It's more than just a helping handjob.
Still from 'The Sessions'
For many people, sexual dysfunction is one of those things that isn't even talked about, let alone dealt with. Sure, there are all those weirdly suggestive subway ads and television commercials aimed at dudes with erectile dysfunction—not to mention the over-the-top emails that flood our collective inboxes—but no real discussion about what goes on (or doesn't) between the sheets. Sexual surrogates, which gained a bit more recognition thanks to the 2012 film The Sessions, offer learning by doing; helping clients with hangups by offering the ultimate sexual healing.
Mark Shattuck is an IPSA Certified Surrogate Partner based in San Francisco. VICE spoke with him about why his services are more than just a helping handjob.
VICE: What does a surrogate do?
Mark Shattuck: It's based on the work of Masters and Johnson, where a therapist, a client and a surrogate partner do structured and unstructured exercises to help the client become more self-aware and develop their skills in emotional and physical intimacy. To be better at communication, social skills training for dating, relaxation, sensual and sexual touching. As you go through this process, clients have a relationship with the surrogate partner. They're a little bit more open talking about their feelings, more comfortable with emotional intimacy. You go through all these little exercises...it's kind of like a phobia model where we can start with a face caress, which can be very intimate, then we eventually disrobe and talk about our bodies and slowly do a back caress and move through these interactions that a lot of relationships might do--maybe a little quicker. In between seeing the surrogate partner, they talk with the talk therapist about how that was with the surrogate partner—how it was when we did a hand caress, when we talked about body parts, when we slowly did some touching and breathing exercises.
Why did you want to become a surrogate?
I was in sex therapy discovering all these new things after a divorce. The therapist said, "Have you ever thought of being a surrogate partner?" And I said, "What the hell is that?" Basically, it was what I was doing in my own casual sexual relationships anyway. He said I should check into this. The application process is huge—you have to write so much stuff about your own sexual development, your childhood, how you think about sex. It's a long narrative. Then you have to get recommendations from professionals in the sex therapy field. I thought it was something I'd be interested in. I would be good at that. It's nice to help people. And sex is super important; so if you can help other people have better sex lives, all the better.
What's the training like?
It's 120 hours of in-depth training. Then you go through an internship for a few years with a mentoring supervisor and you take clients as an intern. There's a lot of writing involved with how your sessions go, even when you're certified. It takes a few years to do an internship.
Does your girlfriend support your surrogate work?
We're open—we've been together almost ten years and I've been doing this for eight years. I was going into it and she said, "yeah, you'd be great at that." We also started out as an open relationship so we see other people as well. But doing this kind of work, she knows it's important for me, she knows I'm good at it. It's good to help other people with sexual issues.
Why would people seek out a surrogate (rather than a regular sex worker)?
A lot of men are either early ejaculators or have erectile dysfunction. Many seek out a female surrogate partner to help them be a little bit more relaxed and get through these issues to become more successful in their sexual lives. Sometimes people have basic social anxiety, or have left problematic and abusive relationships. People with disabilities. Transgender people who have new body parts and they're not exactly sure how they work and what to do with them. People with sexual trauma—rape or incest—who want to take back their sexuality. Some women have penetration issues like vaginismus, which is an involuntary contraction of the vaginal muscles—which won't even let a finger inside. You have to figure out how to have them relax. There are special tools called dilators that we use to help them get through these processes.
Who are your typical clients?
Most of my clients are women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are either virginal, or inorgasmic, or they don't feel they can be very intimate with somebody.
How long do people usually see you?
It can take anywhere from five sessions to 100 sessions; it depends on who the client is and how much money they have. This is not a cheap type of therapy. They're paying for sex therapy which isn't usually covered by health insurance, and they're paying the same for a surrogate partner, which is definitely not covered by health insurance. It's not an inexpensive undertaking.
How does it usually play out?
Most of the time a sex therapist will contact me and say; I have this potential client, this is what her issue is, can we all meet. The client has likely been in therapy for a few years and the therapist has likely talked about the eventuality of seeing a surrogate partner. So they're usually ready to go through this process. I'm 50 years old and I've never had an orgasm. Goddamit I'm ready to have an orgasm. A lot of times people come in and say, "I want somebody to give me an orgasm." They think that they'll have some highly-skilled sex god come in and give them an orgasm. That's not what we do. It's developing a relationship so that they can be comfortable with their bodies. They have to be intimate with themselves first. No man is going to give you an orgasm. You have to be able to do it yourself.
Do you ever get emotionally involved?
Every time. If you want to do this work you're basically putting yourself out there. If you're a talk therapist, you're sharing maybe five percent of your personal life with your client. As a surrogate partner, we're sharing 80 percent of our lives. I see my clients in my apartment. We use my bed. I wash a lot of sheets. Unlike a talk therapist who could have 20 clients a week, it's a much more emotionally draining and relationship type of thing so we usually have four or five clients at a time, max. I don't have more than two clients at a time, just because I have a regular day time job. I don't have the bandwidth to deal with more than that.
So you 'break up' with them when your job is done?
Certainly it's tough to deal with. I fall for my clients, I've had my clients fall for me. It's good—I mean, all relationships end so you're trying to mimic a real relationship. You're starting off with communication, and getting to know each other, becoming more intimate with each other. Once you've settled what their goals are—whether they are becoming more comfortable with their body, or getting naked in front of a man, or being able to go on a date and hold hands and kiss, or to have intercourse—you kind of know when you're accomplishing them.
What's been your most unusual experience?
I have a client now who has cerebral palsy. She doesn't know how her body is going to function trying to have sex. A paraplegic person or someone with limited mobility issues; if it's a wheelchair or whatever; you've got to figure out what's going to make them feel comfortable. How can they physically be comfortable and be sexual with a partner? It's saying 'I can't move my leg; can you pick up my foot and knee and move it over there so I can have access to your so-and-so and you can have access to me over here'. Just that communication—often as able-bodied people, we just take for granted. We're gonna flip around and try this new position; we barely even talk about it.
Biggest misconception about your work?
The first time you try to explain it to somebody, guys especially, will be like "you get to fuck chicks for money, man. That sounds awesome." Actually that's not what we do—it's a long-term process. It could be ten sessions before we even disrobe.
Has this made you more comfortable with yourself?
I'm 54, and I don't have the body of an Adonis anymore and I don't look like Brad Pitt. So what? Neither do most people. Some of the people that do have those kinds of bodies aren't sensually in tune—they look good from a distance, but when you're with them it's not necessarily exciting. It's about the person, it has nothing to do with what their body looks like, to be honest with you.
What's the best part?
Towards the end, ironically, where you see them go. It's so exciting that they've grown more than they ever thought they would have. It's the progress you see with people, the fact you've affected their lives. At the end of it, they're so thankful. They'll never forget you because you've changed their lives forever.
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