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Savage Love: Pickles & Surrogates

Dan Savage Aug 22, 2018 1:00 AM

I'm in a pickle. All I want is to experience touch, intimacy, and sexual pleasure — but without freaking out. I grew up with a lot of negative messages from men due to developing early, as well as having some other physical/sexual trauma (no rape or abuse), but the combination has me seriously fucked up. Whenever I get close to physical intimacy with someone, I run away. I'm not a virgin — but in those instances, I've been really drunk (and experienced no emotional/physical pleasure). This is not what I want for my life. I want a relationship and love, and to be open and comfortable with someone expressing their care for me in a physical way without panicked thoughts flooding my brain. I've done lots of therapy, which has helped, but not enough. I recently heard of something called a sexual surrogate, somebody who is trained to therapeutically provide physical touch and intimacy in a controlled and safe environment. Are they legit?

— She Can't Adequately Release Extreme Dread

Sexual surrogates are legit, SCARED, but please don't call them sexual surrogates.

"We'd like to see the language shift back to 'surrogate partner,' which was the original term," said Vena Blanchard, president of the International Professional Surrogates Association (IPSA). "Masters and Johnson originated the concept, based on the theory that many people had problems that required the help of a cooperative partner, and some people didn't have partners. So they trained people to work as 'partner surrogates.' The media took the term and changed it to 'sexual surrogate' because it sounded sexier. But 'sexual surrogate' implies that the work is all about sex."

So if surrogate partner therapy is not about sex — or not all about sex — then what is it primarily about?

"Surrogate partner therapy is a therapeutic treatment that combines psychotherapy with experiential learning," said Blanchard. "It's designed for people like SCARED, who struggle with anxiety, panic, and past trauma — things that can distort a person's experience in the moment."

Surrogate partner therapy happens in stages, with each progressive stage representing another "teeny, tiny baby step," as Blanchard put it.

Sex can and does sometimes occur in the later stages of surrogate partner therapy, SCARED, but it doesn't always and it's not the goal —healing is.

"By having these repeated safe experiences, in a context where there's no pressure, and consent is emphasized, and the patient is in control," said Blanchard, "someone liked SCARED can learn to manage her anxiety, and her prior negative experiences are replaced with positive new experiences."

While I had her on the phone, I asked Blanchard the first question many people have about surrogate partners: Are surrogate partners sex workers?

"A sex worker offers a sexual experience — that is the primary intention of what is a business transaction," said Blanchard. "What a surrogate partner offers are healing and education. A patient working with a surrogate partner is there to heal old injuries or break out of bad patterns so they can have a relationship in the future. People go to sex workers for an immediate experience — the agenda is sexual and about right now, not therapeutic and about the future."

Then I asked Blanchard the second question many people have: Is it legal?

"There's no place that it's illegal," said Blanchard. "There's never been a court case challenging it. In California, where surrogate partner therapy is most common, no one has ever in 50 years challenged it."

If you're interested in working with a surrogate partner, you can contact the referrals coordinator at IPSA's website: surrogatetherapy.org.

Finally, SCARED, the number of trained and qualified surrogate partners is relatively small — IPSA has just 70 members—so you might need to go where most of those trained and qualified surrogate partners are in order to work with one. (The part of California that isn't on fire is lovely this time of year.)

"Since there aren't many qualified surrogate partners available," said Blanchard, "people sometimes need to travel to another location and work intensively. People will come for two weeks and work every single day with a therapist and a surrogate partner."