Oct 19

Sexual Surrogacy and Sex Therapy: Follow-Up to “The Sessions”

In the new film The Sessions (see yesterday’s post), the role played by Helen Hunt is based on Cheryl Cohen Greene, who actually provided sexual surrogacy to Mark O’Brien. Her new book, An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner, becomes available next month.

Greene is the current vice president of The International Professional Surrogates Association (IPSA), the principal surrogacy training ground. According to Newsweek, however, relatively few certified surrogates are actually available for the hiring—there are “only 25 IPSA-trained surrogates in the country, almost all of them located in California.”

What is surrogacy and what is it not? In the movie, one of the things Mark is immediately told by Cheryl is that surrogacy is not the same as prostitution; rather, it’s time-limited help for a fee. In an interview about her work, real-life sexual surrogate Linda Poelzl explained how she clarifies her role to clients:

…I have a confidentiality agreement. I spell it all out in a paragraph, differentiating my work from prostitution. It’s not a contract for sex:

‘CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT: I understand that the surrogacy sessions are for the purpose of expanding my ability to feel physical pleasure and emotional fulfillment through greater intimacy and increased sensation and to overcome sexual dysfunction.  I acknowledge this session series is not for the purpose of sexual gratification or entertainment and may or may not include sexual intercourse, manual, or oral stimulation.  I understand and will abide by the above agreements.’

Some other interesting things about sexual surrogacy, as indicated by the above-cited Newsweek article:

  • The practice is not widely endorsed by psychiatric professionals or related professional associations, e.g., the American Psychological Association.
  • “More than half of IPSA’s clients are middle-aged virgins, and 70 percent of them are male.”
  • “Only 10 percent of IPSA’s clients are physically handicapped, and teaching them to embrace their sexuality is paramount to helping them find romantic partners. But even after a reaffirming experience with a surrogate, they may feel disconsolate and alone.”

Sexuality counselor Ian Kerner (The Chart, CNN) offers additional info about surrogacy, including its difference from sex therapy:

  • “…(L)ike a therapist/patient relationship, the question of whether a surrogate partner is sexually attractive to the client is not part of the equation.”
  • Sex therapy is different from surrogacy. Many sex therapists neither conduct “hands-on” sessions nor refer to surrogates. Sex therapy is more likely to be similar to other types of therapy—it’s about talking, not doing; it’s about encouraging the client to use his or her own real-life partner as the “surrogate.”
  • The practice of sexual surrogacy is “highly unregulated,” though IPSA does have a code of ethics. Who, though, watches over those surrogates who don’t affiliate with IPSA?

What’s the future of this profession? Surrogate Poelzl’s response (in her 2010 interview) to being so asked:

We are a dying breed. I think some of that has to do with the fear of liability that psychotherapists have; there are people who think this work is excellent, but fewer therapists want to risk their licenses. Maybe I’ll look into training people. We need young blood!

Oct 18

“The Sessions”: Sexual Surrogacy, Based on Mark O’Brien’s Life

The Sessions. Sounds like this film is about therapy, doesn’t it? Well, it is. But not about the kind we usually think of.

The Sessions is based on the true story of a man, poet/journalist Mark O’Brien, who was paralyzed from the neck down at age six due to polio. He first wrote about his experiences pertinent to the movie in a 1990 article called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” He died in 1999 at the age of 49.

Notably, director Ben Lewin is a polio survivor himself. Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter, describes the film, which hits some theaters tomorrow:

Using interior monologues to reveal the inner life of an essentially immobile man and interlacing levels that invoke religion, medicine, sex, psychology and art, writer-director Ben Lewin easily establishes audience sympathy for Mark (John Hawkes), a painfully thin man with an oddly twisted body who requires confinement to an iron lung for all but three or four hours per day. To get around, he’s wheeled on a gurney by a succession of assistants, principally Vera (the striking Moon Bloodgood). At 38, Mark figures that he’s ‘probably getting close to my due date’ and realizes that he’s never going to have sex unless he does something about it soon.

Watch The Sessions trailer below, which introduces Mark’s relationship with his priest (William H. Macy) as well as his surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt):

Selected Reviews

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “At once entirely frank and downright cuddly in the way it deals with the seldom-visited subject of the sex lives of people with disabilities…”

David Edelstein, New York Magazine: “The newest disability-of-the-week Oscar-bait picture is The Sessions, and it’s quirky and grounded enough to sneak past your more cynical defenses—the kind that would lead you, say, to label it a disability-of-the-week Oscar-bait picture.”

Roger Ebert: “‘The Sessions’ isn’t really about sex at all. It is about two people who can be of comfort to each other, and about the kindness that forms between them. This film rebukes and corrects countless brainless and cheap sex scenes in other movies. It’s a reminder that we must be kind to one another.”

Tomorrow, more about sexual surrogacy