Movie brings new attention to sex surrogacy
SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A little known form of therapy is gaining attention from its portrayal in a new film called "The Sessions." It involves the use of surrogate partners to help patients resolve sexual issues.
Kari is a 43-year-old single professional who says she's gone through a profound change. While she doesn't want her real name used, she gives the credit to a professional sex surrogate.
"It isn't just that I got my life back, it's that I got my life," she said.
Kari says her fear of physical intimacy stemmed from episodes of sexual abuse as a child. She underwent traditional therapy, which helped up to a point.
"So I just knew that I needed something hands on," Kari said.
"She was very scared, very scared of human connection," Shai Rotem said.
Rotem became Kari's surrogate partner. He says trained surrogates can help clients conquer physical barriers left by a range of emotional or psychological issues.
"Can you teach somebody to swim by talk therapy or with talking? Can you teach somebody to ride a bike just with telling them the story of how to ride a bike? No. The answer is no," Rotem said.
Sex surrogacy has actually existed in varied forms for decades. Supporters point to the use of surrogates by clinical researchers Masters and Johnson in the 1950s. But interest in the practice increased dramatically after an award winning Bay Area documentary, which was followed by a newly released film.
Both films detail the relationship between disabled Berkeley journalist Mark O'Brien, and Bay Area surrogate partner Cheryl Cohen Greene, played by Helen Hunt.
"Although the aim is for us to have sex, I'm not a prostitute," Hunt's character says in a scene from the movie.
"I hope the move does this; I hope it helps people understand that most of us carry around invisible disabilities, mind sets that are very negative around sexuality," Cheryl Cohen Greene said.
ABC7 News found roughly a dozen therapists in the Bay Area who recommend sexual surrogates as part of their treatment plans. But others, like marriage and family therapist Julian Redwood, believe the practice, while potentially beneficial, is also fraught with ethical challenges such as the danger of emotional attachment.
"It's hard enough for a therapist to create the container wherein, yeah, it's a special relationship but there are really clear boundaries about what the limits of that are,'" Redwood said.
Kari and Rotem worked with therapist Vena Blanchard, head of the International Professional Surrogates Association, based in Southern California.
"So it takes a special person to be a surrogate partner, ethical and compassionate," Blanchard said.
Kari and Rotem worked together for about two weeks. Kari says much of the time was spent talking, and doing simple trust building exercises like holding hands, until she finally made the breakthrough.
"I leapt off the cliff and said I'm going to do everything I want to do to know that I'm a fully functioning woman," she said.
Kari says she's sharing her story to help other people who might be in the same position.
"And just being able to receive the love and compassion and affection, it's a great way to live," she said.
Surrogates typically charge about $200 an hour.
ABC7 News checked with the California Board of Psychology. Their policy is to investigate practices only if there is a complaint. To date they have no investigations on record related to sex surrogacy.
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