Surrogate partner therapy involves three people: a client, a surrogate partner, and a therapist. The client practices hands-on physical and emotional intimacy skills with the surrogate partner and then processes the session (and how their new skills are playing out in their daily life) with their therapist. Once in a while, a prospective client pushes me to work with them without a therapist, or to help them find a therapist, and my answer is always “No.” Here’s why:
- It’s impossible to have the professional distance required of a therapist when I’m partnering with a client. In a client’s relationship with their therapist, a certain level of distance creates safety; like a good parent, a therapist doesn’t let their own baggage get in the way of holding their client. (For more on this, listen to Josh Korda discuss “mirroring” and “marking” in “Addressing Insecure Attachment with Mindfulness” – about 15 minutes in.) But partnering is a different story. My role as a surrogate partner isn’t to set my own emotions aside in order to care for my client; it’s to bring them into the room alongside the client’s emotions, so that we can navigate and negotiate together. This means that once in a while my own trauma is gonna get triggered, that sometimes the client and I might get into conflict, and also that one or both of us may fall in love. That’s what the therapist is here for: to support the client when challenging moments in our relationship come up, and also to support me with my feelings, and in noticing what pieces are mine and what pieces are the client’s.
- I’m not a trained therapist. My training is in sex education, somatics, and partnership work. Although I’ve learned a lot from the therapists I’ve worked with, I have no formal training in psychology or psychoanalysis. Processing the challenges, memories, and trauma that come up in surrogate partner therapy is a critical piece of integrating your learnings so you can apply them in your life, and the practitioner who can help you do that is your therapist.
- Seeing that a client is already committed to their therapy journey is how I know a client is ready for this work. Surrogate partner therapy is intense. Many clients come to me thinking they’re just going to “practice sex” and then they’ll be all set. But that’s not how this process works. When someone has significant blocks to physical intimacy, there is almost always an emotional root to the issue. Building our way up to erotic connection requires building trust, self reflecting, investing in our relationship, and, inevitably, digging up old emotional wounds. When a client comes to me having already started therapy, that shows me they’re ready to take on the deep, hard work that surrogate partner therapy requires. If a client hasn’t started therapy or is only planning to start when they begin working with me, I feel doubtful that they’re really prepared for this journey.
- Talking to the therapist is one of the ways I screen my clients. Screening is an essential tool s*x w*rkers use to keep ourselves safe. Talking with a therapist about their relationship with the client assures me that the client is someone who won’t harm or mistreat me. And if I do ever feel unsafe around the client, the therapist is my built-in support for navigating that.
Before you ask a surrogate partner to work with you without a therapist, consider why surrogate partners have these boundaries in the first place. The structures of surrogate partner therapy are not arbitrary; they exist to keep both of us safe. Honoring someone’s boundaries is one of the clearest ways to show them you respect them, and as you’ll learn if you do embark on the surrogate partner therapy journey, boundaries are one of the core building blocks of relationships and physical intimacy.