Candles and a CD player are available to set the mood. They might be the setting for any of a number of assignations, some more provocative than others. But the rooms are part of a clinic dedicated to a controversial form of sex therapy. Ronit Aloni Clinic practices sex surrogacy, which involves pairing patients with trained sexual partners.
The theory is simple: It takes two to tango. Of the or so patients the clinic sees every year from across Israel, about a third work with a sex surrogate, with whom they engage in direct sexual activity. Their problems include physical disabilities, like paralysis or brain trauma, and mental disorders like autism or schizophrenia. About half have sexual disorders, such as vaginal spasms or erectile dysfunction.
Nearly all the patients are nervous about intimacy. Andrew Tobin via JTA Aloni employs some 30 sex therapists, physiotherapists, social workers and doctors along with a dozen or so surrogates. The treatment typically lasts three to four months, though it can stretch for years. Patients and surrogates must be tested for sexually transmitted diseases and use contraceptives. When they are ready to move beyond light touching, they meet for a minute session in the red or green rooms.
Penetration is the final step in the treatment and generally happens only in the last couple of meetings.
Patients are then encouraged to pursue their own romantic relationships and continue meeting with their therapist. A fit, dark-haired woman in her 50s, she currently sees three patients a week and also works in art and education. She said she joined the clinic because she saw an opportunity to heal people.
In most cases they are sent by rabbis. She rejected any comparison to conversion therapy. There is no law in Israel against conversion therapy, but the Health Ministry advises against it. But we know sexuality is on a spectrum. Some people can function both ways. She started by treating severely wounded kibbutznik soldiers, and in opened her Tel Aviv clinic to the general public.
At this point, Aloni said, sex surrogacy is more mainstream in Israel than in any other country she is aware of — though hers is the only major center for the treatment. The Defense Ministry sends her severely wounded soldiers and pays for their treatment. And thanks in part to her paid expert testimony, Israeli courts have awarded litigants in personal injury lawsuits damages to pay for surrogate therapy.
Sex therapists from hospitals and other clinics across Israel refer patients to Aloni, who is a well-respected member of the Israel Society for Sexual Therapy Training professional association. Several said the treatment has shown results when nothing else seems to work. With a signature shock of white at the front of her curly black hair and academic-chic style, she is a regular presence on Israeli TV and teaches a course on sexual rehabilitation at the Tel Aviv University Medical School.
She also lectures at conferences abroad and has contributed to several English-language books on sex therapy. At least a couple dozen foreign patients visit her clinic most years. Still, Aloni has plenty of critics. It is commonly argued that sex surrogacy is no different from prostitution. It is legal to pay and charge for sex in Israel, though pimping, brothels and sex trafficking are outlawed. Many Orthodox Jews condemn the treatment.
Screen capture from video of David Ribner, a Jerusalem-based Orthodox sex therapist. His main professional problem with the treatment is the messy way it ends. She and Talia agreed that the patient-surrogate relationship could be emotionally fraught and painful to end, but said the clinic was set up to handle it. They credited the experience with teaching them how to get close to others, and in some cases preparing them for romance and marriage. But some also expressed heartbreak.