London - When Padma Deva meets a new client for work she does so not in an office or coffee bar but in the privacy of a hotel room. The meeting typically lasts for two hours during which time the two of them are likely to undress, massage and caress one another. Sometimes they will have full sexual intercourse.
At the end of the encounter, the satisfied client will pay Padma for the service she has provided and the two will go their separate ways - until their next appointment.
You may conclude that Padma works in “the oldest profession” of all. But you would be wrong. Padma is not a prostitute but a trained psychotherapist who acts as a “sexual surrogate” for men suffering from a variety of sexual problems which are hampering their ability to have a normal physical relationship.
Her clients include lawyers and doctors as well as students and builders. Some are married, others not. But all are suffering from issues such as erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation or crippling shyness.
Her oldest client is aged 65 while the youngest is 25 - both men consulted Padma because they were virgins and felt unable to have any sort of sex life. Padma helps them overcome their fears over nine two-hour sessions for which she charges £4,000 (about R50 000).
Yet despite the veneer of clinical respectability, sexual surrogacy is a deeply controversial practice. Critics, perhaps understandably, dismiss it as morally reprehensible, degrading and, at the very least, of dubious therapeutic benefit. Some have even questioned its legality, although there are no laws specifically prohibiting it.
Padma - a slender and strikingly attractive 31-year-old brunette - is used to hearing such accusations, which is why she has agreed to speak openly for the first time about her work in a bid to dispel some of the misunderstandings that surround it, though she would not consent to be photographed for fear of attracting unwelcome attention in public.
She argues that although we may live in a liberal age, those with sexual problems seldom have the confidence to discuss their issues openly, even with partners. That is where sexual surrogates like her come in.
Trained by the International Professional Surrogate Association, Padma says her role is to be a form of mentor, guiding people who are struggling with intimacy issues.
She and the client meet in a hotel room or rented accommodation for the sessions. Through a mixture of talking and physical exercises, she will teach them how to communicate their desires, and how to manage anxiety so they can connect intimately with a “normal” partner.
Yet some critics, particularly those practising traditional psychology or psychosexual therapy, worry that sexual surrogacy is laden with potential problems of its own.
Clinical psychologist Dr Michael Mantell says: “The services of a surrogate do not resolve underlying emotional and relationship difficulties. Surrogacy may teach about sexuality, but it does not teach about love or how to maintain a loving relationship.”
So what sort of woman volunteers to become a surrogate in the first place? Padma is a former management consultant who decided to transform her life after watching the film Sweet November, in which Keanu Reeves plays an emotionally-inert workaholic.
Padma had been an over-worked twentysomething, worrying about where her frenetic lifestyle might take her, but the film inspired her to seek an alternative career. She says: “I saw myself in the Keanu Reeves character, then I thought, wouldn’t it be fantastic to be able to free someone? Some time later I saw an advert in a spiritual magazine for people to train as sexual surrogates, and that’s how I started out.”
Her family were initially shocked by her radical career change, though they are now supportive of her. Equally, she says that while she is currently single, previous boyfriends have been understanding about her line of work. “It takes confidence, intelligence and maturity in a man to be okay with what I do,” she says.
It may all sound more than slightly suspect, but sexual surrogacy is based on clinical work carried out in the Fifties by sex researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, who embarked on an 11-year study involving 510 married couples, 54 single men, and three single women.
The researchers recruited 54 carefully-screened women volunteers to work as surrogate partners with the single men.
Previously, sexual problems were treated by psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, with low success rates. But Masters and Johnson developed a two-week treatment programme they claimed was 80 percent effective. The success rate for the single men who worked with surrogates was 75 percent.
Padma, too, claims significant results for her work. She says almost all of the clients she has seen for premature ejaculation issues have been able to improve the duration of their love-making from a typical 30-60 seconds initially, up to and beyond the male average of five to ten minutes. Similarly, she says 90 percent of her erectile dysfunction clients have learned how to gain an erection without relying on medication such as Viagra.
“Every client I’ve worked with has left the programme with new-found confidence,” she says.
Alan (not his real name), a 28-year-old clerical worker, decided to see Padma because he was a virgin with no confidence around women. Alan says his life was miserable because of his lack of sexual experience, which he thinks results from shyness.
“It also made me think of myself as worthless. I once dated and fell in love with a lovely girl who seemed to be attracted to me. I remember her waiting for me to make the first move sexually, but I didn’t have a clue what to do, so I made up some weak excuse and went home.
“I read about the Mughal era in India, where they would send young boys to specialised prostitutes who would educate them in the art of love-making. I remember wishing something like that had been available to me.”
Alan has had three sessions with Padma so far. She has talked to him about relationships and the female anatomy, and introduced sensual touching into their meetings.
“Usually a session will start with Padma explaining the theory behind the exercises, then we move on to the physical acts,” he says.
“In one session we covered the naked body, hugs and sensual touching of the back. I had a breakthrough moment during the massage exercise, when at first I went into panic mode, worried about my performance. We stopped and did some grounding breathing exercises then tried again, and I enjoyed it.”
Alan says his confidence has grown immeasurably and he is now so optimistic about the future that he has signed up to a dating website - something he would previously have been too nervous to do.
But psychologist Dr Mantell questions whether such cases wouldn’t be better treated by more conventional forms of therapy. “Turning to sexual surrogacy can be an emotionally messy experience. Clients become attached to their surrogates, the objects of their sexual fantasies, and this can lead to difficulties in transferring feelings to one’s spouse or partner.”
As for the impact on her own wellbeing, Padma says she has never had a negative experience with a client, and far from feeling in any way degraded by her work, she finds it emotionally fulfilling. “It is wonderful to witness the transformation my clients undergo, and knowing I have played a part in that is very rewarding,” she explains.
During an initial consultation with a new client, Padma - who has bases in London and Somerset - recommends a client sees their GP to rule out physical causes for their sexual problems, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
If surrogacy is deemed appropriate, she asks clients to take a sexually transmitted disease test beforehand. Only then can then the surrogacy work begin.
To start with, both client and surrogate may remain fully clothed, focusing on exercises such as touching each other’s hands, arms, shoulders and face. As the therapy advances, the client and the surrogate may build up to removing their clothes, engaging in genital contact and, if necessary and appropriate, full sexual intercourse.
It is those final stages that many find perilously close to prostitution. But Alan is adamant that whatever name you choose to give it, his therapy has had a hugely positive impact on his life.
“To the sceptics, I would say that it is giving me a chance to have a life I could only dream of - and what’s wrong with that?” - Daily Mail