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How I Became a Sex Surrogate

The woman behind the new film "The Sessions" shares her sexual awakening and journey to sex surrogacy.

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   I contacted Shirley to learn more about what exactly a surrogate did. No, they didn’t just show up and have sex with a client. There was a protocol that lasted, on average, six to eight visits. It could be shorter or longer depending on the client’s needs, and there were specific exercises designed to address the most common sexual problems. Surrogates worked closely with traditional talk therapists and all of their clients were referred by them. They worked with both couples and individuals. Most of the people they saw struggled with premature ejaculation, delayed ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, lack of desire, little or no sexual experience, poor body image, anxiety, physical disability, or some combination of these issues. A keen sense of compassion and a deep capacity for empathy were essential because, as a surrogate, you helped people address some of the most deeply personal, anxiety-provoking issues that they would ever face. Potential surrogates also must have addressed their own issues with sexuality.

   The practice of surrogacy originated with Masters and Johnson, whose groundbreaking research in the 1950s and ’60s popularized the study of human sexuality. William Masters and Virginia Johnson were married researchers who did some of the earliest scientific work on the human sexual response and sexual dysfunction. Their books, Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy, were bestsellers and some of the first works to demystify sexuality. At their center in St. Louis they trained the very first surrogates and created the template for the process we use today.

   Originally, Masters and Johnson worked with married couples who were struggling with a variety of sexual issues. Later, they opened their practice to single men and the profession of surrogacy was born. Another pair of married researchers, William E. Hartman and Marilyn Fithian, developed additional exercises and wrote a number of insightful books, including Treatment of Sexual Dysfunction. They worked with surrogate partners in California who were trained by Caroline and Emerson Symonds, two highly-respected sexologists. At the Center for Social and Sensory Learning in Southern California, Barbara M. Roberts, MSW, began training surrogates and therapists as well as offering workshops for the public. Shirley referred me to two therapists who worked well with surrogates and in a few days I had an appointment with one of them in Berkeley.

   By this time, my marriage had been open for almost five years and I had enjoyed my share of sexual partners. Michael and I had come to a working agreement about how we would handle outside relationships.

We wouldn’t let them interfere with our time with our children. We would only go out one night a week each, and one of us would stay home with Jessica and Eric. If one of us came home late, there was no sleeping in the next day. We got up at the same time the next morning to make breakfast and get the kids off to school. When I discussed my new career course with Michael he was supportive and I don’t think this was just another example of Michael’s disquieting lack of jealousy. I believe he truly understood the value of this work and wanted to see me find a career that I could embrace and nurture. If Michael had ever had conventional attitudes about sex, he had jettisoned them so long ago that it wouldn’t occur to him to be critical of this profession. He also understood that traditional mores about sex needed to evolve, and if surrogacy could play a small role in helping with that, so much the better.

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