‘Sex Surrogate’ isn’t the half of it: why the work we do is so much more

There are a lot of articles popping up on the internet these days about “sex surrogates” — “What I learned from a male sex surrogate,” “Sexual Surrogates help many who may suffer alone,” even Wikipedia has a page titled “Sexual Surrogate.” Although these articles often highlight the work of incredible, talented surrogates, their use of this term can be a bit misleading. Within the community of the people doing this work, most of us call ourselves Surrogate Partners.

So what’s confusing about “Sex Surrogate?” To start with, sex is only a small portion of the work we do with an individual client, and plenty of clients choose never to engage in sex at all. Most clients come to us because they’re struggling to engage in intimate physical relationships. They are seeking to heal past trauma, deep insecurities, or physical challenges. They are ready to engage in a process of dramatic self work. They’re not just looking for sex.

For most clients, the first several sessions are focused solely on building comfort in their own bodies; touch doesn’t start until much later. Once the client, therapist, and Surrogate Partner all agree that the client is ready to physically engage with the surrogate, touch begins very slowly. If a surrogate and a client do engage in sex, it usually takes months (and sometimes even years) of work.

Which brings up another issue — what, exactly, is sex? Many folks would probably define ‘sex’ as penetrative sex, a concept that I think is pretty heteronormative and inflexible, not to mention something that many clients aren’t even seeking. What about laying in bed next to each other naked? What about oral sex, which feels pretty darn intimate to me? What about the dozens of other sexual activities that build intimacy? I like to think of ‘sex’ as something much more expansive than the ‘sex’ that’s usually implied in the media. The limitations of this outdated definition of sex make the term “Sex Surrogate” feel insufficient.

What about the term “Surrogate Partner?” It came from way back in the day — the 70s, to be exact — when William Masters and Virginia Johnson, a clinical research team, began developing a methodology to treat sexual dysfunction. In the initial research, they used only married couples, but when single folks started reaching out to them with the same needs, they sought out surrogate partners — in other words, replacement spouses.

I admit, I find the term less than satisfactory. I don’t want to be anyone’s replacement anything — I have genuine, meaningful relationships with each of my clients (which helps them go on to have genuine, meaningful relationships with all their future partners). Unlike a birth surrogate, who is quite literally filling in for a mother during pregnancy, I don’t aim to serve as a surrogate romantic partner but to be a friend and guide along the journey to intimacy.

I also don’t like the way that “Surrogate Partner” implies that people are meant to have a single partner for most of their life. As an advocate for alternative relationship structures, I deeply appreciate the myriad ways people find to romantically connect with one another. I don’t want to contribute to the oppressive structures of a society that tells us to be straight and monogamous.

I think if I were to choose a term for my work completely on my own, I’d choose something like “Intimacy Guide” or “Therapeutic Companion.” But as a member of the small community of Surrogate Partners, community and solidarity are much more important to me than the label I use for my job. I want to see this therapy heal as many people as possible. The only way to continually expand the reach of SPT is to grow the community of Surrogate Partners, which I believe happens not just through education about the work but also through building a supportive, active, deeply connected community of Surrogate Partners. So, even though I don’t think it is a perfect term, I identify as a Surrogate Partner in order to support my fellow surrogates and be part of a community that is doing invaluable work. I feel truly blessed to be part of this community.

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