I recently finished the most incredible adult sex education experience I could ever imagine. Twelve days of surrogate partner therapy training with IPSA, the International Professional Surrogate Association.

A surrogate partner is a member of a three-way therapeutic team that consists of a therapist, surrogate partner, and a client working together to help the client resolve their issues with relationships, intimacy and sexuality. Approximately 50% of people who seek out a surrogate are mid-life virgins with profound disabling social anxiety. Other clients may have a sexual dysfunction such as erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, or an inability to reach orgasm. Some have experienced sexual trauma and abuse. Many have never experienced a meaningful intimate human connection.

The client works separately with the therapist and the surrogate partner, often meeting for weekly sessions. In between sessions, the therapist and the surrogate partner communicate about the client’s progress as the work of each informs the other.

According to Vena Blanchard, our trainer and long-time surrogate partner and president of IPSA, “I sit and talk with them, put my new mind on their problem, teach them basic skills for functioning, relaxation and communication, and mindful body awareness. We practice those things for a long time. Some clients need more than just an education on body awareness, so we may work on body image issues and whole body sensuality.”

A 12 Day Journey

The training to work as a surrogate partner takes us on a journey along with our client. Yet we do in 12 days what may take a client months or years to complete. We are assigned a training partner and together we begin a relationship. We listen and build trust. We offer support as we provide a safe container in which our partner can grow. We move gradually towards intimacy. When it works well, we feel love and connection. Then, at day 12, we end the relationship. Much of it is not easy. All of it feels necessary.

By going on this journey ourselves, we get an idea of what a client will experience. Throughout the training we keep a journal. We are encouraged to reflect on our own triggers and emotions as they surface, knowing that clients will experience this as well. It will be our job to pay close attention to what is happening with our clients so we can continue to help them grow but at a pace that feels safe to them.

Learning good communication skills is integral to the process. Learning to listen to what your partner is saying and to ask for what you want. To accept a yes or a no with equal amounts of grace. To hear your partner’s needs and wants and offer a yes or a no with integrity. To stay true to ourselves while honoring our partner.

Surrogacy and Sensate Focus

Surrogate partner therapy is based on the work of sex researchers Masters and Johnson and includes teaching sensate focus as a foundation. Sensate focus is the principle behind a gradual path to physical intimacy. By starting with non-sexual touch, caressing a hand or face, it allows a person to get in touch with the possibility of pleasurable sensation in their body in a non-threatening way. A core principle is touching for your own pleasure. Being aware of what feels good to your hand as you gently caress your partner. Learning to caress as an act of receiving and to accept sweet caresses as an act of giving.

Learning about sensate focus in the training gave me an epiphany about how I had been using it without knowing it with a previous lover. I wrote about my experience in the form of a letter to him in my training journal:

I would like to thank you for the gift of your cock.

Thinking of sensate focus, when I was sucking your cock, it was always for my own pleasure. I was practicing sensate focus without acknowledging it. Everywhere I put your cock was because I was following what felt good to me. I savored the sensation of your soft flesh brushing against my lips, moving gently inside my mouth. To run my parted lips along your shaft and then to wrap myself around your glans, teasing your frenulum with my tongue, and then further, to move down your shaft feeling your thickness fill me. Inhaling your scent all the while anticipating the taste of your sweet pre-cum. Maybe vegetarians do taste better.

I did this all for my pleasure. Yes, I was hoping you were enjoying it too. I could hear your little yum sounds and I occasionally glanced up at you. I wish I could have a close up camera on your face in my brain while I had your cock fully in my mouth, so I could see the pleasure reflected there. I love how you let me, how you never pushed or made me change my pacing, my rhythm, my depth. I believe this was what allowed me to continue to follow my desire. With other men, when I have suddenly felt a hand on the top of my head pushing me deeper, pushing their cock towards the back of my throat, it took me out of my pleasure instantly and suddenly I was sucking for them. Although I could still enjoy it as an act of giving, I was no longer receiving. I knew that instinctively, but now I can name it.

Such a simple act, to let me pleasure myself. Thank you for this gift.

Learning to Share History

One of the first activities we do with our training partner is share our history. So I sat with my partner and I told my stories. I made jokes. I entertained. I kept a wall between the story and the emotions that it could evoke. Yes, my father died too young. Yes, I’ve had some date rape experiences. Yes, I can have sex and disassociate. I can tell these stories in great detail without experiencing the emotions associated with them.

As our relationship grew and I began to trust him, I was able to open up in a way that I never would have thought possible. Vena said at one point “there is wisdom in the process” and as we moved through a new activity each day and I began to allow myself to be vulnerable, I took her words in. Even for those of us who think we are pretty good at intimacy and relationships and sex, there is always more to learn, always an opportunity for growth. I believe the gradual deliberate process allows for that to happen in a way that relationships or sexual experiences can miss.

We also bring our bodies, including our genitals, on this journey. It was through that connection to my genitals that my heart opened up, that I felt a lump in my throat, that my eyes filled with tears, that I felt truly seen. I explain it in one of my journal entries. We were at a point in the process where we weren’t yet engaging in explicit sexual activity, nor did we have orgasm as a goal.

I cheated. I came. I had one of my little mini orgasms. Sitting on top of my partner and moving my hips, undulating, breathing, but most of all thinking. I was using my body for the physical sensation, using his to move against, his energy, his desire for me that I was feeling, his pleasure, and my thought process:

I am so wet for you.

I want your hard cock inside of me.

I know how badly you want to fuck me.

I would do anything for you.

These thoughts are my mantra when I have sex with a man. I ride them, each one a wave building on the other. And I repeat, as each wave washes over me, as each thought reaches my genitals, the sensation builds in my body, until finally it’s over. The waves subside. I come back to reality, back to myself. I am left feeling shy, vulnerable, exposed. He notices. He notices. He notices.

“What’s that shy look?” he asks.

Has anyone else ever noticed? I answer him, "Yes, I feel shy."

And then we let it go. I know that look. And I think sometimes men will find it sexy in a cute sort of coy way. I’m sure they’ve seen it. But has anyone else ever asked?

And I am left wondering now why do I feel exposed? I am an exhibitionist in the sense that I can get a turn on from people watching me be sexual by myself or with others. I can put on a good show. But when the show is over and I’m alone with someone, I am suddenly emotionally exposed. It is not my body, not my face, not my movements that are laid out for all to see. It is me. Do you see me? Do you want to really see me?

I chose to share this with my fellow trainees and when I read that last line, my voice shook and I broke down. I buried my face in my light blue shawl. I let myself feel. It was a breakthrough for me to allow myself that vulnerability. I almost didn’t do it. I had rushed out for my walk on our break, my fresh air, my quiet alone time, but after a few minutes I knew that what had happened in our session was significant and I had to write it before the feelings subsided. Before it became the past and something I could easily dismiss. Letting someone really see me is an act of self-love.

My partner asked me to read it again to him when we went to do our next session. I was able to read it this time without crying. He held me afterwards. I felt loved. Our next activity involved the possibility of genital touching and I asked him to tell me what he saw. He described it with such detail. He said my outer lips were engorged and that my inner lips looked brown on the outside and the inner side looked deep red, and my clitoris looked a deeper pink. Just a simple description of color changes, but relayed with such intention, such careful thought, such warmth and appreciation, that I felt he was seeing into me. And I thought how could so many people have been putting their fingers, their tongues and their cocks inside of me without first looking? Without knowing where they were going. Without knowing me. I am not saying that one night stands are inherently bad, but if you are looking for an emotional and sexual connection, there is wisdom in the process. (Read: My Pussy, Personified.)

I hold no blame for the men in my past who didn’t look. Nor for myself who never asked for it. I feel some sadness around it now. I am sad for them too. Because I didn’t see them, either. And it’s not as though I didn’t have fun, I didn’t feel sexy, or I didn’t feel desired. They made me feel good and I think I did the same for them. Some of them just wanted to get laid, and weren’t looking for a view into my deepest desires, my struggles in life, or my essence. Nor was I always looking for theirs.

When my training partner looked at my vulva and he described the changes he was seeing, I felt he was seeing me. All my stories. My humor. My beauty. My warmth. How interesting that I felt it was through my pussy that he found a window to my soul.

It’s making me cry now thinking of it. It is deep water I am swimming in. How many men could never swim in that water with me? Never look so closely? Tell me what you see. Tell me what you really see. How else will you know when I am ready? How else will you know how to touch me if you don’t ask and listen and look?

I know this intellectually. As a sex educator I’ve spent years telling people that communication is the most important thing for good sex. Yet it’s more than just saying slower or faster or harder or softer.

It is the “making” in making love. What are we creating together?

Sex Is Simple and Complex

Sex is both simple and complex. It is human connection at the most basic level. We desire this physical communion with others. It’s also necessary for the propagation of the species. Our bodies and our brains ask for it. Love is not a feeling. It’s a need. Simple.

Yet, society has made it complicated in lots of ways. Society dictates who, what, when, how, where, and with whom we can be sexual. These rules are enforced using a variety of covert and overt methods. Perhaps it is law, or maybe just implied. It is taught directly and indirectly. We are all policed and we police ourselves. We police our children, our partners, our communities, our fellow human beings. It is a strange system that is not serving us. The best way to control a society is to control the sexuality of the people in that society. When our sexuality is controlled, we are not free to make the families we choose, the connections we crave, or the lives we want.

Considering Future Challenges

Vena asked me in my exit interview what I thought my challenges might be. I paused. My vulnerability, I said. The fact that I am single now. I may be looking for love, for affection, for companionship, or for sex. I have to keep a balance. Ideally as a surrogate you experience love, affection and intimacy with a client and they experience this with you. Although you may have needs, the client cannot be your source of sustenance. We must feed ourselves first and get these needs met outside of the client surrogate relationship. The training reinforced for me how much I have to give in a love relationship and I won’t settle for anyone who can’t receive my gifts.

It occurred to me that my other challenge may be my body image issues. These will be triggered. Am I attractive enough for this client who is conventionally good looking? Do I look too old for this client if he is younger? I am aware of every wrinkle, every stretch mark, every imperfection that I see. I could easily focus on these. Yet if we look too closely at the trees that grow sideways or the ones that have bark peeling off their trunks or those that have lost their leaves, we could miss seeing our own enchanted forest.

With intimate human connection comes a beauty that is not dependent on youth or smooth skin or a certain shape. I have a friend who is in an open poly marriage and he was sharing with me how happy he has been for his wife since she has found such loving connection with the other men in her life. She comes home from a date glowing and he says “love looks good on you.”

I believe that love looks good on all of us. How could it be otherwise?

Vena says that when talking about her work if people are able to understand the basics of it, she will go on to say “how powerful the work is, how transformative it is for the clients and for me. How meaningful the work is. How grateful I am to be able to do it.”

She says people often ask her, “Do you go all the way?”

Her answer - “Yes, we go all the way to love and all the way to goodbye.”

Closure Is Important

Because the closure is important. Saying goodbye can be a challenge, as it was for us in the training. Yet, the goal is for the client to feel they can now go out into the world and find the love and connection they are seeking. They had a successful experience. They know what it’s like to touch, to kiss, to laugh with someone, to be held and to hold, to share secrets never before told, to lead and to be led, to explore, to experience sensual pleasure, to cry, to be seen, to be heard, to give witness, and to make love in every sense of the word. The confidence they gain from this will guide them when they seek to create loving relationships on their own.

This work will challenge me. It will require my intelligence (erotic, emotional, and intellectual), my sensitivity, my compassion, and my openness. I must be professional yet show warmth, be loving yet maintain appropriate boundaries. I must be fully present when working with a client and keep balance in my life outside of work.

Our job as surrogate partners is to help clients become authentic human beings who accept their birthright to give and receive love, to enjoy affection, to experience sensuality, and to be sexual. I can’t imagine any more meaningful work than this. Nor can I imagine a better way to spend 12 days. It’s taking your heart on an adventure. You don’t know where you will journey or where you will end up. But if you are open to it you will reap the beauty of the shared experience.