me to this unique and wonderful man, in this strange clinic and surreal circumstance. It was our 20th session together — and clearly where I was supposed to be.
Over the following sessions, I learned there’s nothing quiet about my vagina. In fact, I’m multi-orgasmic. I gather this is a rare perk and therefore view it as only fair: The universe is helping me make up for lost time. S. was amazed when we first realized what was going on. He had never been with a multi-orgasmic woman. Ha! I got a real kick out of being able to introduce my experienced mentor to new female sexual behavior. Over and over again.
S. saw me fantasizing about ways to continue dating him, so in our last meeting he told me there was no way I would ever hear from him again. He would never contact me. We parted ways after a total of 30 sessions and a long, heartbreaking hug. I watched him walk away down the street and went ahead to fall straight off that cliff even before he turned the corner and disappeared.
I was wrecked for a while. I still wonder: Why can’t I live happily ever after with S.? I don’t want to be with anyone else. We’re perfect for each other, in an opposites attract kind of way. Unfortunately, no one at the clinic saw this like me, despite SPT being about positivity and keeping an open mind. Apparently fairy tales are misleading. Intimacy is replicable, love and relationships are not about “the one.” S. and I were a pilot project and once it was over I was supposed to take what I learned into the world. That was the original plan and we’re sticking to it, because SPT has helped me build an emotional base for meeting someone else.
SPT is an extreme form of intervention, but S. said everybody could benefit from having a sex surrogate, even him. He’s usually right about this stuff, so I am publishing this piece to make sure more people know about it, especially women. I wish I had heard of SPT 15 years ago. I also wish I’d been more open and accepting once I finally did learn of it, instead of taking ages just to get used to the idea.
I continue to see A., my therapist, and am dating through websites and apps. It’s awful. A. says I’m a tough case and will therefore require 50 first dates before I find someone to love. I’m not sure if she means this literally, or if it’s just as a hypothetical number that seems beyond reach. I’m afraid to ask, and it doesn’t really matter. We’re in this for the long haul. A. claims that if you’re paying attention, there’s always someone irresistible to be found, but I’ll be lucky if I wrap it up by 2017.
As we built my online profile together, A. asked what kind of man I’d like to meet. I said I’m looking for a French-speaking artist/bartender in his late 30s, who gets around on a bicycle and moonlights as a sex surrogate. We skipped that question. A.’s pretty much open to me going on a date with anyone who has a pulse. I hate the whole thing, but I’m worried I’ll disappoint S. if I quit. I don’t want him to think his mentorship failed, or that I only changed temporarily. The sound of his sweet breath seems to fade a little more with every day that goes by, but I refuse to let go of his positive influence. I also trust A. and this process. I don’t want to crawl back under the same rock again. Now that I know what love and intimacy sound like, I need to hear them again breathing deep inside me.