Sexual Healing

Part of him wanted to lay her down on the bed and hold her and make passionate love to her the way they do in romantic movies.

Part of him wanted to get his clothes on and get out of there as fast as possible. And never look back. And never discuss this moment. Ever.

They were covered in soapy bubbles, standing close to each other in the shower of her Fort Lauderdale townhouse. Steam crept down the bathroom mirror.

"Does that feel OK?" she asked, running her fingertips through the lather on his shoulder. He was a burly man, a merchant marine in his 40s who'd spent most of his life at sea. The only woman with whom he'd had any relationship was his mother, who was both religious and abusive. She'd often reminded him that sex was a dirty, sinful, unspeakable act.

Catherine, the woman touching him in the shower, was the first woman who'd ever caressed him.

"That feels good," he said in a shaky voice.

"Now I'm going to rub the other shoulder," Catherine said. A slim, modest-looking woman with straight, soft hair and a smooth, warm face, she was calm and reassuring. "That isn't too bad, is it?"

Before they got in the shower, they'd talked a bit, getting to know each other. They started with soft touching on the hands and arms. Eventually, they were standing naked next to each other.

All the while, Catherine encouraged him to talk about how he was feeling.

He said he was frightened, tense. He couldn't stop thinking about what his mother had told him so many times. He couldn't help but feel that what he was doing was wrong. But it also felt good to be touched. It felt good to connect with someone, even if it was just temporary.

Catherine continued rubbing him and speaking in a soothing, caring tone.

He extended his hands to her body. First to her hands and arms, then her shoulders and stomach, and soon her breasts. As his hands moved over Catherine's soapy body, he gulped. His eyes turned glassy. His hands shook. He felt a twisting deep in his chest.

Soon it was too much for him. The merchant marine was overwhelmed by the experience. He began sobbing.

"That's all right," she said, still covered in bubbles. Catherine's voice was like warm syrup on a cold morning. "Stay with your feelings. Talk to me. It's OK."

Catherine isn't his wife or girlfriend. Nor is she some trollop off the street. And while technically she is getting paid $185 an hour to play with him in the shower, she is not a prostitute.

She's a sexual surrogate — a partner supplied by the man's therapist so he can work through his sexual dysfunction. The concept of sexual surrogates first came about in the late 1950s, when sexology researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson were working with couples dealing with sexual problems ranging from physical handicaps to serious emotional issues caused by childhood trauma. Many of the most severe cases were men and women who struggled with these issues but understandably didn't have a partner to work with. So Masters and Johnson found open-minded, compassionate young women to fill the role of sexual partner for therapy purposes. Since then, men have also become sexual surrogates.

Partner surrogates can work with patients for as long as several years or for only a few weekends. Over an extended treatment period, a surrogate might dispense anything from verbal encouragement and soft touching to intercourse.

Though most psychologists no longer view surrogate therapy as radical, the practice is rare these days. Dozens of surrogates were spread across the country in the '70s and '80s, but today, in a Viagra-infused society, there are fewer than 30 licensed practitioners. And there is just one certified surrogate working in Florida — Catherine. She works with men traumatized by childhood abuse or who have physical or emotional handicaps that make sex difficult.

The merchant marine, for example, felt that his mother's sentiments about sex had a hold on him that prevented him from connecting with anyone. "It wasn't until his mother died that he would even think about these things," says Dr. Marilyn Volker, the Miami sexologist who brought in Catherine to be the sailor's surrogate. "He had never really been around women, and these thoughts paralyzed him."

Because he was so accustomed to living at sea, where he showered in saltwater once every few days, Volker and Catherine started by coaching him on simple things like dress and meal etiquette and showering and brushing his teeth daily. They were nonjudgmental and reassuring, explaining how a mature relationship should work.

"It's not about sex," Volker says. "It's about being able to connect with another human being."

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Michael J. Mooney