Intimacy can be a deeply complicated and personal thing to navigate for most people — and, for many, it can come with its own unique challenges. Particularly for those looking to overcome sexual dysfunction, social anxiety, sexual trauma, inexperience, later-in-life virginity or are otherwise exploring an identity shift, they may need professional help to find the connection to sex and intimacy that is right for them.
Researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson believed that people could only learn about sexual intimacy by experiencing it. In 1970, they published a book called Human Sexual Inadequacy that first introduced the practice of Surrogate Partner Therapy (SPT) — formerly known as sex surrogacy. Surrogate partners help people struggling with physical intimacy by using therapeutic exercises, such as breathwork, body mapping, and mutual nudity. About 15 to 20 percent of the time, it includes intercourse between the patient and their surrogate partner.
Is Surrogate Partner Therapy a good fit for couples?
Historically, this practice only consisted of single men with female surrogates. But that’s not always the case today.
For example in Israel, some former-soldiers who are disabled use this form of therapy to learn to have sex again with their own partners.
“I didn’t fall in love with my surrogate. I was married. It was just to study the technique of how to get to the goal. I took it as a very logical thing that I have to do,” one former soldier and patient told BBC.
One woman, who sought out surrogate therapy because her relationship was lacking intimacy, said that surrogate therapy helped her become more trusting and affectionate with her partner.
“Sexual surrogacy has helped me feel a lot more confident in asking for what I want and being more assertive. I am also more open to experimenting with my partner,” Kelly Nolan, the owner of sex toy shop Lush Sensation told SheKnows. “Having this experience helped me and my partner learn how to find meaningful moments and closeness without always having to have sex,” she concludes.
Still, many surrogates don’t believe people in relationships should be working with a surrogate. According to Erika Davian, a trained surrogate partner and a life and intimacy coach for millennial men, sexual surrogacy is not appropriate for someone who is already in a relationship.
“If someone is already in a relationship, there is no need for a surrogate partner. This can bring up feelings of jealousy or confusion that may add to the difficulties a couple is already facing. The recommendation is for the couple to experience couples therapy together,” she explains. Instead, she believes working with a surrogate partner can help a person who is single develop necessary intimacy skills for a future relationship.
“It can be really helpful to be in relationship with someone who is not your ideal partner, where the stakes are lower, and you can explore the obstacles that have gotten in the way of intimacy in the past,” she adds.
Davian’s clients are not looking for a quick fix, they’re looking to work through what caused their struggle with sexual intimacy in the first place.
“It can be really helpful to be in relationship with someone who is not your ideal partner, where the stakes are lower, and you can explore the obstacles that have gotten in the way of intimacy in the past.”
Michelle Renee, a Surrogate Partner and founder of Human Connections Coach, also doesn’t believe people in relationships should seek out a surrogate: “Surrogate Partner Therapy is generally not an appropriate modality for clients in relationships,” she says. Still, she believes that couples can benefit from surrogate therapy — minus the sex part.
“Thankfully, many of the exercises can be translated to couples and many surrogates work with couples as intimacy coaches,” she says. Couples can work with a coach to practice healthy relationship, communication, and intimacy skills.
Renee doesn’t work with couples as a Surrogate Partner, but she does partnered work as an intimacy coach.
“I’m currently working with a couple with mismatched sex drives,” she says. “I support them in being able to communicate their individual needs and desires and offer resources in the medical world as well as inter- and intra-personal skills to support their relationship.”
Through learned communication skills, Renee helps couples establish new ways to connect and feel pleasure. Like with SPT, she encourages couples to supplement their intimacy sessions with talk therapy support.
Couples can certainly benefit from working with an intimacy coach if they’re struggling to physically connect. But when it comes to SPT, it can be complicated for someone already in a relationship to work with a partner through physical touch. In some cases, couples may even attend surrogate partner therapy sessions together, which can limit the possibility of jealousy. In the Israeli soldier’s case, his wife is the one who encouraged him to see an SPT. It all depends on your needs, your partner’s needs, and your needs as a couple.