I Was a Sex Surrogate for 40 Years
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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 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 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.