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Sex, love, surrogacy and 'Sessions'

In the '70s, Cheryl Cohen Greene got into surrogate partner therapy to help others. One of her patients wrote about it, and now Helen Hunt is playing the therapist in a new film.

November 26, 2012|By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times
  • Cheryl Cohen Greene is a sex surrogate who conducts her therapy sessions with clients in her home office/bedroom at her home in Berkeley, Calif.
Cheryl Cohen Greene is a sex surrogate who conducts her therapy sessions… (Peter DaSilva / For the Times )

BERKELEY, Calif. — Cheryl Cohen Greene likes to spend weekends close to home with her husband, Bob, a former postal worker. Often, they go hiking in the Berkeley Hills that surround their neighborhood, or watch movies in the living room of their modest duplex.

At 68, Greene is trim for her age and says she'd lose 10 pounds if she didn't love food so much. She's a devoted grandmother who frequently visits with her two children and grandchildren.

No one would guess that more than 900 people have paid to have sex with her.

Greene has worked as a surrogate partner therapist for 40 years. During one-on-one sessions at her home, which doubles as an office, she uses sensual touch to guide those who struggle with sex and intimacy issues. She almost always removes her clothes. And — yes — she sleeps with her patients. In the bed, by the way, that she shares with her spouse.

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"For a long time, I didn't bring it up at cocktail parties," says Greene, who keeps hand-carved wooden statues of genitalia in the nooks and crannies of her home. A close look at her bookshelves reveals "The Guide to Getting It On" and hundreds of other sex-related titles, along with "Calorie Counting" and "The Big Book of Jewish Humor." A big Tupperware container labeled "Cheryl's Vitamins" rests on a coffee table.

"If people have an attitude about my job," she says, "I just feel sorry for them for not understanding that there's a difference between me and a prostitute."

Greene's career choice is getting newfound attention from "The Sessions," a movie based on the true story of Mark O'Brien, a journalist and poet paralyzed from the neck down. Greene, played in the film by Helen Hunt, was hired by the late O'Brien when he wanted to lose his virginity at age 38.

Not all of the attention is positive. Although some in the country's small community of sex surrogates are hopeful that "The Sessions" might inspire more people to join the profession, others say the movie does not accurately depict the career path and its therapeutic worth.

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"I would never get naked in my first session with someone like Cheryl's character does in the movie," says Shai Rotem, a 43-year-old male surrogate, who began his career in his native Israel and now practices in Los Angeles. "We have to get to know one another first and develop a safe rapport."

Greene is one of fewer than 40 practicing partner therapists in the U.S. certified by the International Professional Surrogates Assn., a governing body for the industry.

Two decades ago, there were hundreds of surrogates working in the U.S. after sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson popularized the idea in their 1970 book "Human Sexual Inadequacy." With the rise of AIDS in the mid-1980s, many spouses of surrogates insisted their partners quit the profession.

"There's no law against it because the intent is not to exchange sex for money," says IPSA president Vena Blanchard. "These clients are paying tons of money to sit and talk and do breathing exercises and learn about their body. So much of the work has nothing to do with intercourse or arousal."

Greene, who speaks with a thick Boston accent, was born in Salem, Mass., grew up Catholic and converted to Judaism after marrying her first husband, Michael Cohen. She and Cohen had an open marriage, which in the 1970s wasn't unusual among their Bay Area peers. She also worked as a nude art model and walked around her home naked, even with her children in the room.

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She first considered becoming a surrogate after a friend handed her a copy of the pseudonymous "Surrogate Wife: The Story of a Masters & Johnson Sexual Therapist and the Nine Cases She Treated." The friend told her, "I think you would be good at this work."

She learned to practice conjoint therapy — where two or more people work through issues together — from two therapists who trained with Masters and Johnson. Soon, she began answering calls for the San Francisco Sex Information hotline, and discovered how much she liked helping people with their sex-related questions.

"I wasn't even thinking about the fact that I'd be sleeping with strangers," she says of her decision to become a surrogate. "I just liked the idea of guiding people to be more relaxed about their sexuality."

Greene sits in her bedroom as she talks, and through the window's plantation shutters, her son's home is visible. He and his family live behind Greene's residence.

"My daughter-in-law is a bit uncomfortable with what I do," Greene acknowledges, "so I just say to the grandkids, 'Nana helps people who don't feel good about their sexuality.'"

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