Sylvester Stallone never played it safe. (The Specialist/IMDB)

August 5, 2023   6 mins

There’s a scene in the movie Demolition Man where two characters have sex — or rather, what passes for sex in the futuristic utopia where the film takes place. The act itself has been replaced by a cybernetic facsimile thereof: now, sex is done fully clothed, from opposite sides of the room, while wearing giant virtual reality helmets that conduct the “digitised transference of sexual energies”. This is when one of the characters, a time-travelling visitor from the unenlightened past played by Sylvester Stallone, takes off his helmet and wryly suggests doing it the old-fashioned way.

His date (Sandra Bullock) recoils: “Ew! Disgusting! You mean
” — she can barely say it without gagging — “…fluid transfer?!”

This scene isn’t exactly pivotal to the movie, but with time it’s come to seem significant. “Rampant exchange of bodily fluids was one of the major reasons for the downfall of society,” Sandra Bullock says, explaining that the practice — which includes not only sex but kissing — has been outlawed in the name of safety. In our future, human touch has been deemed a luxury no enlightened society can afford.

Obviously, our own attempts at social engineering haven’t reached the point of outlawing physical contact, although the height of the Covid pandemic brought us remarkably and sometimes hilariously close. Remember when a Canadian Center for Disease Control recommended that couples have sex through glory holes to avoid breathing on each other? And yet, that instinct towards safetyism is one to which human beings have always been susceptible — and one that’s visible today in our ongoing attempts to streamline, organise, automate and make frictionless all the parts of life that used to be messy.

The vacuum left by the decline of old-fashioned dating and relationshipping, the kind that involved meeting someone in person and experiencing the exciting chemical process known as “hitting it off”, has been filled by a fair amount of explicitly anti-social behaviour as people eschew, or even fear, the possibility of making a connection without the intermediary of a screen. Meanwhile, the lure of the online world and its peculiar system of rewards has upended the etiquette surrounding romantic entanglements, particularly when it comes to being gracious with and about rejection. It is not frowned upon, for instance, to publicly share and mock the awkward messages men send to hopeful matches on dating apps.

The more we delegate to the apps and the algorithms, the more we swipe and tap our screens, the less we ever actually touch anything else, including each other. In lieu of connection, what we increasingly have are services, which offer a safe, controlled facsimile of the real thing. A lot of these are also online: there are the camgirls who perform for a faceless crowd of observers, all competing for their attention through donations. There are the OnlyFans performers who offer the illusion of an intimate online connection in exchange for cash. There are virtual chatbots who will role-play as your girlfriend and talk to you for hours; some of them are even AI clones of real people.

But most interesting, and most controversial, are the services that simulate intimacy face-to-face and skin-to-skin. In the past, a person aching to be touched by another human being would make do with massage or having a stranger shampoo her hair; now, there’s a booming cottage industry of professional cuddlers who will hold you (or just hold your hand) for about $100 per hour. One, recently profiled in the New Yorker, has a menu of 80 different positions to choose from and says that the country is suffering from an epidemic of “skin hunger” in the wake of the pandemic — though he skirts the question of whether said hunger can truly be satisfied by this sort of transactional intimacy. All he knows is, his clients keep coming back.

A professional cuddle is safe and certified, but also explicitly non-sexual. For those who want more, who desire the intimacy but not the risks or vulnerability or self-doubt of a sexual relationship, there’s a whole new category of sex therapist, one who will not only discuss the physical act of love, but actually do it with you — at least sometimes, at least for a while. Their patients are people who struggle with physical intimacy, perhaps due to disability, military injury or gender transition. They call themselves “surrogate partners”.

A New York Times article about the practice is at pains to explain that they are not prostitutes, but nor are they just therapists. What they offer is something like psychology with a dash of sex work, with elements of self-improvement and skill-building. To me, they seem like a sort of sexual sensei, the equivalent of a fencing coach who has to spar with his client to help them improve their game. But also the word, surrogate, means substitute or replacement, and a central tenet of these relationships is that they’ll eventually end — that the surrogate partner will be replaced by a real one.

Here, there seems to be something of a catch-22: how well do the teachings of a paid sexual sensei translate in real-world relationships? By the time you’ve hired one of these therapists to teach you how to have a normal sex life, don’t you sort of definitionally not have one? When you find a real partner, do you tell them about the sex therapy you’ve had, as you might discuss your sexual history — or keep it to yourself, as you might the intricacies of your medical one?

But the question of whether surrogate partners are effective is less interesting than the question of how they came to exist, what societal void they’re filling. Obviously, there’s always been a market for people who are willing to trade sex for money — but again, these are not prostitutes. (As one of the profiled therapists notes, sex workers do not generally require you to attend months of therapy before sleeping with you.) Their appeal, their purpose, must be something else. Maybe it’s this: they make formal and transactional what is, by nature, unpredictable and messy.

A surrogate partner will never ghost you, never blindside you with an “it’s not you it’s me” breakup; “sessions,” the New York Times notes, “are typically held weekly, in one to two-hour meetings until all three” — that is, the client, referring therapist, and surrogate —”agree that the therapy is complete.”

In this way, surrogate partners seem to be a product of a broad cultural desire to organise every emotionally risky endeavour into a rules-based framework that makes it safe — from refereeing the conflicts of children during their parent-organised playdates to making spontaneous flirtation taboo (“I didn’t consent to being asked out!”). We’re not quite at the point of finding the unbridled human experience revolting, or trying to make it illegal, but there does seem to be an emerging consensus that fumbling around in the sexual realm, be it literally or figuratively, is dangerous.

The controlled, controllable, bought-and-paid-for version of intimacy offered by professional cuddlers and surrogate partners is arguably one example of mitigating that danger. Another, perhaps, is the incursion into ordinary relationships of therapy-speak, which simultaneously obscures and exacerbates whatever actual conflicts a couple might have. A scroll through TikTok or Instagram reveals that normal dating and relationships have been all but pathologised, the conversation surrounding them rife with “red flags” and “triggers” and “boundaries” — the latter often used to describe things that might have once been called “preferences”.

In one recent and remarkable example, the actor Jonah Hill was accused of “coercive control” (note: still more therapy-speak) after his ex leaked a years-old text message in which he described his desire for her not to post bikini pictures on Instagram as one of his “boundaries”. On the one hand, the whole incident was just a piece of not-particularly-salacious celebrity gossip; on the other, it does reveal the mechanisms by which we try to protect ourselves from our own human messiness. To speak of boundaries in this context implies a sort of moral righteousness — the kind associated with the phrase “doing the work” — even as you seek to exert undue control over another person’s choices. It also implies that this is a high-stakes conflict in which the very integrity of one’s person is at risk. Yet scratch the surface of Hill’s so-called boundaries, and what do you find? Jealousy, plain and simple.

Of course, it’s not hard to figure out why someone would prefer to frame this as a conversation about boundaries instead of one about jealousy. Boundaries are enlightened, elevated, therapeutic. Jealousy is ugly, and unpleasant, and ordinary.

And so is loneliness.

Here is where, I think, the worlds of therapy-speak and surrogate partners and professional cuddlers collide: people don’t want to feel bad. They especially don’t want to feel bad about themselves. And channeling our feelings of humiliation or loneliness or jealousy through a different framework, be it therapeutic or transactional, allows us to pretend that they’re something other than what they really are. To hold them at a clinical distance. To experience them as an inoffensive copy of a copy of a copy of the real thing.

It’s an understandable impulse, not to want to wade around in the mess. And maybe for some people, the ones who might never otherwise experience intimacy at all, the ones who fear losing control too much to ever allow themselves to be vulnerable, these risk-free relationships — or the illusion thereof — are as good as it gets. But it’s hard not to notice that, like the VR sex helmets in Demolition Man, the safe and transactional version of intimacy has a way of making everything a little bit less human — including ourselves.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.