When FBI agents raided and shut down the MyRedBook.com sex-for-sale website in San Francisco a few weeks ago, thousands of solicitation and masseuse ads quickly disappeared—but so too did numerous ads on the site offering “sex surrogacy” services for men with special needs.
For some men, seeking out sex surrogacy on sites such as MyRedBook is the only option known to them, says a sex surrogate who contacted the Bohemian after the crackdown. The surrogate says the federal sting, along with recent masseuse-parlor busts in Petaluma and an enhanced focus on arresting johns, has the North Bay sex-surrogacy community fearing for its survival.
“A lot of guys have no social skills, and this is the only way that they can get touched by a woman,” says the source who like many sex surrogates works outside state-sanctioned channels of sex therapy and requested anonymity.
If prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, then sex surrogacy is perhaps the second-oldest—but one field has nothing to do with the other, says Vena Blanchard, a pioneer in the American sex-surrogacy movement at the International Professional Surrogates Association (IPSA), a training and certification organization based in Los Angeles.
A key facet that distinguishes sex surrogacy from prostitution, in the legal sense, says Blanchard, is that “surrogates are not soliciting clients to come to them—they are working with therapists.”
Men who use the services of sex surrogates include amputees and guys with other disabilities, 40- year-old virgins (hey, it happens) or men who, for whatever reasons, simply cannot develop healthy, intimate relations with women. Married couples will engage in surrogate-partner therapy to help teach men a little more tenderness.
The sex-surrogate source who contacted the Bohemian says the value in advertising on places like MyRedBook is that it draws men who may not find their way to sex therapy because they’re intimidated, can’t afford it or don’t know it’s out there. There are several dozen IPSA-certified sex surrogates in the country, and those come to clients via referrals from licensed sex therapists.
“Some guys have no other outlet” than to find a sex surrogate, says our source, who adds, “I don’t see any free therapy going on out there.”
The source’s concerns about legal exposure may be overblown, says a veteran Bay Area sex therapist.
“As far as I know there has been no legal hassle of surrogate partners or their clients in the 30 or so years I’ve been practicing and writing,” says sex-advice therapist Isadora Alman, who writes the popular “Ask Isadora” advice column.
The source’s MyRedBook ad, she says, emphasized gentle and healing touch, no fishnet stockings or other sexy lures—contrasted with the salacious sea of some 35,000 ads for escorts and happy-ending masseuses.
“Sex therapists have a hard time forwarding to sex surrogates,” says the source, who has been a professional sex surrogates for decades, she says. “It’s a scary time to have to start scrambling for business.”
Blanchard says sex surrogates were “ill advised” to advertise on sex sites like MyRedBook.
Legally speaking, “surrogate-partner therapy doesn’t exist in a gray area,” says Blanchard, thanks in no small measure to State Attorney General Kamala Harris, who, while an Alameda County prosecutor, affirmed the legality of regulated sex therapy, including the use of sex surrogates.
Harris told the San Jose Mercury News in 2010: “If it’s between consensual adults and referred by licensed therapists and doesn’t involve minors, then it’s not illegal.”
Even then, says Blanchard, “only a teeny, tiny percentage would even be considered ‘sex’ under California law. Most of it is about relaxation, nonsexual touch; it’s about learning how to focus attention on your partner.”
“I don’t have a problem with the sex-work industry,” Blanchard adds, “but it’s not at all the same thing as surrogacy.” Mixing the ads, she says, “can be confusing to the public, and possibly to law enforcement, if you start fuzzying the boundaries between them.”
Clients in sex-surrogacy programs learn some basic stuff, like how to hug, and Blanchard describes the therapeutic process as a months-long “gentle progression” toward—maybe—actual sex with a surrogate.
“You can’t resolve the difficulty if you can’t get close to the behavior,” she says.