Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Sex Surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene Explains It All

Written by Kendall McKenzie
Cheryl Cohen Greene is a certified clinical sexologist, sex therapist, and surrogate partner with over thirty years of experience. Partner surrogates, sometimes referred to as sex surrogates (the former is the preferred terminology), work in conjunction with psychologists and therapists to address sexual dysfunction, body-image issues, anxiety, communication roadblocks, and a variety of problems that hinder peoples' relationships with themselves and their partners. Cheryl notes that her work is not just about sex and sexuality, but also a gradual increase of intimacy: “I always say to my clients 'You are now taking an advanced course in human sexuality, and we're doing the lab work.  You and I are going to mix the potions and touch and feel and learn the physical part of it.'”
Partner surrogacy has generated its fair share of controversy and fascination due to its therapeutic techniques that often include engaging in sexual intimacy and even intercourse with clients, but after listening to the numerous stories of surrogates and the people whose lives they've changed, the immeasurable value of such work and the dedicated men and women who do it becomes apparent.  Some of these stories have recently been outlined in Cheryl's memoir An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner, and the award-winning movie The Sessions, for which Helen Hunt's critically-acclaimed portrayal of Cheryl was nominated for an Academy Award.

And because I'm the luckiest little sex educator in all the land, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Cheryl about sex, love, and her incredible, inspirational work.

Kendall: You've been a partner surrogate for a long time, living through many swings of the sexual and political pendulum, including the sexual revolution, the gay and women's rights movements, the conservative Reagan backlash years, and HIV and AIDS.  Where do you think societal attitudes about sex are right now?

Cheryl: We do have pendulums, and the pendulum right now has swung towards a "just say no to sex" kind of attitude. What we really need is some good information being given to kids as they grow up, and we're still not doing that. Parents need to give positive, accurate information, and also look at their own judgments and be aware of what their own biases are. We even have to look at how we're dealing with kids when they're preverbal, how we change their diapers, how we respond to a little boy's erection because most of the time, just cleaning that area is stimulating enough to have an erection.  Parents think "Why is he getting a hard-on?  Why is he trying to touch it?" and I say, "Because he's a baby! He's always going to be exploring his body. It feels good! It's not about sex, it's sensuality."  You have to be careful how you react, how you're looking at them. You're the provider, you're doing the nurturing, and they're looking at you if you wipe them too roughly, or yank or slap their hands away just because you're uptight that he's getting an erection. I've even seen parents roughly flick a baby's penis! It goes on all the time, without people even realizing what they're doing to their children. This is why sex educators like us and like-minded people should give parents permission to have these feelings, but encourage them to try to let go of them for the betterment of the child, as well as themselves. There's still a lot of shame and guilt in us.  

Kids don't even know what their parts are called. I write about it in the book: I called it my "hoosie" because that's what my mother did. I didn't know I had a vulva or a vagina or a clitorisshe just said "don't touch yourself 'down there.'" I would imagine that stuff still goes on even with adults.  A girlfriend of mine said, "You know Cheryl, until I read your book, I didn't even know I had a clitoral hood!" I asked if she was using a mirror to look at her vulva, and she said "No, I haven't gotten that far. I'm not that brave yet." And she's sixty eight years old! She's always been more conservative than I am, but I'm still kind of surprised and sad. I wish that we could get women to fall in love with their vulvas, and say to them "This is a part of us that we own, and this is something that we need to learn to really love.” In the book I talk about working with some women on body and genital image, communication, teaching them to masturbate and showing them different ways that women do it, and just letting her run with it, giving her all sorts of permission to do whatever she wants to do.  It's her body, learn about it! You've got to really know yourself before you can really experience your sexuality from a knowledgeable place. That statement "My prince will come and so will I" really cracked me up when I first heard it. I thought "Oh my god, waiting for some guy to know me better than I know myself?!"

Yeah. Masturbation is always the first thing I suggest to women who are trying to improve their sex lives.  Know your own body.

Cheryl: I always assume everybody's masturbating. If I begin by asking clients "When you masturbate. . ." people are much more willing to talk about it, instead of claiming "Oh I never masturbate." I only worked with one or maybe two people who didn't masturbate. One was a man who was born in China, and he just thought it was unmanly. He'd maybe tried it once and said it just did nothing for him. And it was very difficult to get him to understand why I felt that it was important. His issue was that he was ejaculating too quickly, so I wanted him to consider masturbating as homeworkand he wouldn't do it!  The other person came from a religion where it was a shameful thing and he didn't do it, and I always wondered whether he really didn't do it, or just couldn't admit it because he felt so much shame.  

When you give people permission and say, "There's nothing shameful about this," it's amazing. There's another man I discuss in the book whose wife left him because she caught him masturbating, and it devastated him. He couldn't even masturbate after that, and it was just so sad to me. I wouldn't have picked this profession if I didn't feel in my heart how important it was to me to become a more sex-positive person. I did not always feel positive about sex. I thought it was a necessary evil because I grew up with priests telling me that all my sexual feelings were incantations the devil had set in my path, and that God was upset with and ashamed of me because I acquiesced and masturbated, or had sex with my first boyfriend, or let somebody touch my breasts. That was horrible. I don't want to see kids feeling that way.

Kendall: How your upbringing influenced the evolution of your sexuality and dedication to this line of work were some of the most interesting parts of the book to me. The first sexual experiences you described were really strikingyour first partner not understanding your desire for foreplay instead of intercourse because intimacy for him centered around penis-in-vagina penetration, and your second partner calling you a “sex maniac” after giving you an orgasm.  Unfortunately, I think similar attitudes and experiences still exist. Women have admitted to havingand I've even experienced it myselfa fear that genuinely enjoying sex will turn men off. That liking it “too much” or expressing pleasure and desire somehow inexplicably makes sex with us less appealing.

Yes. You know why, Kendall? I still think it permeates our culture in many areas: a woman shouldn't speak up, and shouldn't know what she likes. It's that damned "let's always make believe that we're virgins" thing, because then men value you much more. I think women have, for too long, just been lying there and accepting whatever the man brings to the table when they're in bed together.

I've had clients in the past who, when I've had an orgasm (which doesn't always happen with clients), say "Psh. I shouldn't have to pay you, you're having a great time." This isn't the average person's response, by the way, but I'll stop and say "You are not paying me to not have an orgasm, you are paying me to be real with you and to teach you and guide you. You were very lucky to have that experience with me, because it doesn't happen all the time. But at this point, because you've said that, I gotta let you know it's a turn off. It's demeaning. Would you rather I hadn't had an orgasm?  Would that have made you feel better?”

Everything I do with clients is to gear them up for the next person in their life that they're going to be intimate with, and how to think about them with respect.  You're lucky enough to be doing this with them, and they're lucky to be doing it with you. Let's come from a place of respect. And lust!  Lust is a beautiful feeling. You don't have to be in love, you can be in lust, but you have to respect that the other person has their own needs and desires. And if they tell you what they like, or they experience an orgasm or whatever joy with you, be grateful.  

I do actually think my first partner would have actually been open to the conversation [about foreplay instead of sexual intercourse] if I would have had it. I was fourteen and fifteen years-old with him and we didn't know any better. I never blamed him, I just didn't want to get pregnant. There didn't seem like there was a way to talk about it.  

Kendall: It's hard for most people to talk about these things, which I find so fascinating: that partners are willing to mush their genitals together, swap body fluids, and engage in the most intimate acts humans can experience, but are somehow unwilling or unable to communicate with each other, to say "That doesn't feel good" or "This is what I want.”

Cheryl: One time a therapist I don't work with anymore told me to "just go in the bedroom and don't talk too much." I said "What are you talking about?! I have to be watching a person so closely, seeing what their facial expression says, stop to ask them 'How are you right now? What's going on?' when you feel that something's not okay with the client." I'm an expert in communication, and everything I do is role-modeling how to do it with a partner!  If you see a blank look on your partner's face and you ignore itwhy are you ignoring it? You should say "How are you, is everything all right?  Let me know if you don't like anything. I want to be here for you." That doesn't mean you're asking them to marry you!  It's showing that you care enough to be present, and that's a big thing.

I also want to role model for clients how to tell somebody when they're not happy with something, without scolding or blaming. I want women to give a guy a lot of chances. Be patient, and say, "I don't expect you to get it right away. You're learning from me and I'm learning to tell you.  I'm just going to tell you nicely every time I need you to do it differently." I just did this with a ninety-one year-old client of mine who needed fine tuning. He's been doing it his way for God knows how long, probably over seventy years, and I needed to tell him what I liked over and over again, back him up, and just be kind and gentle. He was apologizing, and I would say "You don't need to apologize, you just need to listen, and I will do this again with you gently so that your next partner will feel that you're a good listener.  And that makes you an even better lover." I can't teach men techniques that are going to work with all women, but I can teach them to listen, and I know listening is something all women will appreciate.

Kendall: Yeah, that's something I dealt with a lot when I was doing pleasure-based sex education: people were constantly asking me what the "trick" is to getting a guy or girl off, and they were usually disappointed when I'd tell them "ask your partner!" There are no specific techniques that universally work on everybody, because everybody's different.  But if you ask and communicate with each other, you can make sex infinitely better for everyone involved.

Cheryl: Right! The Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco had a fantastic set of movies a while back. One featured a couple where the man became a paraplegic, and the wife was saying that now he listens, and that has made him a much better lover. The sex is betterunfortunately, for him, because he's immobilized morebut it's better than it ever was in their relationship than it had been because he's listening!

That's what I tell clients all the time. It doesn't matter how many people you've had sex with, it's whether you're a good listener, and you follow through.

Kendall: A good talker too. Because there's no point in being a good listener if you're with a partner who is unwilling or unable to communicate.  And when people do express themselves, they need someone who's willing to hear it.  Both are crucial.

Cheryl: Oh, exactly!  You also have a right to say "My hand's getting tired," or "My chin's getting sore," or "I need to get out of this position."  People are shocked to hear this.  They say "Oh really?  I can get up and go to the bathroom?" "If my erection goes away, that's okay?" These things ebb and flow throughout any experience that takes more than two seconds, and so does your erotic mind.  

Being willing to hear it is also a huge piece. You can try to get somebody to listenand give it several triesbut if they're not willing to listen to you, then you need to say, "this is not working for me. I'm not going to blame you, but I don't want to be put in this situation again. I can see that it's not pleasing you for me to tell you what I need, and I have to take care of myself. I expect you would do the same thing." Get out of there. Nobody knows how to say, "This has never been something I really liked,” to which I suggest "Just do it kindly and gently and say, 'here's something else that might be nice for us to try.'" It's never too late.

Kendall: I wonder how much of this unwillingness to speak up is the result of seeing these very formulaic and edited depictions of of sex in porn and the media, where nobody ever smiles or laughs or makes funny sounds.

Cheryl: Or farts!  I know people who have never farted in front of their husbands!

Kendall: That's completely insane.

Cheryl: Yeah! What are they doing? They're hurting themselves. Let it out! When it happens with me with clients, and of course it does because it happens naturally, I just say "Oh God, you know what?  I just farted, and I feel so much closer to you now!" (Laughs.) You have to have a sense of humor with sex, that's something I never let go of with my clients. Listen, sometimes this is funny, and when you get to laugh about it, we're on a good path.

Kendall: So surrogacy work is just that: work, but the fact remains that you have to be naked and intimate and sexual with a number of different people. And because these folks come to you, and not the other way around, I'm going to assume that you're not initially sexually attracted to every single one of them. How do you reconcile all this? Do you try to create some kind of "natural" chemistry, or is it really not that essential for you to be able to do this work effectively and enjoy it?

Cheryl: I really like people, and I cannot work with a client unless I find something that makes me feel good about who they are. The fact that they come to me and are vulnerable, and they talk openly about something that's been shameful for them, that starts the whole thing for me.  Then the way they listen, and the way we explore. I grow into a relationship with them from the very first session.  Now I'm working with a man that I've worked with for a long time, and his body isn't a type that I'd typically be attracted to. But he's clean, he takes good care of himself, and he's a wonderful kisser (I discovered that in the fifth session and we have maybe four sessions left to go). I like him, I look forward to seeing him, and when we're intimate I feel good about it. So there's always something. I will not work with a person I cannot find that in, and that's happened twice. One man, I started working with, and he came with an attitude and basically demanded to be shown some techniques. He didn't want to learn.  I wrote about this in my book in the story about the guy who said he "wouldn't take a woman like me anyplace but McDonald's." It was obvious he and I weren't going much further. Then there was a man who went through my stuff! I went to the bathroom and when I came back, he was looking at my files.  I just told him to put everything down, get his things, and leave. Those are literally the only two people who I remember not being able to work with.

Kendall: It sounds like the more important thing for you is not physical attraction, but human connection.

Cheryl: Human connection, yeah. Because if you can't look beyond a person's imperfectness, or you're locked into a specific type, you're really limiting yourself. I say to clients "Listen to the person, and stop looking at what they look like. Listen to what's in there."  That's the true answer to that question, that's how I can work with people. I like what I find in them, and that's really what's important. If I see that there's things that I can help them with, improve what's in there, and guide them to a different way of approaching things, that's attractive.  

Kendall: One of your clients who epitomizes this connection is Mark O' Brien, the main character in the movie The Sessions and one of the clients discussed in your book who was also severely disabled. You said people assumed Mark's disability “canceled out his need for touch and intimacy,” and bemoaned the way that disabled people's sexuality is often “treated like an inconvenience at best.” The importance of providing sexual acceptance and assistance for differently-abled folks is becoming increasingly acknowledged, though it still appears to be a struggle for many parents and caregivers. Can you speak more to this?

Cheryl: Mark O' Brien's family was fantastic, but he said to me when we were working together, "Whenever I'm naked, nobody else in the room is. And I always thought that either God or my parents were going to interfere to ever keep this moment [sexual intimacy] from happening." Mark's mother really was a wonderful woman, and he and his mother were very close. She may have had a disgusted look on his face when he accidentally ejaculated and what not, but she also came from that Catholic shame-based background. My gut feeling is his mother would have never wanted to pass that onto him if she had only known better. I really hope that my book and The Sessions will help people who have a disabled child understand these things, and it would really be great if they could take a class on sexuality and dispel some of the myths, shame and guilt that make them feel embarrassed about not knowing how to deal with their child's sexuality.

Kendall: People are conditioned to react negatively to sex, and most just don't know how to critically analyze the way we're socialized to feel about sexuality, especially when it comes to our kids.

Cheryl: And that's our job as sex-positive surrogates and educators. To get this information out there and get people to really start thinking and changing. The Heart's Alphabet by James Grimm is a beautiful story about his own life, and Jim mentions me but doesn't go into detail like Mark O' Brien.  His family came to me in 1990 with Jim when he was about twenty-two, and it was amazing. He couldn't even talk; he had to stick his tongue out and you'd read the letters and do the alphabet with him. I could not imagine someone more trapped in their body than Jim was. It was the most beautiful family. I said to them "You are the first family that's ever brought their child to me and respected their sexuality and who they were so much, and didn't try to hide that part of them." When they left we were all hugging each other goodbye, and it made me so happy. Jim died a few years ago, but that was a life with the best parents I could have ever imagined for a disabled person.

Kendall: When you were working with Mark, you said your goal was to prepare him for being with another partner, but there was always the possibility that might never happen. Did this put a lot of pressure on you?

Cheryl: I was definitely concerned that this might be the only experience he ever had, I wanted it to be a really good one, as well as learn the things he could do with others. There was a lot of teaching going on in the six sessions with him, because I prayed that he could transfer it [to a future partner]and he did! He met a fabulous partner.  

Because he wasn't able to move, I did things very differently with Mark: we moved into being sexual sooner than I ever move into sexuality with clients (it's usually not until the fifth or sixth session). In the movie we only had four sessions, but in real life we had six sessions. The movie has changed the story somewhat, but yes, I had the orgasms with him, I did bring the mirror to him, I kissed his chest and it was profound for him. And I did a lot more with him. . . when I was sitting on his face, I wasn't just sitting on his face. I had myself up high, I was showing him my vulva. (Because of the angle of his head I had to kind of do an acrobatic thing.) I had a marvelous orgasm with him, and felt really good about him. He said he loved me and I said "I love you too."  You can love a person in the moment. I explained afterwards how much I felt at that moment I loved him, and he said "I felt the same way." That's why he said he loved me.

Kendall: That's a really interesting idea, that you can love a person in the moment.  I've definitely been intimate with people I didn't love, but when we give each other pleasure and physically connect so intensely, I do feel like I love them at that time.  I don't typically verbalize it, because it's not always appropriate with casual partners. But in that moment, you do feel it, and it's very real.

Cheryl: Yeah. And sex can do that, good sex can do that! “Oh my god!  I love you!” That kind of feeling can be therenot all the timebut when it happens, it's great. So that's really what I want to say: let's be more kind to each other, listen to each other, let's have a wonderful time with each other and explore sexuality from a pure, open, honest place, with compassion, and empathy. We all came away with some baggage from our childhood. Some of us are carrying a semi, and others are carrying around a little wallet or a purse or a backpack - it depends on the person and the experiences. I've always said my life's work is to learn who I am and to let go of that baggage. Sometimes it takes a lifetimeI'm still working on it, and I always will. But I don't begrudge it, and I'm glad I'm me.

Kendall: Well, I'm glad you're you too!

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