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What Surrogate Partner Therapy Is And Is Not, Directly From The Experts

An illustration of two people sitting face-to-face on a purple carpet from the elbows down. One person is sitting with their legs crossed inside of the other person's legs around them, and they are holding hands.
Charnel Hunter

In surrogate partner therapy, a therapist, a surrogate partner and a client work together to understand and help resolve the client’s challenges with physical and emotional intimacy. What helps provide a safe space for clients to explore their sexuality? 

Many people were first introduced to the concept of surrogate partner therapy by a movie called “The Sessions” starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. It is based on the real-life experiences of the late journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, who sought out the services of a surrogate partner to explore his sexuality.

But the movie was released over a decade ago and some experts, including Brian Gibney, say it is not the best representation of the work. Brian is a surrogate partner, intimacy coach and educator based in Charlottesville, Virginia. Host Anita Rao talks with him about this type of therapy’s process and reviews a few exercises he uses with clients on to help them connect with their own bodies.

Another surrogate partner, Arianna Fernandez, joins the conversation from Los Angeles to talk about the importance of two-way touch and setting clear boundaries with clients. They also talk about how their own gender identity helps them to build understanding relationships with clients.

Anita also talks with Deva Segal, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist based in San Francisco. Deva recently started incorporating surrogate partner work into her practice and helps give Anita insight into how she determines if a client is a good fit for the therapy.

Special thanks to Jeannie Miller and Michelle Renee for sharing their stories with us for this episode.

What You Need to Know About Surrogate Partner Therapy

What is surrogate partner therapy?
Surrogate partner therapy is a form of therapy, first conceived by Masters and Johnson in the 1960s, in which clients can overcome obstacles to emotional and physical intimacy. It always exists in a three-person relationship between a client, surrogate partner and a supervising therapist.

What makes a client a good fit for surrogate partner therapy?
“The folks that make the best candidates for that realize that they have a part of themselves that may be getting in the way or they have experiences that are making it difficult for them to have real world experiences and they want to find a safe place to find out more about that.”

According to Deva Segal, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex coach, people who make the best candidates tend to be single and have little relationship experience due in part to trauma, ability, neurodiversity, difficulties with attachment and sexual interest.

What does a surrogate partner work on with a client?
“The work is part science, and it's part art. And often, we don't really know, we as the whole team, right? The therapist, the surrogate and the client, really don't know what the work is gonna look like until we're in the middle of the work. So especially in the very beginning, the work is kind of diagnostic.”

Charlottesville-based surrogate partner Brian Gibney says there are many different things you could address with this kind of work — gaining more self-awareness, learning consent and increasing communication. No matter what journey you’re hoping for, this work will start with the triad working together to zero in on how to address a client’s issues most effectively.

What are some common misconceptions about surrogate partner therapy?

  • It is associated with full service sex work.
  • It is the same thing as sex therapy.
  • It is only for people with physical disabilities.
  • It is illegal.

Interested in finding out more? Visit the International Professional Surrogates Association’s website.

Paige Perez (she/her) is a Caribbean-American audio and photojournalist born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. Her work covering sexual and reproductive health, the climate crisis, and racial inequity is published in The Guardian, HuffPost Voices, and Bronx Times. Paige is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, where she concentrated in health/science reporting and specialized in audio and video. When she is not reporting and producing, she is probably visiting local art spaces or making images.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.