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Crippled by shyness, the 40-something professional can barely look Fern Arden in the face as he talks about still being a virgin at such an advanced age.
“Don’t worry,” the Manhattan sex therapist tells him. “We can work on this.”
If the doctor’s voice sounds confident, it’s with good reason. Arden is the founder of an exclusive private clinic off Central Park West that provides a very specialized type of treatment for psychosexual problems like this one.
She employs an all-female staff of sex surrogates, officially known as “surrogate partners,” who give clients one-on-one coaching in caressing techniques, kissing, feeling relaxed with another person in the nude and, inevitably, the sex act itself.
“The focus is not sex, but familiarity and intimacy,” insists Arden, who founded the Abel 2 Counseling Center 22 years ago. “We provide an environment, not for sexual pleasure, but for sexual learning.”
The licensed sexologist has never spoken about her practice to the media before, mainly because, she says, “I have famous clients.” But she agreed to talk to The Post following Friday’s release of the independent movie “The Sessions,” which is already generating Oscar buzz.
It tells the real-life story of a sex substitute from California who takes on a profoundly disabled man needing to experience sex before he dies.
“People tend to be ill-informed about what a surrogate partner does,” explains Arden, who hopes the award-winning film about the late polio sufferer Mark O’Brien and his surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene, will shine a much-needed light on the profession.
“They think of it pejoratively, the same as a sex worker, but it’s not,” she adds. “Just as you have legitimate massage therapists and people who run massage parlors, there is a huge difference between them.”
In fact, in 1973 a group of sex surrogates based in Los Angeles tried to accredit their profession. Today the International Professional Surrogates Association has about 30 surrogates registered in the US, though Arden’s staff are not members. Per the organization’s code of ethics, surrogates must have completed a two-week training program with the society and work under the supervision (but not observation) of a licensed sex therapist.
But, according to one law expert, the business is still illegal.
Derrelle Janey, a defense attorney at the Manhattan law firm Gottleib and Gordon, likens the sex surrogacy practice to prostitution — after all, money is being received for sex: “It doesn’t matter if the client is disabled, it doesn’t matter if he is suffering from some kind of emotional distress — that just makes it kind of sad. They have agreed to pay money for a sexual experience, and everyone understands that’s the transaction. In my view, that’s prostitution.”
As for why Arden has been able to operate her business for so long without running afoul of the law, Janey says: “Maybe this kind of thing has not been a priority of the district attorney.”
Arden, who has a Ph.D. from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, insists what she does is not prostitution; it’s a public service. Scrolling through her Web site, however, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. One page lists a number of women by age, height and weight details — most of them tantalizingly young and svelte like “Debbie: 29 years old; 5-foot-2; 100 lbs.” The difference is Arden also cites their personalities and intelligence: “They are sincere, patient and caring,” Arden writes on the site, adding that her surrogates “will have college degrees.”
Just like the character played by Helen Hunt in “The Sessions,” the three surrogate partners currently on Arden’s staff are “professionally trained clinicians” who report to her after each session.
“You would typically need a partner to resolve most sexual problems and for single men that is obviously an issue,” says Arden, who charges clients between $3,000 and $5,000 for an average course of 12 to 15 separate sessions with herself and the surrogate.
The sessions take place in her offices, but Arden does not watch the interaction between the client and the surrogate. Instead, she receives a full report of the progress from the surrogate and follows up with the men afterward.
“Most of the men who come to my center are sexually inexperienced, so the surrogate program allows them to progress with their treatment.”
She argues it would be “cruel” not to treat them and have them “remain dysfunctional” until they find a willing partner to accompany them to therapy.
“People have this perception of a sex surrogate as: ‘Oh wow, I am going to have a sexual teacher and we’re going to have hot sex!’ but it’s not that way at all,” says Arden, who requires her clients and surrogates to be tested for STDs at least once every two months.
“The sessions with the surrogate evolve gradually. It’s a very gradual, sensual process of getting used to holding hands, caressing and kissing.
“[The clients] could come into treatment for several visits before they even take their clothes off.”
Sarah, one of Arden’s surrogate partners — who agreed to speak to The Post on condition of anonymity and declined to give her age — carefully fielded questions about the practical side of her job.
“I usually begin sessions by working on eye contact and the way they hold their bodies,” she says, explaining that her background is in sexual psychology and social work. “We use massage and touch therapy, so the client can learn to be in the moment, be comfortable with their bodies and become aware of the sensations.
“We take a mind-and-body approach and slowly remove anxiety out of the equation.”
Asked whether she ever has penetrative sex with clients, she won’t comment.
This discretion extends into her personal life, too.
“I don’t feel compelled to tell everybody that I meet [that I work as a sexual surrogate],” she says. “There are certain people in my life who understand what I do and are very supportive of it.
“But there are also people in my life who there is no reason for me to even go there.”
By contrast, Greene, 68, whose notes about her work with polio victim O’Brien were used as part of the screenplay for “The Sessions,” is more than happy to reveal herself publicly.
Her memoir “An Intimate Life: Sex, Love and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner” will be out next month, and she enthusiastically endorses the movie. It depicts the period when she was 42 and O’Brien was a 36-year-old graduate student at Berkeley who hired her to help him lose his virginity. Despite living most of his life in an iron lung, he succeeded, continuing to enjoy sex with others until he died at 49.
“I first saw it in January at the Sundance Film Festival and, like everyone else, I laughed, I cried,” says Greene, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., and has been a “surrogate-partner therapist” for more than 30 years. “It captures the love and trust which sexual surrogacy is really all about.”
Greene says she makes about $50,000 a year and has a current client base consisting of men 40 and up. One customer recently died at 92. Ten percent of her clients are virgins who became so involved in academia or their careers that they neglected their love lives. “They’re like ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to come across as inexperienced,’ ” Greene says of her patients. “They finally say, ‘Life is too short. I’ve got to go into surrogate therapy.’ ”
Greene, who is married to a “wonderful, supportive partner,” charges $300 for a two-hour session and says penetrative sex usually happens on the sixth visit. She’s clearly satisfied in the job.
“I look at our work like this: If you go to a prostitute, it’s like going to a restaurant. You read the menu, you choose what you want, they prepare, they hope that you love it, and hopefully you want to come back.
“With a surrogate, it’s like going to cooking school,” she continues. “You get the ingredients, you learn to make a meal together — and then the point is to go out into the world and share that and not come back.”