Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
Larry Villarin is one of only ten certified male sex surrogates in the country—meaning he has sex with clients to help them cope with their fears and anxieties about physical intimacy.
Larry was completely naked and blindfolded next to a piano when the younger woman he was with had a breakthrough. She was 35 years old but gave off the nervous pent-up sexual energy of a wallflower at prom, and with good reason: She had never kissed a man, let alone seen one nude in her Long Beach home.
She had been carefree and pretty as a teenager—until a car accident sent her flying through a windshield, slicing her face open and blinding her in one eye, according to Larry. Afterwards, she thought, How could anyone ever love me? So she shut herself off to the world, to romantic love and sex. Until now.
It was summer 1994 and Larry, who was a decade her senior, had instructions. "I want you to stare at me," he ordered softly. "Be scared. Be curious. Be excited. If you're bored, that's good. We'll move on." Soon they did, and—terrifying as it was—she stripped down, too. Then came kissing, caressing, and, eventually, sex.
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Larry Villarin, a 62-year-old Californian, is not her boyfriend. Nor is he a sex worker, although technically he gets paid $150 per hour to have sex, hang out naked, and teach his clients the joys of the erotic. Larry is America's oldest male sexual surrogate, a job in which he risks being arrested in order to help others work through sexual dysfunction during one-on-one "sessions." In the past 35 years, the gig has matched him with dozens of women (and an occasional man) to achieve therapeutic goals. In the past, he says, he has worked with disabled clients, abuse survivors, and people from strict religions backgrounds, as well as with millionaires, geniuses, 40-year-old virgins, and powerful judges. Most of clients pair his hands-on therapy with trips to a psychologist in order to prepare for real-life intimacy.
She needed to believe I wouldn't laugh at her or run away. It was beautiful to see her open up.
Only ten men are certified to do this work in the U.S., according to the International Professional Surrogates Association (IPSA). Larry and other rare men in the field must undergo 100 hours of human sexuality studies before becoming certified by the IPSA, which connects patients with surrogates through psychiatrists. As a sexual surrogate, Larry must navigate tricky emotional turf, like what happens when a client falls in love with you, or how to gently bust through body hang-ups or deeply internalized anxieties. In the case of the 35-year-old woman who had survived a car accident, it turned out that she was mostly scared of ridicule. "She needed to believe I wouldn't laugh at her or run away. It was beautiful to see her open up," he says.
Most of Larry's job is far less sexy than it might seem. During their first hour-long session with him, clients unload their emotional baggage —ranging from social anxiety to PTSD — and set therapy goals. No sexual touching is allowed. If all goes well, they'll move to hand stroking and a face caressing. Later, he'll try a blindfolded "trust walk" to get them "out of their heads."
His clients, who range in age from 22 to 75, usually invite Larry to their L.A. homes or come to his. Many are referred to him by a psychologist after reaching a frustrating impasse in expressing their sexuality: they can't become "normal" without a partner, and they can't find partner if they don't become "normal." The steamy stuff comes slowly— if at all. "You set ground rules," Larry says, "It's baby steps." He works with some clients for weeks, others for years. Some are never ready to have full-blown sex.
One of the tools Larry uses in order to help his clients open up is playing naked games. In one, he and the client stand back-to-back with their eyes closed. She opens her eyes first, then it's his turn. Eventually they go to a mirror and talk honestly about their reflections. It helps that Larry, a slow-talking old hippie type, is not at all physically threatening. "I go first and stand in front of full-length mirror. I do an oral meditation, describing my body, tip to toe—how it feels and functions—totally honestly," he says. "It really gets down to image. I say, 'I don't like my saggy buttocks,' or 'I broke my toe when I was 20.' I can do 30 minutes of that, just modeling openness. Then she goes."
She had her first orgasm. She didn't believe she could ever have one. I'm getting misty about it.
In addition, Larry says, physical exercises can lead to epiphanies. In one case, a 70-year-old woman had lived her whole life thinking sex was a chore; religious guilt kept her from masturbating. "She was numb — her hips were frozen," Larry recalls. So he told her to stand with her legs apart. "I said, 'Imagine a pencil coming down between your genitals and your anus. Now write your name on the floor. It required movements in her hips."
Later that night, she took a shower and lay naked on her sheets. A breeze from an open window rolled over her body, and something shifted in her pelvis. "That's all it took. She had her first orgasm. She didn't believe she could ever have one. I'm getting misty about it," Larry says. "It's just: growth — what humans are capable of. Gosh, it's intimate stuff."
Larry claims that birthdays are the number-one reason women come to see him. Late-in-life virgins, turning 30 or 40, see the date looming and want to take the plunge. "Milestones are a big one. It's anxiety provoking. Women will say, 'This my final hope,'" Larry says.
Usually, those clients have control problems sparked by something early in life. If they don't address their issues with control, they tend to get worse, and their virginity becomes a symbol of everything wrong with them. "They're embarrassed. Sometimes they can't talk to anyone about it," Larry notes. "They try to fake it with girlfriends. But every new man has to be Mr. Right—perfect—so they run away at the first relationship glitch. The longer they wait, the more the anxiety builds."
[Birthdays] are a big one. It's anxiety provoking. Women will say, 'This my final hope.'
Emotional blocks can turn physical for some women. One client suffered from a condition called vaginismus, which caused her vaginal canal to tighten involuntarily, preventing sex. It was painful and embarrassing, so Larry recommended she use vaginal dilators for six months. Unlike a gynecologist, however, he paired that treatment with intimacy therapy and physical touch. It worked, he claims.
Larry is a sort of a gateway guy, he says: He's low risk because he's not a real lover. "The women are not there to please me; I'm there for them. Somewhere along the line, they stopped trusting men. I have to undo that."
Although trust is deeply important to Larry's work, it's also important to keep an emotional distance. Larry says that some of his clients have fallen in love with him, which can push him into a tricky emotional and ethical gray area.
One woman came to him, fresh out of an abusive marriage, on the heels of her son's death. She was sick of being alone and wanted to enjoy sex. "We worked for two years. We had so many firsts together—she didn't want to let go," Larry recalls. When her sessions came to an end, Larry says, the client began sending him expensive gifts and kept trying to see him. "I kind of knew she was in love with me. But I had to be ethical."
Not long after that, he set up new boundaries: He stopped allowing sessions in his own bedroom and built a "therapy room" instead. After one of his own romantic relationships "fell apart because of the job," he took a break from it. Now, he sometimes holds back sharing with clients because, "by telling [a client] too much about myself, I realized, I am burdening her."
The job is full of ethical landmines, according to Paula Hall, a British sex therapist. "In the UK, the practice is mostly frowned upon," she says. The surrogate-client relationship is often seen as just too complicated, she adds. To Larry, however, the lines are clear enough. "In a sense, we already know the relationship has to end. It's better that they learn how to be hurt with me, rather than a less sensitive man."
Romantic feelings aren't the only issue complicating Larry's profession: Paying for sex — any sex —is illegal in the U.S., and there's no law offering surrogates special protection. If a cop were to bust in on Larry during a session, he could be arrested, which is exactly what happened to one of his female surrogate friends. "She was seeing a client and he turned out to be a cop," Larry says. "He said, 'I have to confess: In 10 minutes you're going to hear a knock on the door, and you're going to be busted for prostitution, but I can see that's not what this is."
IPSA skirts prostitution law in certifying its members because it doesn't acknowledge intercourse is part of the practice, according to Larry and other current and former surrogates. Today, he's baffled that people don't understand the difference between his work, which he sees as primarily therapeutic or socially instructive.
For instance, Larry once worked with a woman from a strict religious background. Because of her upbringing, she had learned to see kissing as strictly a sexual act, never used for casual affection. She enlisted Larry to teach her the basics of kissing in all different contexts. In their sessions, Larry says, she made the rules. "We tried all of them: A quick kiss goodbye, a hello kiss, a marathon make out. I was never allowed to kiss back," he recounts. After a few weeks, she left feeling "reborn," ready for lovers and friends. "It did increase her confidence, oh my," Larry says.
But most of the time, Larry never gets to see the positive affects of his work. "The empowerment part comes when they leave me. It's like karate: Once you get your black belt, your training has just begun. With me, they've opened their hearts — and now they can go have a life."
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