Healing Hands

Rita Bell is a sex surrogate, which means men pay her to have sex with them as a way of resolving their sexual problems. Though she doesn’t have actual intercourse with every client, there is usually some form of sexual contact, since the men come to her with specific difficulties, like erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, or its opposite, “retarded ejaculation.” There are several differences between her work and prostitution: She talks to her clients at length about their dysfunctions, and she looks less like Julia Roberts than like a zaftig hippie aunt. But she advertises in the same publications prostitutes do, and her married clients never tell their wives. In a city where image is everything, it seems the difference between a prostitute and a sex surrogate is the difference between pornography and erotica: lighting.

Rita grew up in a liberal, sex-positive family and went to a Seven Sisters school in the seventies, where “people were very free about sexuality,” she tells me as we sit in her cozy prewar living room. After graduating, she worked in the film industry, and in 1986, she saw a documentary about a sex surrogate in California and became intrigued. Later, she began seeing a female psychologist who knew a surrogate who was looking for help.

Rita began training with the surrogate and taking on some of her clients for a percentage of the fee. “I liked the intimacy,” she recalls, “the feeling of really being helpful in a very profound way. Sex was fun. Sometimes it was fun. I realized later that the people she was referring were the ones she didn’t like working with very much.”

But the money was good—so good that she was able to open her own practice. Fifteen years later, she’s still at it. Though she asked that I not reveal her rate, it’s comparable to a therapist’s. In a typical first session, she talks with the client in the living room a bit before retiring to the bedroom. “I’ll ask about his relationships, the attitudes toward sex when he was a child, his first sexual experience, whether he’s on antidepressants.” After 45 minutes of talking, the client pays her, whereupon she sends him to the bathroom to undress and clean with deodorant and mouthwash while she readies the bedroom, lighting candles and putting on Enya-like music.

He comes in and lies on the bed with his eyes closed while she says things like You’re on a beach, feeling the sun on your face, and you’re butter … melting. “Then I go into the bathroom and undress,” she says. “And there are more sensate focus exercises. I use long pieces of silk and my fingertips. I’m just touching the body, not the genitals. I’m careful not to let things get too intense during the first session. The last part of the session is determined by what the problem is. Usually, there’s a release with my hand.”

What happens in future sessions depends on the client. There’s usually some talking—she asks whether he’s had sex since the session and whether he’s been doing his Kegels. Then they’ll get hands-on. “In the second session we’ll take a bubble bath. In the third, we’ll give each other massages, and the fourth there’s a foot massage. There is no sex just for the sake of having sex. It’s about solving the problem. Someone who’s 48 and never had intercourse is different from someone with premature ejaculation.” I ask her if she ever has orgasms during her sessions, and after a pause more pregnant than Catherine Zeta-Jones, she says, “Occasionally.”

“How do they react?”

“Most men really like it. It makes them feel competent.”

Many of her clients come to her because they have fetishes they feel uncomfortable revealing to their partners—they can only come when being tickled, say, or while sucking on a toe. For these men she does something called “bridging,” incorporating the fetish into sex play in smaller and smaller doses in order to wean them off it.

About 15 percent of her clients are Orthodox Jewish men, who, she says, tend to be premature ejaculators. “It’s about the guilt. It’s ‘I’m going to have sex, but I’m going to fuck it up for myself.’ ”

She’s seen film directors, writers, and athletes, even a major general. One client walked in the door and she recognized him as the father of a guy she had dated. They had met once, but he didn’t remember her. “I was sitting there thinking, What am I going to do? Do I tell him I dated his son? I figured I should take it one step at a time and see if he came back. He never did.”

This is relatively common. Some men come to her just out of curiosity. Others, she says, “expect Christie Brinkley to open the door, and I’m clearly not Christie Brinkley.”

Rita has a boyfriend, whom she’s been with for ten years. He lives with her, and they sleep in the same bed in which she sees clients. Though he’s accepting of what she does, “he’d prefer I did something else. But he certainly understands the need for it, because there are so few people who do it really well.”

She’s up-front about her relationship status, but some clients fall in love with her anyway. “One guy stopped coming because it was headed in that direction. He was married.”

As for clients who have the opposite problem—guilt—she tries to assuage their fears. “I’ll say, ‘This isn’t betraying your wife; it’s enhancing what you have with her. If you went to a female urologist and she had to handle your penis and it felt good, that’s not cheating.’ ”

“But a female urologist wouldn’t give you a hand release,” I point out.

“There are some differences,” she concedes, “but the underlying motivation is the same: to make things better physically or sexually in your life.”

Rita’s caginess about what she does seems to stem from a fear of being stigmatized as a sex worker. To liken herself to a doctor is to align herself with the medical Establishment and thereby distance herself from the thousands of women in this city who trade sex for money.

“Surrogacy is much more cerebral than prostitution,” she says. “I have to figure out what the underlying issues are, and put the pieces together very quickly. These people don’t want to sit and talk. They want to get busy in the bedroom. If you take everything from psychotherapy and condense it and go into the bedroom, there’s another world there. If you are good at this and you are successful—which are not necessarily related—you have to be pretty smart.”

Healing Hands