Last Sunday, while lying by the pool at the Palais de la Mediterranee in Nice, I met a woman named Bernadette. She and her husband were staying at the hotel for the weekend.
We got to talking.
She is the mother of a son, Michel, who was confined to a wheelchair as a child due to spinal muscular atrophy.
"His 19th birthday is next week," she said.
"What are you doing for him?" I asked.
There was a long pause.
"He asked for something specific," she said. There was a hint of trepidation in her voice.
"Oh?" I urged.
Another long pause.
"He wants to lose his virginity"
I'm aware that French culture is steeped in titillation and prurience (I saw more than a handful of topless sunbathers on my trip). But Bernadette's reply kind of floored me.
"Oh," I said, trying not to sound judgmental.
"We're having a difficult time finding a woman (for hire)," she said. They live in a small village outside of Marseille. They were in Nice to find a sexual surrogate.
"Wow," I said. "Is that legal here?"
"Unfortunately not," she said. She went on to explain that she doesn't know how much longer Michel would live for, how she wants to fulfill her son's every desire before he died. She and her husband want his first, and possibly only, intimate experience to be with someone clean and affectionate.
I'd never heard of sexual surrogacy until last year, when the film "The Sessions" came out. Helen Hunt plays a surrogate who works with a poet, played by John Hawkes, who is paralyzed by polio. The story was based on the real experiences of 38-year-old Mark O'Brien, who by the end lived in an iron lung for all but a few hours per week, and ultimately lost his virginity to a surrogate.
The film is an incredibly sex-positive story, one that equates intercourse with intimacy and an emotional connection rather than performance, competition and conquest.
Surrogacy involves paying a professional who engages in intimate contact (broadly defined, though certainly not always intercourse) with a patient. It technically began in the early 1970s, and is maybe best known as something done to help people with extreme anxiety about sex to gradually work past it. It's also used for patients with serious physical disabilities and mental disabilities like dementia.
The International Professional Surrogates Association notes that in most countries, including the United States, surrogacy is simply undefined by law. It remains unregulated.
But in March the French National Ethics Committee decided that sexual surrogacy was an "unethical use of the human body for commercial purposes." Committee member Anne-Marie Dickele argued that the, "sexuality of the disabled cannot be considered a right."
Many argue that it's prostitution, and that prostitution is illegal.
But according to many sex therapists and health care professionals, there is a clear distinction between prostitution and surrogacy. Prostitution is about instant physical gratification. Whereas surrogate therapy involves months or many sessions in coming as the patient and surrogate get to know each other, and develop both a deeply personal and therapeutic relationship first.
That's the way it's portrayed in the 1986 documentary, "Private Practices." Director Kirby Dick follows surrogate Maureen Sullivan through encounters with real clients - men with issues that include anxiety - throughout the course of their work together. Sullivan meets with them regularly, at first only to talk, and then gradually escalating physical contact. Their relationships are clearly limited, finite, and tailored to address specific issues.
As the world increasingly sees health care to be a human right (President Barack Obama understands health care to be "not some earned privilege, it is a right"), it seems wrong to not address sexuality in caring for people with conditions like Michel's. Holland, Switzerland, Denmark, and Germany all agree that there is value in seriously considering every human element that can be preserved.
Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to
or view her Web site at www.SarahTSchwab.com