What Are Sexual Surrogate Partners?

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The terms "sex therapist" and "surrogate partner" have been used interchangeably in the news, despite major differences between the two professions.

The Sessions

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Helen Hunt as surrogate partner "Cheryl Cohen Greene" in the film "The Sessions."

With the recent release of the film, “The Sessions,” major news outlets have used terms such as “sex therapist” and “surrogate partner” interchangeably – as if they were the same thing.

What is a Sex Therapist?

Sex therapists are licensed mental health professionals who have completed graduate work in psychology, counseling, social work, or marriage and family therapy. They may be certified by the American Association for Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, in addition to belonging to organizations such as APAACA, or AAMFT. All of these organizations prohibit sexual contact between the therapist and the client:

In no instances will a Certified Sex Therapist engage in any kind of sexual activity with a therapy patient/client, whether in the office or in any location.  To do so is a breach of ethics, and in some states and provinces is a crime. (AASECT)

Sex therapists apply counseling and psychotherapy to address clients’ concerns about intimacy, desire, sexual pain, compulsivity, and many other issues. Sex therapists often work with couples, who are given homework exercises to complete between sessions, such as sensate focusing.

What is a Surrogate Partner?

Surrogate partners, however, do utilize sexual activity with clients as part of their profession. According to the International Surrogate Partner Association (ISPA),

The surrogate participates with the client in structured and unstructured experiences that are designed to build client self-awareness and skills in the areas of physical and emotional intimacy. These therapeutic experiences include partner work in relaxation, effective communication, sensual and sexual touching, and social skills training.

Surrogate partners are not licensed therapists or counselors, but have received training from the ISPA. Masters and Johnson began using surrogate partners in the 1970′s in their couples-oriented program, in order to treat single men with sexual concerns or dysfunctions. Here are some important facts about surrogate partners today:

  • Although the profession is controversial, it has been legal throughout the U.S. since 2003, as long as the surrogate partner works under the supervision of a licensed therapist.
  • A surrogate partner’s focus is different from a sex worker’s, in that a surrogate partner specifically addresses the sexual difficulties and dysfunctions a client may be experiencing, and not emphasizing the client’s genital pleasure per se.
  • About 13% of a client’s time with a surrogate partner involves physical interaction, such as directly teaching sexual techniques. Some surrogate-client relationships do not involve sexual contact at all, depending on client preference or the nature of the concern.
  • Surrogate partners often work with those who do not have a partner to practice with. Some surrogate partners specialize in working with people with physical disabilities.
  • Although there is very little research on the effectiveness of sexual surrogacy in overcoming sexual problems, a 2007 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found surrogate partners to be 100% effective in helping 16 female clients recover from vaginismus.
Adam Fisher, M.A.

is a Ph.D. student in Counseling Psychology at Indiana University. Adam's professional interests include couple & sex therapy, parent education, and working with college students. His dissertation is investigating the effects of religious belief change on romantic relationships.
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