How I Became a Sex Surrogate
The following is an excerpt from "An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner," the memoir of Cheryl Cohen Greene, the surrogate partner who is played by Helen Hunt in film "The Sessions."
Michael and I hadn’t had sex for almost a week. For some couples this would be unremarkable; for us it was a red flag. We had been in California for about a year and suddenly our sex life had dropped off a cliff. When I tried to kiss or cuddle up with him in bed he told me he was sleepy and rolled over onto his side with his back facing me. Michael being too tired for sex was like a fish being too tired to swim. I remembered when he would work a ten-hour shift at his hospital job and then come home and spend hours making love with me. The first couple of nights I tried to convince myself that maybe he was tired. Maybe he just needed some downtime. But when I was rebuffed for the fifth night in a row, I knew something other than fatigue was at play.
I needed to know what was going on. Even if my worst fear was true, at least I would know what I was dealing with and I could put an end to the speculation that was making me too anxious to relax even in corpse pose.
When I got home, Michael had just put the kids to bed and he stood at the kitchen sink washing dishes. I walked up behind him and put my arms around his waist. He turned on the water to rinse the suds off his hands and then twisted his body around, loosening my embrace. He took a few steps away from the sink with his hands up and grabbed a dishtowel.
“Michael, we need to talk,” I said.
“Okay,” he answered, and sat down at the kitchen table.
I sat down across from him.
“What’s going on? Why aren’t we having sex?”
Michael explained that he was feeling performance pressure because I regularly initiated sex.
“When I want sex I’ll initiate it,” he said.
This rocked me. First, I was humiliated. Was he saying that he didn’t want to have sex with me? Was this Michael’s way of accusing me of being a sex maniac, à la John, my teenage boyfriend? Also, I thought we were casting off tradition here. Was it suddenly wrong for me to want and initiate sex? I tried hard to maintain my composure, but soon I was crying again.
“Remember back in Boston when I told you that I had never been monogamous?”
I sure did. Michael told me this the first time we slept together. I wanted to think the sheer force of my love would turn him into a one-woman man.
“Well, I don’t want to be monogamous now. I need more stimulation,” he said.
More stimulation? I felt like the wind had just been knocked out of me. Then he pointed to an issue of the Berkeley Barb that lay on top of a pile of papers on our table. “Have you seen the ads for swingers parties in here?”
It took me no time at all to realize that Michael was asking for an open marriage. My feelings were not just mixed, but at odds. In 1970, traditional marriage was one of the many institutions up for popular review. In truth, I was curious about exploring with other men. I was only twenty-five. I had finally shaken off my religious guilt and shame and I was living in the heart of the sexual revolution, the San Francisco Bay Area. Part of me was happy to dispense with the confines of marriage, but another part of me was terrified of losing Michael. I did a quick, barely perceptible calculation and realized that opening the marriage would probably offer me the best chance at keeping it.
Five years, and a few extramarital relationships, later I had a better sense of the parameters, but I still had a lot to learn about sexuality. In 1973 my friend Alison invited me to an event that reminded me of this and started me on a career path I would never have dreamed of in my earlier life.
Alison asked me to attend a talk on sex at a church (a church!) in Berkeley. It was being led by three women who had just founded San Francisco Sex Information (SFSI, pronounced Sfissy), one of the first telephone hotlines for unbiased, fact-based sex education in the country. “Sexual ignorance is not bliss” is SFSI’s motto.
Alison and I had dinner at a small café a few blocks away from the church. As we often did, we got lost in conversation and didn’t leave until about ten minutes to seven. Neither of us was worried, though. We had only a short way to walk. As we reached the church we saw a line that snaked around the building. Would we get in? Alison and I took our places in line, shocked at the turnout. As it started to move we grew less optimistic that we would make it in. The church was obviously too small to hold everyone who wanted to attend. As I got near the doorway, I looked in and saw a sea of people, many of them standing. Alison walked in and I followed. Just as I stepped inside I heard the greeter apologize to the people behind me who had to be turned away because there was simply no more room left.
The evening started with a film that I will never forget. It followed a woman as she masturbated and reached climax. This wasn’t only shocking because of what she was doing, but because of who she was. This was a normal-looking woman, with an imperfect body that she seemed perfectly at ease with. The star of the film was Shirley Lewis.
When the movie ended and the lights came on, the stark silence of the room was almost palpable. A few moments later Alison turned to me and asked, “Do you ever do that?” When I nodded my head yes, she replied, in a kind of conspiratorial whisper, “So do I.” So, other women liked sex too? We broke up into discussion groups and I found that I was far from alone, not just in my shame, but also in my confusion and anger about how my sexuality had been treated within the Church, my family, and society. This was the first time I had ever been encouraged to talk openly and publicly about masturbation or any other sexual practice. Times were indeed a-changin’.
The next morning when I told Michael about the event, the first of two serendipitous things happened. Turned out, Michael, who had been taking a class at the now-defunct Center for Intimacy, knew Shirley. In fact, she taught the class he was taking. Michael mentioned to Shirley how impressed I was with her and he learned that, in addition to her work as an educator, she was also a surrogate partner. Then, about a week later, my friend Elizabeth gave me a copy of Surrogate Wife by Valerie X. Scott, who had been a Masters and Johnson–trained surrogate. The coincidences were starting to mount, and I began to wonder what it might be like to be a surrogate myself.
I wasn’t alone anymore. Many people struggled with issues around sexuality and maybe I could help them. I no longer had to apologize for being a woman who enjoyed having sex. I still didn’t know if I liked it more or less than other women, but I was starting to think that it didn’t matter if I did. It occurred to me that maybe I could even actively channel a strong libido into something that would help individuals feel happier and, I hoped, might make the world a better place.
I contacted Shirley to learn more about what exactly a surrogate did. No, they didn’t just show up and have sex with a client. There was a protocol that lasted, on average, six to eight visits. It could be shorter or longer depending on the client’s needs, and there were specific exercises designed to address the most common sexual problems. Surrogates worked closely with traditional talk therapists and all of their clients were referred by them. They worked with both couples and individuals. Most of the people they saw struggled with premature ejaculation, delayed ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, lack of desire, little or no sexual experience, poor body image, anxiety, physical disability, or some combination of these issues. A keen sense of compassion and a deep capacity for empathy were essential because, as a surrogate, you helped people address some of the most deeply personal, anxiety-provoking issues that they would ever face. Potential surrogates also must have addressed their own issues with sexuality.
The practice of surrogacy originated with Masters and Johnson, whose groundbreaking research in the 1950s and ’60s popularized the study of human sexuality. William Masters and Virginia Johnson were married researchers who did some of the earliest scientific work on the human sexual response and sexual dysfunction. Their books, Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy, were bestsellers and some of the first works to demystify sexuality. At their center in St. Louis they trained the very first surrogates and created the template for the process we use today.
Originally, Masters and Johnson worked with married couples who were struggling with a variety of sexual issues. Later, they opened their practice to single men and the profession of surrogacy was born. Another pair of married researchers, William E. Hartman and Marilyn Fithian, developed additional exercises and wrote a number of insightful books, including Treatment of Sexual Dysfunction. They worked with surrogate partners in California who were trained by Caroline and Emerson Symonds, two highly-respected sexologists. At the Center for Social and Sensory Learning in Southern California, Barbara M. Roberts, MSW, began training surrogates and therapists as well as offering workshops for the public. Shirley referred me to two therapists who worked well with surrogates and in a few days I had an appointment with one of them in Berkeley.
By this time, my marriage had been open for almost five years and I had enjoyed my share of sexual partners. Michael and I had come to a working agreement about how we would handle outside relationships.
We wouldn’t let them interfere with our time with our children. We would only go out one night a week each, and one of us would stay home with Jessica and Eric. If one of us came home late, there was no sleeping in the next day. We got up at the same time the next morning to make breakfast and get the kids off to school. When I discussed my new career course with Michael he was supportive and I don’t think this was just another example of Michael’s disquieting lack of jealousy. I believe he truly understood the value of this work and wanted to see me find a career that I could embrace and nurture. If Michael had ever had conventional attitudes about sex, he had jettisoned them so long ago that it wouldn’t occur to him to be critical of this profession. He also understood that traditional mores about sex needed to evolve, and if surrogacy could play a small role in helping with that, so much the better.
Tom greeted me with a welcoming smile. He was one of only a few therapists in the Bay Area (San Francisco) who were training surrogates and referring clients to them. The field was in its infancy and the training was rapidly evolving. We talked for two hours and Tom asked me questions about my background, my relationship with my family, and my attitude toward sex. We had an instant rapport. I think Tom understood immediately that I was well past the point in my own sexual evolution where I would demonize anyone for having a sexual problem. It would be the first step in our training together. Then Tom asked me to do something that made me suspicious. “Why don’t you take off your clothes so I can see what you’d look like with clients,” he said. Was this his way of hitting on me? Also, I didn’t shave my legs or my underarms at the time. I wondered what he would have to say about that. Our meeting had gone well and I liked Tom, so I decided to take a chance. I pulled my loose-fitting dress over my head and took off my underwear. “You look good to me,” Tom said. I was relieved that he didn’t make a pass at me, but I still thought it was inappropriate. I wanted to be a surrogate, not a fashion model. Did my body really need to be cleared before I could start training? Tom never mentioned another word to me about this, so, if it was a test, I supposed I had passed.
I also began training to be a phone counselor at SFSI. They had established an 800 number for people to call with questions about sex. For one of the first times in U.S. history people could pick up the phone, ask questions anonymously, and get reliable information and referrals for expert help. In my initial interview with a SFSI staffer I was asked a number of questions and several hypothetical scenarios were put to me. For example, my interviewer asked what I would do when callers said that they feared they were masturbating too much. “I would ask them what they meant by ‘too much.’ If they’re masturbating because they are afraid to meet someone or if it’s getting in the way of normal daily functioning, like going to work, I’d refer them to a therapist. If they’re doing it because it’s pleasurable and relieves stress, I’d probably tell them that it’s perfectly natural,” I answered.
SFSI training allowed me to be an effective phone volunteer, and it also augmented my surrogacy education. As part of the training, we watched films of people engaging in a variety of sexual practices and then discussed our reactions to them. We were encouraged to talk frankly and to honestly examine our responses and what they might tell us about ourselves. The movies showed heterosexual sex and both male and female homosexual sex. One showed an older couple—and I mean as old as my grandparents—making passionate love. To my surprise, I got aroused when I watched a film of gay men having sex. When I saw one of a man and woman having anal sex I was both excited and repelled. Taboo can be a turn on.
Through discussions with fellow trainees and SFSI staffers I realized that what was more important than my visceral reactions was my ability to suspend my judgment of the consensual acts I had witnessed, and of the people who called for information or help. It was okay if a particular practice didn’t appeal to me. What would make me an effective educator and sounding board was not the range of my sexual repertoire, but my ability to empathize and maintain objectivity.
A key part of my surrogacy training came when I attended a two-week workshop with Tom at the Department of Public Health in Berkeley. If Tom had made a misstep in our initial meeting by asking to see my body, he had redeemed himself by being so generous with his time and expertise. The workshop was led by a husband-and-wife therapist team who had trained with Masters and Johnson. They laid out the principles and practice of conjoint therapy. Few professionals use this model today because it is not cost-effective, but at the time it was an exciting new form of couples therapy. It was always conducted by a male-female team, and the hope was that both partners in the couple would feel that they had an ally. In the workshop, we got a crash course in anatomy and for the first time I learned the complexity of both male and female genitalia. They showed us the undifferentiated genital chart, which I continue to use in my practice today. It reveals how the fetus differentiates into male or female and the similarities in genital tissue. Much of what Tom and I learned became part of my surrogacy work.
Between my training to be a surrogate and my SFSI training, my knowledge of human sexuality exploded. I realized just how many assumptions and misconceptions I harbored. I met people from all walks of sexual life and many of the biases I held about them were challenged. For example, I always thought people who were involved in sadism and masochism (S&M) had to be pretty unsavory. To my surprise, I learned that they took great care not to cause any real harm during sex play. Ironically, another thing I learned was that it was okay to say no. People didn’t have to continue with or engage in any activity just because they were taking a more open and experimental attitude toward sex. This may not seem noteworthy now, but for someone who grew up in the ’50s it was a real eye-opener to be told that, even as a woman, I had the right to choose or not choose any kind of sex, no matter the circumstances.
One absolutely invaluable skill I learned was how to listen. This was tough because I love to talk! In both my SFSI and surrogate training I had to learn how not to jump in, but rather give people the space they needed to say what they wanted to say. This made me a better surrogate, but it also made me a better wife, mother, and friend.
I became part of a wonderful, intelligent, and supportive community of people who were questioning, sharing, and seeking genuine knowledge about sexuality. I was on my way to a meaningful career, making lasting friendships, and, frankly, having a hell of a lot of fun.