Since I started writing this column last October, I have been frequently bombarded with questions, from my inner circle and from strangers over email. I try my best to address whatever comes my way, in the best way I know how, but it's not always easy. It can be uncomfortable to make yourself so vulnerable, but it's an important topic that I feel needs to be discussed.
Recently, a friend and I were bored at home on a rainy day, flicking through Netflix looking for something to kill the time. My friend, who was wielding the remote, stopped on a movie called The Sessions and asked if I would be interested in watching it.
For those of you who haven't seen it, The Sessions is about a severely disabled young man who uses the services of a sex surrogate. A sex surrogate is a person who is paid to have sexual activity as a way of improving their client's issues around sex and to give them an avenue to explore their sexuality in a safe space. The movie focuses on the relationship between a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) and her client, a poet (John Hawkes) who lives in an iron lung after a serious childhood case of polio paralyzed him from the neck down. The movie, which is based on the true story of Mark O'Brien, charts the evolution of their relationship through six nerve-wracking sessions, where he moves toward losing his virginity and finding romantic companionship. A deeply religious man, O'Brien's payment for sexual activities cause him inner turmoil, so he seeks the Catholic Church's blessing to have sex before marriage (which he's given).
The Sessions is also the movie I ritually watch before I go to my own "sessions" as a 25-year-old person with cerebral palsy (CP). Seeing someone in a similar situation to myself gives me the courage to go, and to be open to anything. Knowing that someone so much worse off than myself can find a partner makes me feel better about my own search. Despite my disability, I've got the looks and the personality (plus the modesty).
One particular scene from The Sessions has always stuck with me. It's when Helen Hunt's character introduces her client to something called body-awareness exercises to make him aware of different pleasure centers throughout his body. My own muscles are often quite stiff at the beginning of a session, so I will frequently get massaged until I feel relaxed enough to start exploring. A typical session for me includes everything from making out to intercourse.
Even though I'm paying them, it's a huge confidence boost for me. Still, the feeling only lasts for the hour and half or so of the session. When it's over, self-doubt and self-disgust sets in. Is paying for sex all I'm destined to do? That's the question that goes through my head each and every time. Am I desirable?
Still, I've been through way worse things in my life, and I can only be down on myself for so long. Another reason I use the service is that I want to be able to bring knowledge to the table, to actually know what I'm doing and be comfortable sharing this experience with a person I love, and who loves me back. But for now, it is just service that I receive for monetary compensation.
I first went into a consultation for the service when I was 20. Having seen movies like American Pie, where a group of friends all make a pact to lose their virginity before high school is out, I too was eager to make it happen. I got this idea in my head that that's what high school is, that this is just what you do in high school: You lose your virginity.
Usually, with these services, you have a consultation with them that explains your needs. People with disabilities can't just jump into bed, there are things that need to be worked out first. It was during this pat of the process that I soon realized I wasn't ready. Although I've been ready, physically, for what seems like most of my life, when it came down to it I didn't think I could I handle it on an emotional level. And so, rather than just losing my virginity randomly, I wanted to sleep with someone I cared a lot about and who also cared for me, someone who I connected with.
Seeing a sex surrogate has given me an avenue to explore my sexuality in a safe space, to become more comfortable in my own skin, and to practice for when it really does matter.
I waited several years—three, to be exact—but the right woman still hadn't come along, and so I finally took the plunge at 23. These days I am now seeing my second surrogate. Before I started going to my sessions I set a limit for myself: four sessions with each surrogate, so as to make maintaining an emotional objectivity easier on my part.
But with my second surrogate, I decided to disregard that rule. She is kind, caring, very beautiful, and very sensitive to my needs. After talking through most of my sessions, she knew many of my desires and wanted to fulfill most of them for me. In short, she is giving me an experience that is more like what one might find with an actual girlfriend or partner.
Despite the fact that I am emotionally—as well as physically—quite vulnerable and that my surrogate and I have a connection, I try not to let my emotions cloud my view on reality. These intimate sessions simulate an experience, but I know they aren't the "real thing," so to speak. The sex surrogate is very professional and makes me feel special in the few hours I am in her company, but it is important for me to guard my feelings, to keep from getting too close. Always I have to bring myself back to reality and see things for what they are: I am her client and she is providing a paid service.
I am convinced this is not a struggle that only I myself face. Watching The Sessions, and reading O'Brien's essay on which it is based, confirms that for me. Certainly, there are those are able to have sex, no strings attached. But in my view, sex is rarely just sex. At least one of the parties involved usually ends up feeling emotionally involved, and the whole situation can backfire. Things get complicated.
Still, I have no regrets about my decision to hire a sex surrogate. It's not for everyone, but seeing a sex surrogate has helped to boost my confidence and given me an avenue to explore my sexuality in a safe space, to become more comfortable in my own skin, and to practice for when it does matter. If you are thinking of a sexual surrogacy service, I recommend that you don't just rush into it. Instead, inform yourself by doing your own research and make a decision based on your own personal comfort level. It will be worth the wait, I promise.
If you've got questions or would like advice about dating and sex in the disabled community drop us a line and Spencer will try to address it in a future column.