When Michelle Renee’s 18-year marriage ended, her life completely changed course, leaving her to focus on her relationship with herself.
“As my marriage was winding down I was taking charge of my sexuality,” she told The Mirror.
“I was always comfortable talking about sex, but I struggled with my own sexual relationship in my marriage.”
Michelle, originally from Michigan, US, learned about Betty Dodson, a sex educator and creator of BodySex, which runs workshops on female orgasm.
“I got this goal that I wanted to become multi-orgasmic. In my marriage, masturbation was discouraged and I didn’t get the chance to develop my own sexuality,” she explained.
“I transitioned out of the marriage and started learning to love myself. That was my original goal.”
But as Michelle, now 45 and living in Baltimore, progressed through the workshop, she realised she wanted a change of career and to work in sex therapy.
“I’d heard of surrogate partner therapy because the movie The Sessions had just come out. I thought I’d love to do that work, but when I talked to therapists in the area they said I’d never find a therapist with a surrogate in the state.
“I lived in a very conservative part of the country, so I didn’t think it was a great way to spend my money to train as a sex facilitator,” she said.
The movie is a story about a 38-year-old man who is a virgin, and who finds a sex surrogate who he has six sessions with, in order to lose his virginity.
While many people refer to what Michelle does as ‘sex surrogacy’, she prefers the term ‘surrogate partner therapy.’
The surrogate partner practices intimate contact and erotic work with a client to help them overcome a wide range of problems. Sometimes (but not always) this involves having sexual intercourse with the client.
In the UK, surrogate partner therapy is technically legal. According to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the following are prohibited by law: Soliciting in a public place, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and kerb crawling.
The act of paying someone for sex is not illegal in the UK – however, the practice is considered controversial due to ethical and safeguarding concerns.
Explaining her work on her website, Michelle writes: “[Surrogate partner therapy] is not illegal because any erotic or sexual touch is NON-TRANSACTIONAL.
“In other words, the touch itself is not the service provided because it exists in a larger context of therapeutic work.”
When Michelle first started out, she realised there wasn’t any real demand in her area for surrogate partner therapy. But there was a gap in the market for a different kind of intimate work – cuddle therapy.
Michelle said: “It was still considered ‘edgy; work in Michigan, but I liked to cuddle and I thought I can do this.
“I quickly realised I was already doing sex education by helping clients build a foundation of communication and boundaries.”
Wanting to take her work further, Michelle moved to California in the summer of 2018, where a more liberal attitude towards sex opened up a market for her to practice surrogate partner therapy. And she’s been working in the field ever since.
She explained: “It’s a triadic model, so there’s a therapist, a client, and me. By the time the client has been referred to me, they have become established with the therapist over a period of time.
“The client works separately with the therapist and with me, and then I will have sessions with the therapist about our sessions with the client where we’ll share information.”
She explained how the aim of surrogate partner therapy is to help the client built a foundation of “communication, boundaries and creating safety.”
Michelle said: “Ninety percent of the work I do is non-sexual. These clients are with me for six months to a year before any erotic work begins.
“It’s very measured and there’s no rushing through it.”
She pointed out surrogate partner therapy is different from compassionate sex work, which is when a client sees someone to have their sexual needs met.
“I’m teaching them to go out and create a relationship. There’s no fixed time limit for how long one client is with me,” she said.
Michelle works primarily with straight cisgender men, many of whom still haven’t lost their virginity into adulthood. She also has a lot of clients who have issues with erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation.
“All of these issues come down to teaching the client how to establish safety and trust with a partner.
“They think it’s a genital issue but it’s more about getting them present in a safe, authentic, loving environment,” she said.
Michelle added a lot of men can feel a lot of pressure to perform in sexual situations while having a lack of understanding about what sex is.
“What does sex mean? There’s such a broad buffet of ways to have sex,” she said.
“I have a client right now who had an extremely traumatic childhood with sexual abuse. In the dating world, he has problems with erections.
“As we started working together, I realised touch was a trigger. So how do you move into a successful sex life when touch is triggering?
“We have to do exercises to make him feel safe with his own touch, let alone my touch or anyone else’s. A lot of this is teaching the client to know how to have boundaries so they can advocate for themselves.”
Michelle, who loves her work, said it’s fulfilling to see her clients progressing and can often see changes early on in the process.
“Every time you see them, you can tell that how they hold themselves has changed,” she gushed.
Michelle thinks her life experiences have led her to the line of work she’s so passionate about – particularly after her marriage ended.
She said: “I needed to work out boundaries and learn how to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I had to learn what I wanted – no one had ever asked me before.
“When I got into professional cuddling, I needed to teach my clients to do things I was learning how to do myself. I was just a few steps ahead of them.”
Now in a new, healthy relationship, Michelle believes she helps others develop the relationship skills she’s learned.
“I teach them how to have healthy anger and how to communicate. I’m lucky enough to have turned it into a career.”
While many people refer to her as a ‘sex surrogate’, Michelle calls herself a human connection coach.
“We don’t really call it sex surrogacy anymore. It’s about creating the human experience for people. If I do get to sex with a client, it’s a very long way down the line,” she said, explaining she only ever has sexual intercourse with a few clients.
“If you’re a late-in-life virgin, then you’ll need to have a sexual experience at some point, but for most people, it’s a case of rewiring.”
Michelle said sometimes people have misconceptions about the work she does with clients.
“There’s a presumption that we work with married couples. Most of the time, married couples aren’t a great fit for surrogate partner therapy because there’s already a partner there.
“When you’re in a partnered relationship, those wounds can only be worked on inside that relationship. If you have a partner, that’s where a good couples therapist comes in,” she said.
Perhaps the most important myth she wants to debunk is that surrogate partner therapy isn’t actually about sex.
“Sometimes people call themselves surrogates but they’re not actually working with a therapist. What they’re actually doing is offering compassionate sex work,” Michelle explained – although she acknowledged all surrogate partners work differently.