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Sex, love, surrogacy and ‘Sessions’

Sex, love, surrogacy and ‘Sessions’
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.
(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.

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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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VIDEO | The Envelope Screening Series: ‘The Sessions’

“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.

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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.

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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.’”

For O’Brien, Greene’s work was life-changing: “I asked Cheryl whether she thought I deserved to be loved sexually,” he wrote in “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” a 1990 article for the Sun magazine. “She said she was sure of it. I nearly cried. She didn’t hate me. She didn’t consider me repulsive. . . . She stroked my hair and told me how good it felt. This surprised me; I had never thought of my hair, or any other part of me, as feeling or looking good.”

Filmmaker Ben Lewin, who had contracted polio as a boy, was so moved by the story that he decided to make “The Sessions.” In 2007, he says, “when I showed up at her house, I thought, ‘This is a middle-class, normal house.’ I was thinking I may show up to some weird form of prostitution den.”

Tucked on a quiet residential street near UC Berkeley, Greene’s duplex is unassuming. Most of her neighbors only recently learned of her profession due to the publicity she’s received from “The Sessions.”

The home is small — the living room where she greets clients leads to an open dining room and kitchen. Her bedroom, perhaps 150 square feet, is far from an exotic sex lair. A string of Christmas lights and two dream catchers hang above a queen-sized bed — “it’s a Tempur-Pedic,” she notes. The bedding is unfussy — some plain pillows rest above a thin lavender blanket.

On the bedside table is a wooden box filled with condoms, along with some moisturizer and a tin of Altoids. On the dresser is a handful of feathers, which she uses for sensual touch. More serious sex aids are hidden from sight.

VIDEO | The Envelope Screening Series: ‘The Sessions’

Earlier in the day, Greene says, she’d worked with a 45-year-old virgin in her bedroom. She showed him “Petals,” a book with images of female genitalia, which, she says, “grossed him out.” The two didn’t have sex, but she washed the sheets afterward anyway because it had been a few days since she’d done laundry.

“I don’t wash them after every client. People use condoms,” she says. “Bob’s really comfortable. It’s not like he comes home and goes, ‘Get those sheets off of that bed. What were you doing?’”

Bob Greene, 64, and retired from the post office, says he’s relaxed about his wife’s profession.

“If I want to know what she did that day, she’ll tell me,” he says. “She is immaculately clean. She takes a shower before and after a client. But it doesn’t even enter my mind. I can understand that a lot of other men could not tolerate their lady being involved with other men having sex. I trust her fully.”

The two have been married for 33 years. They met in 1979 when he came to her as a client with erectile concerns after a stint in Vietnam. Greene doesn’t accept gifts as a policy, but when Bob brought her an expensive camera at their last session and got teary-eyed, she broke her own rule.

“He begged me to accept it and said he could teach me how to use it,” she says. “I had already started feeling feelings for him. We went to the botanical gardens and had a marvelous afternoon together. I asked for another lesson and he said, ‘Great, do you want to go to dinner afterward?’ And that was it. Boom.”

She’s been attracted to other patients — many have given her orgasms. She’s fantasized about others, and has imagined walking on an exotic beach with certain clients.

Hunt says she usually finds that it’s not helpful to meet the people who inspire the characters she plays. But Greene, she says, was different and the two spent hours together before Hunt filmed “The Sessions.”

“She invited me over to show her how to do some sensual touch on her partner, Matthew, and I was so excited,” Greene says. “Their house — oh, it’s a dream house. Once there, I rubbed Matthew’s feet. He said, ‘Honey, you ought to have Cheryl come over here again and teach us how to do this.’”

“Hearing her talk about her body in such a candid way and her accent — I just got very infected by her spirit,” Hunt says.

Greene, who charges $300 per two-hour session, estimates that 25% of the men she’s worked with are virgins; others have ejaculation problems. (During her career, she’s worked with five women.)

She’s a breast cancer and lymphoma survivor, and after undergoing a mastectomy only has one nipple. Gone is the long-flowing hair she once loved to use to tantalize her clients — she’s kept it short ever since her chemotherapy treatments.

“I don’t feel as relaxed with 20-year-olds as I used to,” she says, “but, hey, if they look at me and say, ‘I want to work with you,’ I will work with them.”

Greene does plan on retiring someday — she and Bob want to travel. But that will have to wait. She’s just published her first book, “An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner” — and is asked to do an increasing number of speaking engagements.

“I know the publicity I’m getting from the movie will have its run and it’ll be over,” she says. “But now people know me. When I die, they’re going to say, ‘The surrogate who Helen Hunt played in the movie “The Sessions” has passed away. She was 99 years old, a feisty, happy old lady.’

“Having an orgasm and just sailing away,” she says, “would be my ideal way to go.”

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

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