Relaxing At the Lush Royale in Fort Lauderdale with legendary Don Shewey, I asked him how many men he’s had his hands on in the course of his life. (He is 61 years old.)
“I don’t know the exact number,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “but I calculate that I’ve had about 500 sessions a year over 20 years, so I know that erotic massage has earned me more than a million dollars. The money is really insignificant to me. What is significant is all I have learned from the men I have worked with and on.”
Don Shewey has a four-part descriptive title that would make for a startling business card, but is an accurate description of his professional skills and accomplishments.
He is a “Body Worker, Pleasure Activist, Sacred Intimate and Sex Therapist” and he is well respected internationally in those fields. I first heard of him several years ago while covering for SFGN a week at Easton Mountain Gay Retreat Center in upstate New York. Shewey has been an instructor at Easton and recommends its gatherings to many of his clients.
When I researched him, I felt some envy for a man who could make a fine career out of that kind of intimate interaction with men. I asked him how he got started in his life’s work.
“I believe in healing through pleasure. It all came from working with the sick and dying during the earliest years of the AIDS crisis. I was a successful journalist at the time, but I felt called to this work. It was not something I chose. It chose me. I had to intuit what was needed by the men around me who were dying from AIDS. I took “Body Electric” courses and learned that the simplest touches can be gratifying and nurturing for someone seriously ill.
I became a GMHC [Gay Men’s Health Crisis] volunteer, going to homes and hospitals and offering massage to those who were dying and were deprived of human contact. I took a course in how to give a massage to someone in a hospital bed while their family is in the room. Sometimes, it built a bridge between the dying man and his family or friends who wanted to express love but didn’t know how.
“Concurrently, I was learning the art of erotic massage and I began to explore the connections between the erotic and the spiritual. I had been raised Catholic and I had strong feelings for ritual. When I met Joseph Kramer who founded the “Body Electric” school, his approach resonated. I wanted to fuse the spiritual, social and erotic bodies in each of us.”
I asked Shewey if he felt that younger men whose entire sex lives have been under the shadow of HIV/AIDS have a tough time embracing sexual pleasure in a positive and celebratory way.
“Yes, men who came of age during the plague are heavily impacted. Less now, of course. If you were born in 1990, you see a bigger and healthier picture.”
When I asked Shewey what separates him from what other sex-workers do, he outlined the evolution of his work.
“I started my practice by taking out a three-line ad in the classifieds in the back of the Village Voice. I went to work with lofty intentions of commingling sex and spirituality, but people who answered that ad didn’t always have the same octane level. It took me several years to hone my message so that clients would know what was possible during their session with me. With the arrival of the internet, it was so much easier to clarify my specialization. Those early years were exhausting for me – body work, journalism, counseling – but over time I no longer needed to explain what I was really about.”
Today, with 24 years of practice, Shewey says he has learned to read signals and understand the emotional needs of the men he has encountered through bodywork. He has also completed a four-year clinical fellowship in Gestalt therapy. Although his clients include men, women and couples both gay and straight, his favorite clients are men who are coming out in mid-life.
He says, “They have buried their sexuality and have been successful and masterful on other levels. Often in their 50s, they are asking me to help them bridge the gap in their lives. They trust me because I am not a kid. It helps that I have some maturity.”
I asked Shewey if couples looking to rekindle their intimacy are among his clients.
“That is perhaps the primary reason people seek me out, to recapture something lost, to reconnect with each other. Sometimes it is possible and sometimes it is not. Often the problem is that they are defining sex too narrowly, the way it was when they were a new/younger couple. That restricted definition always leads to failure which is the opposite of erotic desire.”
When I wondered if he actually got into bed with couples, Shewey could see where my imagination was going.
“So what is your image of this? Me in a white lab coat, holding a clipboard and directing the couples’ movements?”
I rephrased my question, asking Shewey if getting sex therapy from him would mean getting into bed with him naked.
“OK, I can see that you are being less than serious, but let me focus you on what I really do. Remember that my primary mandate is to do no harm. Clients have to see me as a ‘safe space’ in which they can be physical or verbal in ways that may not be available to them when they go back to their lives.”
I asked Shewey if he had any sense of his physical magnetism which is very strong and if he had ever seen himself having sex either on film or in a mirror, and, if so, did he get any insights by watching himself.
“As a journalist, I learned communication skills, but when I started sex work I was already in my 40s, so I knew my body wasn’t what I was selling. That said, I have seen myself sucking cock and it really isn’t a particularly aesthetic thing to do. Pleasurable, but not very photographic. What I did observe is my own passion, and that is valuable. Genuine passion is always powerful, but it is sad that these days, everyone is self-conscious about how they appear while having sex, about how their video will look. I teach people to turn off the devices and I look into their eyes.”
When Don Shewey looks into your eyes, you feel it.
Shewey is leading a weeklong workshop for gay men at a villa in Tuscany, June 11-18. Called “Come back to your senses,” it is limited to 10-15 participants who are hard-working and driven gay men who want to slow down and experience sensual pleasure in a very epicurean – not hedonistic – way.