Sasha: 50-year-old virgin fears sexual intimacy

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Dear Sasha,

I'm a 50-year-old (male) virgin. I have identified since my early 30s as gay, but even as a gay male, I've never been in a serious intimate relationship, because I've never sufficiently worked through my fears about being sexually intimate with a woman. While I assume all (or almost all) gay men have no sexual interest in women, I do have the interest to explore, but have been too scared to do so all my life.

As a result, my entire life has been lived in limbo. While I identify as gay, have been involved in gay issues/community events and have a large network of gay friends, my unresolved sexual issues with women prevent me from living a full, rich, rewarding life. In many ways I've felt like an imposter in the gay community and have never fully embraced my gayness because of this nagging, lingering issue.

I've worked for years with a psychiatrist who's been wonderfully supportive, but he agrees that I will not be able to move forward with my life (be it gay or straight or bi) or derive any appreciable measure of happiness from life until I confront my acknowledged fear of intimacy with women.

While there's no doubt about my physical/sexual attraction to men, I also must admit that my identification as a gay man has also allowed me to avoid my fear of sex with a woman. It's provided me with a convenient way out of facing my fears head on. I can only continue living like this for so long. Perhaps this is a function of turning 50 and realizing that my entire life is passing me by because of this fear.

I think I can say resolutely that my life will continue to remain in neutral, and in an emotionally and sexually hollow place, unless I do something proactive. In full disclosure, I began working 11 years ago with a team consisting of a psychiatrist/sex therapist and a sex surrogate. The two of them worked in tandem to help me overcome my fears. Typically, I would have a talk session with the psychiatrist followed by a session with the sex surrogate.

Over the course of several sessions, I became more physical with the sex surrogate and had no problem with it until it came time for me to actually have sex with her. At that point, I chickened out. Unfortunately, that is how the therapy ended.

A couple of years ago, I went back to the psychiatrist to see if I could revisit the idea of sex surrogate therapy. However, he was no longer working with that sex surrogate, and if I recall correctly, he told me that laws in Ontario have changed and medically supervised sex surrogate therapy could no longer be done.

I began doing an online search for sex surrogate therapy, but all services I came across seemed dubious and unprofessional. A couple of sex therapy institutes in California seemed somewhat legitimate, but the cost of going there for an extended stay is prohibitive.

I don't know where to turn from here. I thought of going to an escort service, but that idea is equally scary, as escort services are not designed to help men like myself overcome my fears of sexual intimacy in a therapeutic way.

50-year-old Virgin

Congratulations, 50, you have officially sent me the most confounding letter I have ever received. If I understand you, you are gay but are trying to fully accept that by sleeping with a woman? It sounds to me like you are not "chickening out" at the 11th hour. It sounds like you do not want to sleep with a woman because you are gay. Honestly, what the bojangles is going on here? And who is this team of specialists you have working with you? Did you build a time machine to go back and get them from the 50s?

I asked sexuality educator and researcher Cory Silverberg his thoughts on the matter. "To the best of my knowledge, sexual surrogacy has never been a legal term - that is, there aren't any laws that identify it as an activity or service, and no one has ever been charged with being a surrogate by any name," he says.

Silverberg also says that there are no sex therapists in Toronto who work with surrogates, or at any rate, "There aren't any that advertise that they do, so I wouldn't know where to recommend someone find one. It's true that there's still the organization in California, and your reader could contact them and ask if they have anyone certified and practising in Toronto. These days the people who are doing work that is most like sexual surrogates in the 70s and 80s are sex coaches. You can read more about them here if you aren't already familiar with them."

"Honestly, it's not at all regulated," says Silverberg, "so I would only go with someone who came with a referral. I do recommend Barbara Carrellas, who works out of New York, but like most people who do some form of life and/or sex coaching, she works on the phone and on Skype. Obviously, when it's long distance, it's not hands-on. My understanding is that some sex coaches do hands-on work, but not all of them."

I am truly having a hard time seeing the point of all this self-defeating work, 50, and as Silverberg says, "There is absolutely no research to indicate that any type of therapy can help you change your sexual orientation. People have used sexual surrogates for this purpose, but in my opinion as a sex educator, that's an unethical way to practise, as there's no indication that it will effect the change the client is asking for.

"An ethical and professional response would be to let the person know that sexual orientation is something we still know little about, and no carefully done research supports the idea that you can change it."

Seeking professional help is a great way of dealing with some aspects of your life that are troubling or difficult to get past. I have had some inspiring success myself with therapy and psychiatry when it comes to long-standing and destructive patterns.

"But if the goal is to change orientation, any ethical therapist would tell him up front that he or she can't do that," Silverberg says. "The therapist might be able to help him live in the world in a happier way or change aspects of his behaviours, thoughts, maybe even feelings. But that's not the same as changing sexual orientation."

This column was originally published in NOW Magazine. Ask Sasha:

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