Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories  May 1990 | issue 174
On Seeing A Sex Surrogate
by Mark O'Brien

I began this essay in 1986, then set it aside until last year. In re-reading what I originally wrote, and my old journal entries from the time, I’ve been struck by how optimistic I was, imagining that my experience with Cheryl had changed my life.

But my life hasn’t changed. I continue to be isolated, partly because of my polio, which forces me to spend five or six days a week in an iron lung, and partly because of my personality. I am low-key, withdrawn, and cerebral.

My personality, it may be said, is a result of my disability, because of which I have spent most of my life apart from people my own age. Whatever the cause, my isolation continues, along with the consequent celibacy. Occasional visitors sit on the futon, but I’ve never lain on it.

I wonder whether seeing Cheryl was worth it, not in terms of the money but in hopes raised and never fulfilled. I blame neither Cheryl nor myself for this feeling of letdown. Our culture values youth, health, and good looks, along with instant solutions. If I had received intensive psychotherapy from the time I got polio to the present, would I have needed to see a sex surrogate? Would I have resisted accepting the cultural standards of beauty and physical perfection? Would I have fallen into the more familiar pattern of flirting, dating, and making out which seems so common among people who have been disabled during or after adolescence?

One thing I did learn was that intercourse is not an expression of male aggression, but a gentle, mutually playful experience. But has that knowledge come too late?

Where do I go from here? People have suggested several steps I could take. I could hire prostitutes, advertise in the personals, or sign up for a dating service. None of these appeal to me. Hiring a prostitute implies that I cannot be loved body and soul, just body or soul. I would be treated as a body in need of some impersonal, professional service — which is what I’ve always gotten, though in a different form, from nurses and attendants. Sex for the sake of sex alone has little appeal to me because it seems like a ceremony whose meaning has been forgotten.

As for the personals and dating services, sure, I’d like to meet people, but what sort of ad could I write?

Severely disabled man, 41,
living in iron lung he can
escape but twice a week
seeks . . .


Which brings up the question — what do I seek? I don’t know. Someone who likes me and loves me and who will promise to protect me from all the self-hating parts of myself? An all-purpose lover-mommy-attendant to care for all my physical and emotional needs? What one friend calls a “shapely savior” — a being so perfect that she can rescue me from the horror that has been imposed upon me and the horror I’ve imposed upon myself? Why bother? I ask myself. I don’t. Not anymore.

Which leaves me where I was before I saw Cheryl. I’ve met a few women nearly as wonderful as Tracy, but they haven’t expressed any romantic interest in me. I feel no enthusiasm for the seemingly doomed project of pursuing women. My desire to love and be loved sexually is equaled by my isolation and my fear of breaking out of it. The fear is twofold. I fear getting nothing but rejections. But I also fear being accepted and loved. For if this latter happens, I will curse myself for all the time and life that I have wasted.

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