Standing outside the theater doors, Cheryl Cohen Greene, who inspired Helen Hunt's Oscar-nominated role in "The Sessions," leaned in and told me in a hushed tone, "I've watched it 11 times and I cry every time." Just feet away, an audience sat in the dark, watching the Hollywood version of her life -- or at least her experience working as a sex surrogate with severely disabled poet Mark O'Brien -- unfold on the big screen.
Cohen Greene and I were at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, Calif., the city where the movie takes place, for a Fox-sponsored screening ahead of this year's Academy Awards. It was our first time meeting but, having watched the movie, I felt like I already knew her. Hunt nailed Cohen Greene's Boston accent, not to mention her radiant warmth and penetrating gaze. In real life, as on-screen via Hunt, she brings an immediate, disarming intimacy to even clothed conversation. In fact, standing there in the theater lobby with her, I felt a bit naked.
Hunt was similarly moved by meeting Cohen Greene, who recently published her memoir, "An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner." In a recent interview, she said, "I fell so in love with this woman's fire and enthusiasm and positivity, and she just exudes mental health." I heard similar remarks from the audience after the screening -- a common refrain was, "What an amazing woman."
Cohen Greene objects to being characterized as a saint because of the work she has done for over 40 years, but surrogacy is so clearly a righteous calling for her; and while she isn't a prostitute, she is the embodiment of what might be one of the most compelling arguments for greater legalization, or decriminalization, of certain forms of sex work, in the very least. Here is a woman who chose her occupation free of coercion, who truly loves the work and who positively changes lives while doing it.
I interviewed Cohen Greene -- a video and partial transcript of which you'll find below -- before turning it over to the audience's questions. She talked about the ins and outs, so to speak, of surrogacy, the love she felt for O'Brien and how her current husband transformed from a client into a love interest.
So in the movie, the character that’s based on you, she describes the difference between a prostitute and a sex surrogate as being that a sex surrogate doesn’t want repeat business. I’m wondering if you would like to expand on the difference between the two.
Yeah, I would, because I get asked this question all the time. You know, I want to start out by saying that I have no problem with prostitution as long as it’s between two consenting adults, and I really think it should be decriminalized. Surrogates and sex workers, and I think that’s a better term because I think it’s less charged, have intentions that are different. My friend Steven Brown came up with this analogy, and I promised him years ago that I’d always give him credit for it; he said that coming to see us was like going to -- well, first of all, going to see a prostitute would be like going to a restaurant, looking at the menu, picking out what you’d like, they prepare it for you, hope you like it enough to come back and refer friends. Going to a surrogate is like going to a cooking school where you get the recipe, you get the ingredients, you learn how to make the dish, you share it, and then you go out and share it in the real world.
I like that analogy and somebody else came up with another one the other day that was: If you go to an orthopedist because you strained, or broke, or, you know, injured yourself, often they’ll send you to a physical therapist, and I don’t want physical therapists to get upset – well, if they got upset, I’d say, "Let's talk about your sexual issues" [laughs] -- but it is, it’s like you do the hands-on work. Therapists can do that kind of touching and exploring, and it’s a gradual increase of intimacy, it’s not about jumping into bed and having sex. That’ll happen, sooner or later, but it happens -- it’s a very slow process of learning what intimacy is actually about.
That actually brings me to my next question, which is: In the movie, we see that pretty quickly, after some cursory conversation, the clothes come off. Is that at all accurate to how things would really happen?
That can happen, getting undressed, getting the nudity out of the way. I just did a documentary for a British television channel, Channel 4 in England, and they brought a young man who was 45 years old and a virgin. He had an evangelical background, he belonged to a youth group, he had all sorts of issues around sexuality, not feeling that a good person would be intimate with anybody until they were married. And then he was 45 years old and finding that – you know, he had never dated very much, he was still a virgin, and he wanted to be a part of this project. And we didn’t get undressed for six sessions, and we took it very slowly. So I don’t rush people, it’s not about rushing them. [Mark and I] had 11 sessions, and on average, I would say between six and eight and the maximum would be about 14. If you went to Masters and Johnson years ago, to their clinic in St. Louis, you’d be there for two weeks, and you’d see the therapists and you and your partner would be given the same exercises that we do with clients.
So in the movie we see the husband in one scene, lying in bed, telling Helen Hunt that she’s a saint for what she does. And I’m sure that’s a sentiment that you’ve heard many times before. I’m wondering how you feel about that sort of characterization?
I always say, “I’m no Mother Teresa.” I remember when I started this line of work, I said to my first husband – the one that’s represented in this movie – “Well, I guess this means I’ll never be first lady.” [laughs] And I really didn’t care. I think of what I do as – well, first ladies matter – but I think what I do matters in the world just as much, because I don’t feel most of us walk away from our childhood with a real good sense of the rightness of our sexuality. There’s always confusion. And I bothered, from the time I left Salem, Mass., and I was telling you I went to the Immaculate Conception – St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception – from the time I was 5 'til I was almost 14; and I walked away feeling horrible about myself. Every time I masturbated I was sure my guardian angel was standing in the corner just going, “Oh no, here she goes again.” And then I’d go back to confession, and I’d tell the priest the truth because I believed – I was told – that if you lied in confession that was even worse, and so I was, you know, I was miserable, and I bothered to figure it out and work toward getting to be a healthier person. With the help of many people, I used therapists a lot, it’s a wonderful tool. And my first husband was very open, I mean he had his issues, but he was not a jealous man, so the relationship with him was much different than in the movie.
I was going to ask about that, because we see a lot of jealousy there, so that was not present? OK. So you really related to Mark then, in terms of the religious background and sort of baggage?
Oh God, yeah. I mean he was from Dorchester, if you know Boston, it’s a part of south Boston, and I was from Salem. And we related, in the Catholic end too, although he told me when we were together that he had to believe in a god because he had to blame someone. I loved it when I saw it in the movie with him and Susan. He had a marvelous sense of humor and we really did relate. He still had this guilt; I mean, you know in the movie when he looks at Helen and he says to her, “When I’m naked, everybody else is clothed.” He [really] said those words. And he was waiting for his parents or a priest to come charging into the room, and I said then, “Not today.”
The movie definitely implies that your character experienced some very complex emotions toward him, and perhaps even romantic feelings. Is that accurate?
I did experience complex feelings, I did have – you know that scene where he has the orgasm, and then I actually held him in, and he didn’t lose his erection and I was able to have an orgasm with him? I kissed his chest, when I looked at his eyes, he had these beautiful blue eyes, and I could see tears in his eyes. I said, “What’s wrong?” I thought maybe something had happened and I was busy having my orgasm and ignoring him, and I had kissed his chest, and he had a – they couldn’t afford to do the special effects to really create Mark’s body, but his chest went up into like a ridge, and I just kissed him, and it was an emotional moment for both of us. And he did tell me he loved me and I told him I loved him. When you do what I do with people, there’s no lack of emotion. It’s a really good thing to be able to develop some, a friendship, a caring for each other. And I know, I’ve been with people in the past, and probably [with] clients in the future, where we’ve gone through so much together and we have an experience like that, and I love them. And I don’t feel like holding back and not saying that. But I actually said to Mark, “You can love people right in the moment. And I really love you right this second, or right these minutes. And you’re going to have a more rich and more delicious relationship in the future with somebody else that you can have the full type of relationship with.” And I worried that that wouldn’t happen, but it did, when he met Susan.
So I was kind of surprised by the scene where your character orgasms with him. It seems so intimate, and like she’s potentially allowing herself this real vulnerability. You just said that that actually did happen; is that something that routinely happens? Is that something that’s a bit of a challenge? It seems like you would feel so personally exposed.
Yeah, you know, I think we’re personally exposed throughout the whole process. Because, you know, we both do … we start off with being naked, and doing the breathing, and relaxing, and doing communication. Then we do something called “the mirror exercise,” where I stand up in front of a full-length mirror and I’m nude, and my client listens to me while I talk about my body, how I felt when I was growing up and how I feel now, and I can always hear my grandmother in the background saying, “You don’t have to tell them what you don’t like, they’re not even gonna notice!” [laughs] And people will say to me, “Gee, I wouldn’t have noticed you had a waddle until you told me!”
Or, well, I can’t ignore the fact that I have a mastectomy. I mean, I have a reconstructed breast, but I had breast cancer in 2006. I didn’t get a nipple made, it was another operation, I said the hell with it. So I had a glue-on nipple, and I’ll tell you a little story. I had this client and this therapist said to me, “He wants to explore dressing in women’s clothing.” This doesn’t happen all the time, but I thought, “OK, fine, I’ll give him honest feedback.” And, so he was -- we were in the living room and I said I’d get undressed in the living room with him, so I was sitting in a chair and he was crawling around on the floor toward me, and he had a little cheerleader skirt on and a little top, he looked kinda cute – no underwear -- and I had my glue-on. And I look down at one point, and I saw this horrible thing on his knee, it looked like a huge wart. And I thought for a second, I looked down, and my nipple was on his knee. So I reached down and I peeled it off. And he said, “What’s that?” And I said, “Oh it’s nothing.” I slapped it back on. I said, “Isn’t it amazing that they can create these amazing devices?” [laughs] And we just went right on from there.
But, I mean, I’m always being vulnerable. People tell me, you know, therapists who feel uncomfortable with surrogate work – with surrogate practice – say that the client is so vulnerable. So am I. You know, like you said, the emotions that come up. No, I don’t have orgasms all the time. But when I do, they’re real. I promise clients I’m not going to lie to them, I’ll be honest with them, and if I have to give them feedback, I’ll try and do it in a way that is not scolding and they can hear. Because too many times when people get frustrated they scold each other in intimate moments, and boy does that take the wind out of the sails.
The quote for the night is officially, “I saw my nipple on his knee and peeled it off.” [laughs] So I was really fascinated to read that your second husband, your current husband, was actually a former client. How did that relationship transition from therapeutic to romantic?
You know, I always say that clients that I work with are not sick and broken people; they’re like every one of us. And what they need is somebody to sort of guide them, give them permission, give them accurate information, teach them how to notice their own bodies, and stop worrying about – the best lovers are not men who have had multiple partners or huge amount of partners; it’s men who listen.
When I met Bob, there was something special, and it just happened. And I have not had that experience again. We saw each other through the full, we had I think six or seven sessions, and when he was about to leave – I talked about it in my book – he brought me a camera. And I don’t accept gifts, and he had seen the camera I was using and he was always telling me what a piece of crap it was. [laughs] And he came up with this camera, I said, "I can’t take that." And his eyes filled up with tears, he said, “I’m just not going to do anything with it, I’m going to give it away to somebody.” And he said, “I just want you to have something that you can take pictures of your kids with.” Because he knew I was married and had the kids, and I said, “OK, then you’re going to have to show me how to use the camera.” And I saw a little gleam in his eye.
We went to the Berkeley Botanical Gardens, and I have a picture of him in the book, that first day we went out together, standing there with his bushy hair and that beautiful smile. There’s another one I have, that didn’t get in the book, of him walking on his hands across this bridge, and I thought, “Ooh, upper body strength, I love that.” And we had that day, and then a few weeks later we wound up going out again, and that was it. I mean, it was just obvious that we cared deeply, and it’s been almost 34 years that we’ve been together. So, it’s a pretty good relationship, I would say.