“Do you use surrogates in your treatment programme?” At first, when such enquiries came in to the clinic I would dismiss the question, assuming that the person on the other end of the phone was a time-waster. Our clinic was simply above that sort of thing. Over a period of time, however, we received more and more calls of this type. I slowly, and reluctantly, began to take notice. What, or who, were surrogates, I wondered. How did surrogate partners work; how did they fit into an ethical programme for treating psychogenic sexual dysfunctions?
I vaguely remembered reading about surrogate partners when studying and researching the history of sex therapy. Masters and Johnson, who broke taboos surrounding sex and sexual problems in the 1960’s, pioneered the use of sex surrogates in their treatment programme. Their sex therapy model was based on a progressive series of desensitisation exercises known as Sensate Focus: non-demand touch, focussing on the various specific parts of the body. By receiving intimate touch with no expectations, the ‘receiving partner’ desensitised their anxieties and became comfortable with feelings and sensations: without any requirement to get an erection, or to respond sexually in any way. This method was a great success when working with couples.
The problem arose, however, when single people with sexual dysfunctions began to arrive at their clinic. Sensate focus needed somebody to provide and reciprocate the non-demand caress; single men or women who are afraid of intimacy, lack the confidence to make relationships—so Bill Masters and his ever-practical assistant, Virginia Johnson, found themselves in a ‘catch-22’ situation. Experimenting with the introduction of a surrogate partner solved this clinical dilemma. The experiment was a great success, but abandoned: due to the litigious climate in America, and the global advent of the HIV virus. As a consequence, their papers and books—which subsequently became the gold-standard training manuals for sex therapists all around the world, included only scant reference to surrogate partner therapy.
It was discovering the book, Women of the Light—the New Sexual Healers, that brought sexual surrogate partner therapy to life for me. I was enthralled as I read about Barbara Roberts, one of the first sex surrogates who blazed a trail through sexual prejudice and repression in America in the 1970’s and 80’s with her pioneering work. She sparked something very deep within me. Inspired by her vision and courage, my wife and I began another defining stage in our own life-journey; we arranged to meet with Vena Blanchard, President of the International Professional Surrogates Association in California. She became a surrogate when she was only twenty-one years old, and is still in active practice as a licenced therapist and surrogate partner to this day. After graduating from IPSA training, our whole life and career changed. We no longer simply believed in the logic of surrogate partner therapy—we knew the power of it experientially—and wanted more than anything else to make it available in the UK.