Sex Surrogate RX

Something wonderful happens in the movie The Sessions, released last year, starring Helen Hunt as a sex surrogate who cures the virginity of a paralyzed (with physical sensation intact) polio survivor, played by John Hawkes.

The film strips away our preconceptions about intimacy. In the best traditions of storytelling, we see our own fragile sexual identities reflected back, at a safe distance. The film had a broader effect, though: it proved a rallying cry for advocates for universal access to sexual expression. The basic human right to have someone – a trained surrogate, if need be – to help fulfill those needs for people with accessibility issues. Intimacy is a universal desire, to touch and to be touched, to experience and share pleasure. And people living with disabilities, people living in retirement homes, honey, they are just as horny as the rest of us.

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From the essay by the late Mark O’Brien [the real person played by Hawkes] on which the film is based, from a 1990 issue of the literary magazine The Sun: “Sex is a part of ordinary living, not an activity reserved for gods, goddesses and rock stars.”

Enter Trish (first name only), a 50-year-old former human resources professional from Vancouver. She did a stint post-retirement working the phones for an escort agency and found a hole in the market: intimate company for disabled (mostly) gentlemen. She started Sensual Solutions in 2011, which is licensed as an escort agency and offers “sensual coaches” for house calls billed as self-development. As Trish says, the service is “for clients to explore and discover and reinvent intimacy for themselves.” It is necessary to stay cagey still in this grey zone. “Canadian laws aren’t there yet for surrogacy,” she says, hence the coaching angle. England, Germany and the Netherlands all have laws allowing sexual surrogacy; it seems Switzerland is farthest ahead on the curve with multiple schools at which many of those surrogates train. In California, there is an International Professional Surrogates Association but, as state laws vary, there are few professionals practising out in the open.

Surrogates (often referred by therapists) all have their rules of approach. Some offer just touch, others offer erotic touch; some kiss, some don’t; some will have full copulation with a client, others will talk and concentrate on arousal or performance issues.

Some of Sensual Solutions’ coaches help disabled couples physically facilitate intimacy. One Sensual Solutions client is Rick (not his real name), 53, who has cerebral palsy. He is now confined to a wheelchair and communicated this message via a writing board: “I went to school in Surrey in special ed. class. When I turned 21, I took a few courses at college. Since then, I have been to a couple of different colleges. I did sports until I was in my 40s. I lived in a group home for 15 years. I decided to move on my own in a townhouse. I have five staff to assist my daily needs.

“Up to now, everything’s okay, except my sex needs. Last fall, my friend found Sensual Solutions online. Up to then, I went to bawdy houses, but they were closing down. My friend gave me the website. I decided to try them. I try to get one of the ladies every six to eight weeks to meet my needs. It is very difficult to go out to clubs and meet ladies for me. I need some fun and intimacy once a while.”

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Also in the progressive province of B.C. is an association called EASE Canada (Equitable Accessible Sexual Expression), an advocacy group to assist people with disabilities in the healthy assertion of sexuality. EASE is lobbying the government to remove legal barriers to services and the recognition of sexuality as a basic right.

You see how the issue of accessibility and assistance to sexual expression (and release) for the disabled crosses over into the paradigm shift going on at assisted-living retirement homes? Zoomers who need assisted-living care aren’t hanging up their spurs just because they have moved into a communal setting.

Earlier this year, British tabloid headlines hollered about care home staff in East Sussex hiring prostitutes (the old-fashioned kind, one assumes without surrogacy training) to “service the needs” of residents. There was much finger wagging as well as lascivious details describing how residents utilizing the “privacy rooms” indicated they were getting busy with a red sock on the doorknob.

Of course, most romance in the rest homes is of the old-fashioned hook-up variety. Picking up chicks at the bingo game and such like. But the British experience highlights general concerns around implementing all sorts of arrangements, from cognition and consent issues to privacy and staff safety and family wishes.

The New York Times has been following the goings-on at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in the Bronx, where they have policies in support of residents’ “rights to engage in sexual expression.” This includes allowing (and occasionally procuring) dirty magazines, as well as shuffling the residents’ living arrangements so that at least one half of every new couple is in a private room.

Policies are straining at the seams. And hopefully, the experience of activists for the disabled will work toward better facilitation for anyone of any age who needs a little help sorting their sexual affairs. Laws and policies both need addressing in a more holistic way, as the needs are clearly there.

“A film like The Sessions changed my business,” says Trish. “There is a huge need out there, and I wish we could offer our services more widely. Everyone deserves a life fully lived.”

Leanne Delap is a freelance journalist who writes about fashion and lifestyle.