With sex—as with sports—it’s all about learning by doing, so you may as well find the best teacher possible. Inside the strange, ambiguously legal world of hands-on sex therapy
Photography: John Fiorucci
“Too fast,” she said. I slowed down. “Too much pressure,” she said. I eased up. “Something is wrong here,” she said and told me to step aside, her stout naked body plopping off of the massage table. I’d come to her slightly run-down apartment on the outskirts of the city as something between a client and a student. Gloria had agreed to help me overcome my professed sexual problems and imbue me with esoteric carnal knowledge. Money had changed hands for this. In the 25 minutes since our session began, however, my maladies had multiplied and what I thought I knew about sex had been greatly diminished. This was Sex 101, and I was flunking.
In the 10 or so years that I’ve written about sex and sexuality, sexual surrogate therapy had always intrigued me. This is a “hands-on” type of sex therapy developed by famed researchers Masters and Johnson in the 1960s, and it involves a three-person team consisting of the client, his or her therapist and a practice partner or “surrogate.” It’s controversial, both in the eyes of the law and the larger sex-therapy community. But it has a simple, inherent logic that I’ve always admired: it’s better to show than tell. Would you merely discuss your subpar backhand in the soft-lit environs of your tennis coach’s office? Of course not! He or she would be right there with you on the court—a firm, encouraging and seasoned hand guiding your own. Sex, unlike tennis, is an activity in which constructive criticism is seldom offered and rarely invited. Instead, one is expected to achieve a level of proficiency by osmosis. I decided that this simply wouldn’t do—my wife deserves better. What could be a more thoughtful and practical Valentine’s gift than my becoming a more skilled, intuitive sexual partner? When I couched it in this way, she quickly—perhaps too quickly—gave the project a green light. As the libertine spouse of a gonzo sex writer, she’s become accustomed to this sort of creative thinking.
Until now, the opportunity to experience surrogate therapy first-hand has proven maddeningly elusive. Alex McKay, research coordinator at the Toronto-based Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, told me that surrogacy is almost universally regarded as a dark art among sexual health professionals. As with many radical courses of treatment, there’s a risk that the paramount tenet of the Hippocratic oath—do no harm—may be broken, or at least twisted. Secondly, there are the niggling legal issues tied into handing someone a wad of cash to have sex with them (although this may no longer be a problem in Toronto after April 29 if changes to Ontario’s prostitution laws are upheld by the courts).
The International Professional Surrogates Association (IPSA) maintains that because of its undefined legal status, “there are generally no laws regulating the profession.” In lieu of any guiding legislation, IPSA has “assumed” the rather weighty responsibility of “assuring the therapeutic community and general public that its members have received adequate training, achieved professional competency and adhere to the highest standards of ethical practice.” The organization’s stated aims include referring surrogates to therapists and clients, providing surrogate training and upholding an internal code of ethics. All for a good cause too: IPSA president Dr. Vena Blanchard once claimed a 98 to 99 per cent success rate with her own prematurely ejaculating clients and supposes a similar rate of success among all IPSA partners.
And yet, McKay tells me, “I’m not aware of any major sex therapy organization that condones sex surrogate therapy.” When I asked whether the area was not lent a degree of credibility by its renowned innovators, he scoffed. “Well, Masters and Johnson was a long time ago and a lot has changed in the field since then, to say the least.” (This point is thrown into sharper relief when you consider that, at one time, the Masters and Johnson Institute’s mandate included “reverting” homosexuals to heterosexuality.)
And so, for now, sex surrogacy practices are a little clandestine—and trained therapists are hard to pin down, especially those who are willing to let a patient write about the experience. A few years ago in New York City, I met with a surrogate therapy administrator who decided—practically on sight, mind you—that I was completely ineligible for treatment. Then there was the email exchange with a surrogate partner in Los Angeles who sneeringly berated me for daring to ask her if she would walk me through this little known but purportedly effective therapeutic process for the purpose of letting more people know about it.
I found Gloria in Vancouver—long after I’d given up looking for sex surrogates and was actually in the market for a back rub—when a Google search barfed up her website. Her list of services included reiki, massage for sexual difficulties and sex surrogacy. She’d listed her certification as a “sexological bodyworker” from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, and touted an affiliation with IPSA. Her surrogate therapy was priced at $300 per session for a minimum of three sessions, plus a mandatory one-hour consultation/diagnosis for an extra $100. A thousand bucks was a little more than I’d expected to shell out on a Valentine’s gift, but I figured that if it all worked out I’d be off the hook for years to come: this is the quinessential gift that keeps on giving.
Over the phone, I informed Gloria that I wanted to write about the experience of undergoing sex surrogacy for an article. “I only treat people with problems,” she said. “Bye.”
“I have problems!” I blurted out before she could hang up. “Premature ejaculation, um…erectile dysfunction.” Both have happened on more than one occasion in the past, so I didn’t feel that this was an outright fib. After making me elaborate on my sexual inadequacies and thinking it over for a few silent seconds, she agreed to have me come out to her apartment.
A train, a bus and a short walk got me to Gloria’s place for our one-hour consultation. Gloria—compact, Chinese and in her 40s—met me at the elevator dressed in sweat pants, a t-shirt and slippers, her long, lank hair in a scrunchie. My loins weren’t set ablaze by the prospect of sex with her, but neither was I discouraged. I followed her into a back room in her apartment that was kept warm and dark. On the wall was a diploma from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, as well as a certification in reiki, level three. Next to her massage area was a little round table with two folding chairs. The lamp on top of it gave off an orange light and, as we sat across from one another, Gloria informed me about what I could expect over the next three sessions, pending my diagnosis: breathing exercises, intimacy work, genital massage, ejaculation control, erection strengthening techniques and ultimately, coached intercourse. As daunting as this laundry list seemed, I was already thinking of the outcome: that I would be equipped forevermore with an arsenal of techniques to shock and awe in the sack.
Gloria took a great deal of time explaining that the brand of sex surrogacy she currently practiced was no longer in step with the client/surrogate/therapist therapy innovated by Masters and Johnson and sanctioned by IPSA; she’d been part of this troika set-up before and found it wanting. Instead, Gloria was both the surrogate and the therapist in one. A paragon of free-market efficiency.
After talking for almost an hour, she asked me to get undressed and began her two-handed ministrations with copious amounts of heated coconut oil. Strangely, this felt no more sexual than a chiropractor cracking my back or a masseuse rubbing a knot out of my neck. Perhaps that was due to our having a fairly matter-of-fact chat throughout the procedure. While there were no signs of either of the ailments that I’d mentioned—both are hard to fake—Gloria eventually deduced that my problem was that I ejaculated far too often.
“Semen is poor quality,” she said, examining it closely.
My homework was to leave myself alone until our next session and to read through some literature she thought I’d find illuminating: The Illustrated Manual of Sex Therapy by Helen Singer Kaplan MD, PhD, and Reclaiming Eros: Sacred Whores and Healers by Suzanne Blackburn and Margaret Wade.
The former seems like an industry counterpart to Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex, similarly full of pencil drawings of mustachioed men and hirsute women, while the latter is a touchy-feely collection of essays on sexual healing, written in Taoist truisms and rather flimsy psychobabble. Self-conciously flicking through them both on the bus, it occured to me that these books summed up the general view of this practice perfectly: out of date, out of vogue and prone to forays into fuzzy learnings from the mystic East. I wanted to keep an open mind ahead of my first proper session but I was begining to see why sexual surrogate therapy had been so maligned.
When I asked Wendy Trainor, Toronto-based sex therapist and registrar of the Board of Examiners in Sex Therapy & Counselling in Ontario about it, she explained that surrogates are seen within her field as sort of curio from a brief and bygone era in sex therapy. “The research has demonstrated that while people may have overcome whatever their sexual concern was with a surrogate,” she said, “it was not transferring to their relationships in their life.”
But not all sex therapists are as disparaging in their views of surrogacy.
“I have a deep respect for all professionals who work to help clients overcome sexual challenges,” says Toronto sex coach Jessica O’Reilly, PhD. “I’ve had the unique opportunity to connect with and learn from surrogates who do work with special needs clients and those dealing with serious anxiety issues around body image, sex and touch, and was impressed by their level of genuine care, dedication and respect for their work and their clients.”
It was nice to hear that I wasn’t about to have sex with a woman who was universally seen as peddling some heretical offshoot of sex therapy. Before I went to my first full session with Gloria, I checked out her website and found that her list of services had been slightly altered. The words “sex surrogate” had been replaced by “sex coach” and the price per session had been slashed by a third. The description of the actual service, however, remained exactly the same. When I arrived at her place and asked her why this was, she said that, since her own brand of therapy was becoming increasingly distinct from surrogacy, she felt she had to define it as something else. “Sex coaching” has none of the dogmatic strictures of surrogacy and can therefore incorporate borrowed elements from all kinds of disciplines.
This time, Gloria was wearing a black and white sheer robe.
“Because you have no big problems,” she said in her stilted English, “I will teach you like I teach the virgin men who come to me.”
Gloria mentioned that, only recently, a handsome, 23-year-old innocent with intimacy issues had visited after being referred to her, she claimed, by his family doctor.
“He not virgin no more,” she said with a grin. “But he make love so mechanical.”
Gloria, who came to Canada from Shanghai around 10 years ago, also mentioned that she generally only saw one client per day, and that an increasing number of clients were women experiencing sexual difficulties.
Our session began with a primer on female sexual response. For women, she explained, sexual energy originates in the head and moves downward. Intense and prolonged kissing, she said, is the key to “vagina opening up like flower.” Gloria, however, doesn’t kiss clients on the grounds that it’s too intimate. Instead, we engendered closeness and facilitated her top-down energy flow by sitting across from one other, each staring into the other’s left eye and taking deep, synchronized breaths. After a minute or two, she moved several inches closer. A minute later, she was closer still and, after several more rounds of this, she was sitting bare-assed on my lap; our hearts and left eyeballs almost touching. I must admit, I found this exercise quite hypnotic, in spite of myself.
I was then asked to strip to my underpants and lie on the table. Gloria demonstrated how to prep a female partner for a round of satisfying lovemaking. For this, we briefly switched gender roles. My temples were rubbed, my earlobes jostled, my jaw line pressed and, all the while, Gloria waxed metaphysical. Chakras, chi and energy exchange were mentioned as her hot little hands were placed on my forehead and heart, my heart and crotch, and finally my crotch and a point on the centre of the sole of each foot. Then, my “breasts” were rubbed in the proper circular manner: the left one clockwise, the right counter-clockwise.
“OK, so now you do to me,” she said.
Gloria then discarded her single-ply garment and took my place on the massage table. I dutifully rubbed, jostled, pressed, cupped and prodded and was met with derision at every station. “You do too fast” and “you do too hard” were simple wrongs to right, but “make energy direction come up and out like fountain” took a little more interpreting on my part. It struck me part way through that, while some of these pointers would find a wide and appreciative audience, many tips may be particular to Gloria herself.
Things got real when Gloria asked me to demonstrate my oral sex technique. Before I knew what was happening, she reached under the massage table and with a familar ripping sound, produced a handkerchief-sized square of plastic wrap that would help ensure that we didn’t get too familiar.
Once my oral shortcomings had been throughly explained to me, Gloria—quite abruptly—said: “I decide that I don’t do intercourse with clients anymore.”
“Oh,” I said trying to not take this sudden change in the program personally. “When did you decide that?”
“Quite recently,” she said. “There is too much energy exchange, and my vagina is become like garbage can of sad energy.”
For someone with such a tenuous grasp on the English language, Gloria showed a knack for conjuring visceral images with just a few choice words.
“Instead you keep underwear on and just show me how you make love,” she said. “Use me as model.”
With my self-esteem shattered from both my myriad ineptitudes and Gloria’s snap decision to not have sex with me, I joylessly lugged myself up onto the massage table and mimed an approximation of my “style” in a variety of positions.
“You ever make wife come with sex?” she said.
“Yes!” I said, suddenly compelled to stick up for myself. “Lots!”
After all this play-acting, Gloria decided that she wanted to round out our first session by teaching me a method of energy control. This, apparently, I achieve by squeezing my anus while inhaling and releasing when exhaling. The tip of the tongue is held to the back of the teeth, I was told, to create an unbroken circuit through which energy can flow. She placed a finger in my bottom, so as to reckon my commitment to the exercise. “This is very important,” she said. “Squeeze harder! If you can do this, you can control ejaculation and also not be tired after orgasm.”
Though intercourse had been 86ed from the menu, Gloria had absolutely no qualms about administering condomless oral sex to demonstrate the effectiveness of the energy flow technique. I couldn’t say, hand on heart, whether my pre-event panting, squeezing and tongue pressing made a discernable difference to my ejaculation control or post-orgasm energy loss, though Gloria did comment that my semen quality had improved dramatically—a rare bit of positive feedback.
The following day, I received an email from Gloria saying that she would like to cancel our next session and that I should have learned enough about sex surrogacy to write my article. When I enquired as to why, she replied that she had to attend to the wellness of her sexual self and that she couldn’t be touched for a while. The books, she said, could be mailed back to her.
I checked her website and, once again, her list of services had changed. Instead of sex coaching, she now offered “healing touch” for both men, women and couples with the descriptions for each service writ vague. Given the timing, it was hard not to take it all slightly personally. Also removed from Gloria’s site was the mention of a partnership with IPSA. In its place, it read, “intuitive healer, student of a mystic school.” When I enquired with IPSA’s referral service, it was revealed that they knew of no certified practitioners in the area or in Canada as a whole.
Ultimately, I’d failed in my attempt to experience the strictly defined and highly controversial practice of sexual surrogate therapy. The next best thing had saddled me with more questions than answers.
I returned home to my wife who, once she stopped laughing at my woeful tale, did her best to build me back up after my failings had been so brusquely detailed and the remainder of my treatment suspended. I still think that for the right candidate, sexual surrogate therapy can, in theory, make sense. If you have a sexual malady that you need sorted out before you can, in good conscience, resume your dating life, and less draconian cures have come up short, then sexual surrogacy—preferably with a certified IPSA member—might be worth looking into. If, like me, you have a partner, it’s probably wiser to invite and absorb feedback from him or her and modify accordingly. This same protocol applies equally well to your tennis game, incidentally.