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Meet the Real Sex Surrogate Portrayed by Helen Hunt in 'The Sessions'

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One of my favorite movies of the year is The Sessions, based on the true story of sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene and her work with Berkeley-based poet and journalist Mark O'Brien, who was confined to an iron lung after contracting polio at age 6. The story is riveting, and comprises the first chapter of Cheryl's memoir, An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner.

For forty years, Cheryl has worked in a career that has helped so many people, yet is greatly misunderstood. Here's what she had to say about her life as a sex surrogate:

Lois Alter Mark: I absolutely loved The Sessions, and thought it was such a beautiful and important story that can really open people's minds. How accurate is the movie and what message do you hope viewers will come away with after seeing it?

Cheryl Cohen Greene: Overall, I'm pleased with the level of accuracy in the movie. Of course, there are some things that the film couldn't show because of time limitations, but they really gave an accurate depiction of my work with Mark. The part about Mark and I falling in love was an exception. I would say we fell in like and we shared some very intense, loving moments. We stayed friends for years.

I hope people will come away understanding how important sexuality is for everyone, including people with disabilities. They have the same needs and desires as those of us who don't live with a physical disability. Additionally, I hope people will have a better sense of who surrogate partners are and the services we provide. We offer people the education and experience that can help them move forward in their lives from a more secure, more knowledgeable place.

LAM: Helen Hunt gives a beautiful performance that has deservedly been nominated for an Academy Award. How did it feel to watch her portray you? Did she have any specific questions before she started? What kind of advice did you give her?

CCG: It was incredible! Helen observed me very closely. She herself has said that I'm a louder person than she is, but I really felt she got my energy into her portrayal. She asked a lot about how I work with people and the range of clients I have. We discussed my work with Mark and how I encouraged him to give me feedback. Once, I read the script to her in my own voice so she could get my Boston accent. She also invited me to her home and I demonstrated sensual touch, an exercise I do with clients, on her partner -- fully clothed. Much of what you see with Helen and John in the movie comes directly from my work with Mark. I did bring a mirror to our sessions so Mark could see himself, and I did touch him in much the same way Helen did.

LAM: Because the movie focuses on just one of your clients, I found it fascinating to read your memoir afterwards. You have lived a very rich life, in a world most people have no idea even exists!

CCG: Thank you. I agree! I've been very fortunate.

LAM: It seems that the biggest misconception about surrogates is that they're no different than prostitutes. The movie and your book clearly show how off-base that perception is. I love that you say you're more like Julia Child than Xavier Hollander, and you compare seeing a surrogate to going to culinary school. Can you explain that a little?

CCG: Well, if you go to a prostitute it's like going to a restaurant. You choose what you want for the menu, you eat and hopefully have a good meal, and then you pay accordingly. If you have a good experience, maybe you'll return or refer friends to them. With a surrogate, it's more like going to culinary school. You learn the recipes, you learn your way around the kitchen, and then you go back to your life equipped with new skills and knowledge. I've yet to find a better metaphor for explaining the difference.

LAM: The world was a very different place when you originally started this career. How did you get into it and what does it take to be good at this job?

CCG: It takes compassion and empathy -- not sympathy, but empathy. It also takes having a very good intuitive sense. Surrogates have a process that we follow, but as the work progressives, it really becomes more individualized and it's important for the surrogate to be able to pick up subtle cues from the client.

I got into because it was meant to be! I had a sexually repressive childhood in which I was taught to believe that sex was dirty and wrong, but also that you were supposed to save it for the one you love. When I was pregnant with my first child, I went into therapy because I wanted my children to have a different and better experience from the one I had. In the process of working on myself, I really had to confront all of the shame and guilt I had about my sexuality. I was eventually able to work through it and free myself of it, even though it was intense. That made me believe that this was possible for others, too, and I wanted to help people not just overcome negative feelings about sexuality, but become more accepting and happy as sexual beings.

LAM: Although sex is all over the place now and it seems like there's a no-holds-barred attitude, the number of surrogates has actually decreased since you started. Why is that? What have been the biggest changes you've seen in our sexual culture over the past 40 years?

CCG: The biggest challenge has always been people's shame and guilt. In the sixties and seventies, people were rejecting that and trying to redefine their attitudes about sex. When AIDS happened, people became understandably scared and surrogates were no exception. A lot of them left the field. Those of us who stayed thought it was frightening too. We made a real effort to understand safer sex and to become condom positive. Most of our clients are low risk because they haven't had a lot of sex, but there was still a certain amount of risk that we faced. We had to have a new dialogue. Before AIDS, we asked if a client wanted to use a condom; now, it's taken as a given that he will, and if he refuses, we won't have intercourse. Surrogates became better sex educators because we had to be much better informed. We were up against something much more serious than syphilis and gonorrhea.

There are only about 50 trained surrogates in the U.S. now. That number was up to around 200 in the seventies. We're trying to find young men and women to come into the field and I hope the movie will spark interest in the profession.

LAM: What's the most difficult part of being a surrogate?

CCG: The most difficult part is probably to not continue to be a surrogate when you're with your partner. We're trained to be highly aware of what the client does and feels. Surrogacy is highly client-centric and the surrogate has to be closely attuned to her client. Sex with a partner is a much more shared experience and you don't want to find yourself becoming a spectator or losing touch with your own body. It took a while for me to learn not to be a surrogate all the time.

LAM: What's the scariest part?

CCG: I don't really find anything scary about my work. People are often surprised to hear that. There have only been very few instances where I felt scared with a client. One I detail in An Intimate Life. The other was with a man who had a lot of unresolved anger at his ex-wife, whom I apparently looked like. All my clients are screened by the referring therapist and it's appropriate for them to be working with me. In truth, surrogacy is, at least initially, probably way scarier for them than it ever is for me.

LAM: You are a breast cancer survivor, and you underwent a mastectomy in 2006. How did that affect your own body image as well as your practice?

CCG: It threw me for a loop at first, but I knew instantly that I didn't want to stop working. I had to learn a new dialogue about my body. I found myself trying to come to grips with the loss of a friend. I loved my breast. I loved the sensation I had in my nipple and it happens that the breast I had removed was the more sensitive of the two. I took a philosophical attitude. I had both breasts at one time in my life, and I enjoyed them, but to be alive was more important.

LAM: How has being a surrogate affected your personal relationships?

CCG: I think I have richer personal relationships because of my work. Who I am and what I do is so different than what others do. I have fabulous friends and a loving husband, and my work has helped me be more empathetic and compassionate with all of them.

LAM: You're 68 years old now and are still working. What's been the most rewarding part of your career? What do you see for the future?

CCG: I'm going to continue my surrogacy practice for as long as I can. I love the idea of having a public platform and being able to do more education. One thing I would absolutely love to do is to serve as a sex educator for parents. How parents address sexuality has a huge impact on kids, and I'd like to make sure it's a positive one. I'd love to help give parents the knowledge and tools they need to raise happy and healthy kids.