His shoulders hunched unconsciously as he gazed towards the floor. It had happened again. A small breeze ruffled his naked body and he shivered despite the Brisbane heat. Sharp anger lanced through him and he cursed his body for the thousandth time since the surgery. Was he still a man? Her hand came to rest onto his sweating shoulder, startling him. “It was better that time John,” she said. He half-swivelled, catching a glimpse of warm eyes and blonde hair silhouetted against the bland floral wallpaper of the hotel room.

John grunted, the rumble making him acutely aware of the limp piece of flesh between his thighs. “My cock doesn’t work. It’s as simple as that,” he said. Her hand traced gentle circles on his back, teasing out his tension. He relaxed a fraction, sinking into her warmth. “It was much better than last time,” she said. He grunted again, a trifle more subdued.

“We can’t rush it, John. The doctors say that you’re doing remarkably well for someone who had his whole prostate removed.” Twisting, John looked her in the eye for the first time. He sighed. “I know, Robyn. Thank you for understanding. The missus never understood that.”

Hands moving expertly over his knotted back, Robyn talked to him softly. “You can please women in many other ways, John. I’ll teach you next time,” she said. “I’d like that,” he said, surprising himself. “When can I see you again?” Robyn paused, calculating. “Let’s have a session in September. I’ll teach you some tricks,” she said, winking. John smiled for the first time. Shrugging his clothes on, he blew Robyn a kiss and left.

Robyn Leslie has worked as an escort for four years. She leaves her Gold Coast home to fly around Australia, dining and flirting with men as a prelude to sex. As a paid fantasy, her work is the essence of illusion. But beneath the brash veneers of her clients, Robyn noticed that many had massive insecurities about sex. Debilitating anxiety, desperate to perform but unable to – whatever the cause, the sufferers were sexually crippled. Looking for solutions, she stumbled across the controversial therapy of sexual surrogacy, where someone struggling with sexual dysfunction turns to a surrogate to practice and work through their issues.

Almost two years ago, she began offering the service, patiently working with older men suffering age-related impotence and deftly deflowering anxious virgins. Robyn’s idea – a sex worker turned therapist – is a neat twist on an older trend. Conceived by pioneering American sex researchers Masters and Johnson in the late 1950s, sex surrogates would receive clients from therapists and use a combination of talking and hands-on sex practice to help clients overcome sexual hang-ups.

Immediately controversial, the therapy encountered stiff professional resistance from old-school psychologists defending the fundamental therapist-client commandment: Thou Shalt Not Touch. What, they asked, was the difference between surrogacy and prostitution? By the 1960s, the answer didn’t matter. Surrogacy picked up speed during the sexual revolution, spreading across America and internationally. But then the tide turned.

Stung by a lawsuit brought by the angered husband of a surrogate, Masters and Johnson reluctantly stopped in 1970. Other therapists kept the idea alive until AIDS cast a pall across the free love era. Frightened surrogates quit en masse and the therapy nearly died out, kept alive only in Israel, where the government began using surrogacy to help injured soldiers return to society. Australians dabbled with the therapy in the 1970s, but it was all but forgotten here until recently, when Robyn Leslie discovered that what her clients needed already had a name.

Sitting at a quiet Japanese café in Surfers Paradise is a woman very much off-duty, a 33 year old escort gone incognito. Her hair spills out in long locks, her clothes chosen to hide her body rather than flaunt it. But Robyn Leslie can’t hide her publicity-shot smile – wide, honest and unaffected. Unlike most other escorts, she uses her real name. She’s proud of working as an escort and sexual surrogate, describing it as a dream come true. A shy, introverted child, Robyn was transfixed by her first glimpse of prostitution – a fleeting image of streetwalkers in a forgotten film. “They were in lovely short skirts, stilettos and low-cut tops – for me that was the ultimate expression of femininity and confidence. When I was eight, my aunt asked me what I wanted to be and I said a prostitute,” she laughs. “It’s always been a dream of mine.”

She says sexual surrogacy makes sense because she already acts as a surrogate partner for the 80 per cent of her clients who are regulars. Her first surrogate client came to her about 18 months ago. “Tom” was 18, a virgin eager to lose his V-plates. He visited Robyn at her Gold Coast apartment. “Tom wanted to learn how to talk to girls, how to kiss them, and to learn what might happen later on,” says Robyn. “It was lessons in sex. The first time, I took my pants off and got him to feel my vagina. I asked him what it felt like – isn’t it nice and warm and wet?”

In later sessions, Tom would suggest a sexual position he’d seen in porn or heard about from mates – missionary, doggy-style, 69ers. “He was so eager to learn,” says Robyn, a knowing grin on her face. Was Tom nervous when he first went to see Robyn? “Fucking oath,” he says on the phone, laughing. “But this has really built up my confidence. I was a socially awkward guy until I went to see her. She taught me how to approach women in a social environment and she taught me the basics of sex. Since then, I can meet girls in clubs, no problem.” Anxiety about sex is the number one reason that men of all ages seek Robyn’s surrogacy services. “Society says we should all fuck like porn stars, but that’s not the case,” she says. “If a man fails to get an erection, it affects him quite deeply. He becomes very unsure of himself and feels less of a man,” she says.

Impotence can also have a physical cause as it did for “John”. When he first came to Robyn, he was a mess. His marriage of 22 years was failing, spurred by his inability to make love, and he’d broken his back in a truck accident soon after recovering from prostate surgery in 2005. Depressed, jobless and with a recalcitrant penis, John sought oblivion in drugs. “By the time I broke up with my wife in late 2006, I was drunk every day, smoking pot and swallowing morphine painkillers like they were lollies,” he says. “I just didn’t feel like a man anymore after the operation.”

Too embarrassed to talk about the issue with his friends, John turned to escorts. “Robyn understood. She made me realise that I had more to offer than just a hard dick. It really helped me get my self-confidence back,” he says. For Robyn, the challenge was helping John, now 46, realise that intimacy did not have to end. “When he came to see me, he was a ball of frustration. He’s different now – he tells women he meets that normal sex just doesn’t work, but that there are other options.”

Robyn admits she’s not yet a trained psychologist (she’s studying towards her degree) but says that four years of sex work has been excellent preparation for surrogacy. “Sex therapists have their place, but they have theory, not practice. They may have only had three partners in their entire lives,” she says. “I’ve slept with thousands of men, and my clients feel very comfortable seeing someone who does it everyday. Doctors and therapists can be too clinical for my clients. They say it’s like trying to talk to their mothers or fathers about sex, and many come from a suppressive upbringing.”

Robyn discovered surrogacy shortly after a few Australian therapists renewed interest in the idea. Israeli psychologist Ilan Biran visited Melbourne five years ago, discovering a kindred spirit in sex therapist Dr Brian Hickman. The duo began offering surrogate services in 2003, and Hickman continued the work after Biran returned to Israel. The East Melbourne-based therapist analyses the client’s sexual issues before introducing a trained surrogate.

“Surrogacy is not prostitution masked as therapy. Prostitution is a transaction, but surrogacy is about helping people,” he says. “I’ve rejected many clients with serious personality disorders or who just want sex. If a client is suitable, I ask the surrogate to see if they are interested. Most clients have a lethal cocktail of bad sexual experiences, a lack of knowledge and high anxiety about the act. 95 per cent of our clients have anxiety-based issues.”

Hickman is the only openly practicing therapist who uses surrogates, though there are several who operate under the radar in Sydney. The reason? The law makes no distinction between sexual surrogacy and prostitution and Hickman could potentially be charged with running an illegal brothel. Hickman admits surrogacy is a grey area. To avoid trouble, his surrogates – two women and a man in Melbourne and two women in Sydney – operate out of a rented apartment nearby and ask the clients to pay a hotel fee, just as escorts do. At $600 for a session – one hour with the therapist and 90 minutes with the surrogate –therapist surrogacy is about three times as expensive as Robyn’s surrogacy fees.

One of the Melbourne surrogates is “Violet”. A therapist by trade, she says surrogacy has allowed her to explore her fascination with sex. “I want to understand why it’s problematic for so many people,” she says, an unfeigned warmth in her voice. Now 49, she has a wealth of personal experience to draw on. Recently emerging from a decade-long relationship with a woman, she has three adult children from an earlier relationship with a man.

“I was always comfortable in my body, in my sexuality,” she says. “But I misused the power of sexuality when I was very young. I saw it as a way of controlling men, and that’s what set me on this journey.” In earlier times, Violet says, it was common for young men to be gently initiated by an experienced older woman. When awkward, inexperienced men come to her, she too is gentle. “I’m not a sex goddess. It’s not even about the sex most of the time,” she says. “Men put on this bravado act and talk about how many women they’ve screwed, but beneath that is a deep-seated fear and anxiety. Once they can let go and relax, you can meet that person in a very real and authentic way. I’m just trying to encourage men to trust women.”

Many years ago, comedian Wendy Harmer made an observation about men and women that lodged in Violet’s mind. “She said, we’ve got it wrong. We think girls are sensitive and boys are the tough ones. But women are tough. We’re really strong. Men are extremely sensitive beings who have had to cover it up with a lot of crap. I’ve seen that to be true. How can you feel deep love for someone if you’re terrified of being vulnerable?”

When a new client comes to Violet, she will spend the first session in a café talking to him. The next time, she may touch him, to help him acclimatise to her presence. Their sessions may build up to limited or full sex, but not always. “I would never have sex just because they wanted to,” she says. “That’s the distinction between surrogates and sex workers. Surrogacy is an extraordinary experience. It’s wonderful to see someone really work through their fears or anxieties.”

But while Violet and Hickman insist that the distinction between sex work and surrogacy is well-defined, professionals in the field are less sure. Hickman’s lobbying for surrogacy has caused friction within Australia’s peak body for sex therapists, ASSERT.

NSW president Maria Caetano is blunt: “There is one person pushing this, and we don’t support him. (Hickman) makes money out of it,” she says. “Surrogacy can be psychologically and socially damaging to the surrogate and harmful to the client.”

Acting Victorian president Lynda Carlyle dubs surrogacy a “political minefield”, a technique bolstering an inaccurate perception of sex therapists as hands-on sex workers. ASSERT this year chose overwhelmingly to uphold the ban on sexual contact with clients. “If we back sexual contact with clients, there is no way the government is going to want to know us as an association, and we are seeking their support at this time,” Carlyle says.

For sex therapist and head of Impotence Australia Brett McCann, surrogacy is inherently flawed. “Surrogacy is an artificial relationship complete with sexual intimacy and the client can form a dependency,” he says. “Surrogacy was a product of its time, the 1960s and 1970s, and there were good results,” he says. (Masters and Johnson claimed a 75 per cent success rate treating impotence; Hickman claims 95 per cent.) “But surrogacy is risky – you can’t guarantee the surrogates won’t have emotions,” he says.

Hickman readily admits that burnouts are common. “Surrogates burn out because they’re very caring and they want to help people. But all professionals have to learn the ability to help is powerful but limited. You cannot fix someone’s life,” he says.

For 38 year old “Janie”, Hickman’s second female surrogate in Melbourne, the authentic connection is worth the risk. “This is the missing link. These clients are not getting the best therapy if they can’t get physical. You could talk about it forever, but give them one physical session, and they can move on,” she says. “We all need a nurturing touch, and if we don’t get enough, we develop patterns to block it out. I give them what they need.”

As for Robyn, her surrogacy work is building slowly but surely. Surrogacy clients seeking tips on how to please current or future partners quickly learn the importance of the G-spot. “Most men know about the G-spot but they’re not interested. Get interested,” says Robyn, mock-sternly. “Learn the come-hither movement. It’s a powerhouse.”

A smile drifts across her face as she recalls her biggest success to date, a man in his 60s who had never had a relationship with a woman. “He was interfered with as a child by a teacher, and as a result he lost his virginity to an escort in his mid-40s,” she says matter-of-factly.

Robyn’s client avoided touching her vagina because of another childhood incident. “His friends were playing with a Venus flytrap, a plant he felt was shaped like a vagina and he freaked out when it grabbed his finger,” says Robyn.

She coaxed him to try touching a real vagina. Wetting his finger and dipping it inside her, he was amazed. “It doesn’t have teeth. It doesn’t bite,” he said. Working with him patiently, Robyn helped him overcome the phobia, a rarity called vagina dentata. “It was really rewarding to see a man carrying issues for 50 years finally overcome them. After that, I thought wow, we can do anything.”

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