An interview with Cheryl Cohen Greene



Ben Lewin's moving and provocative film "The Sessions" is based on the true story of Mark O'Brien, a paralyzed polio victim in an iron long, played by John Hawkes, who employs a sex surrogate,  played by Helen Hunt, to lose his virginity. As it turns out the surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene, still works in that profession and has written a book about her experiences coming out in November. I had a chance to talk with Ms. Cohen-Greene over the phone recently and she had this to say about the movie, Helen Hunt, the staus of her profession in the psychiatric and therapeutic community, Boston accents, and Dr. Ruth’s height.

PHX: So, you're from here, right?

Cheryl: Yes, I am. I'm from Salem.

PHX: And Mark was from Dorchester.

Cheryl: Yes, he was.

PHX: Yeah. So you had that in common.

Cheryl: We did, and that was a marvelous thing. When he heard my accent, and I heard his, I think that immediately kind of bonded us.

PHX: When Mark saw you, part of what brought him to you was his feeling and the feelings of others that finding a sexual partner would be almost impossible for him. Do you feel like that has changed or not changed for people with severe disabilities?.

Cheryl: It's hard for anybody. There are people who are comfortable -- I don't know what the percentage of the people who are comfortable or are not comfortable [is], with people being differently able. I wrote in my book -- I wrote this book that's coming out in November 1st called "An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner --"

PHX: I read the first chapter. It's very good.

Cheryl: Did you? Oh boy. I'm so glad. It might have to do with how my mother was, and I observed her dealing with people who were different and as matter of fact and equal to anybody else, as deserving of respect and kindness. People have asked me over the years, "How do you work with people who are differently abled?" I always say, it's not hard for me. I just have to learn what their special needs are. And what I'm going to do with them, I do with everybody. I want to find out what they're capable of, not what they're not capable of -- I mean, we know what they're not capable of, but it's so different for everyone, even if you don't have a physical disability. But more focus on what you're capable of. And that's what they want to learn too. They want to know, what can I do? Do I need to be serviced, or somebody's always going to have to do everything, or what can I do? And I love teaching them that. And I love seeing their changes in how they feel about themselves over time, and that's true for all my clients. But I was concerned when I was working  with him about  how was he going to transfer this [to other prtners?]? Because I did have to be on top of him; I took his hand and I showed him how to stimulate -- I could get my clitoris stimulated by him -- how I would hold him in, as they do in the movie, when Helen's sitting on top, and she finally -- well, finally -- they have this session where she has her orgasm as well as him having his. And so my focus with a person who is differently abled is how to communicate what they know so their partner can say, "Oh! If I hold you like this, does this work?" They can communicate. And keep it light. Not an apology. You teach him, tell people what makes you feel good and ask them to let you know. It's all about having a good time, communicating, and not getting frustrated.

PHX: I think sometimes we underestimate the human capacity for creativity when it comes to sex.

Cheryl: I agree with you. Everybody underestimates. And then there are people that think, am I a freak? Am I kinky? Is this strange? And I always say, "No." Find the person who loves to do what you love to do, and then you'll have the best relationship. If you're with somebody you feel is judging you when you make a suggestion, give it a try if you're really attracted to the person, but I wouldn't stick around for that.

PHX: That's good advice.

Cheryl: Yeah. I know there are some people that think, I better stick around because nobody else is ever going to want to touch me. And that's as true for people who are able-bodied as for those who are not. And that's kind of what I deal with when I'm working with the percentage of the population that I work with who are able-bodied. They're in the same boat. And I try to humanize it when I'm working with a person who has a physical disability and say, "You know, everybody feels this way." 

PHX: Do you find that your able-bodied clients and your disabled clients have a different level of shame or expectations for themselves, or do you think it's really anyone can end up in that place where they need a little help to come down to being in society with others in that way?

Cheryl: I don't think it happens that a disabled person might have a little more shame. I think a disabled person who was brought up in a particular religion, like Mark, did. In the movie, he says to Helen, the first time she lays down next to him in bed, he says usually he's the one naked in the room and everybody else is dressed. And he says to her that he kind of felt that his parents and a priest were going to thwart his efforts to ever get to the place they were at that day. I remember saying to Mark, "Well, they're not here. It's just you and me." And I felt good -- I said to him, "You don't have to worry about a thing. We can do whatever we want to do."

PHX: Did you actually leave the church on your own, as they said in the film?

Cheryl: Yes, I did! I did. Helen quoted me perfectly. I left them; they didn't get rid of me. I love sex, so (laughs)

PHX: Did she [Helen Hunt] seek you out? I know she talked to you. Did she seek you out, or did they put you in touch? How did that work?


Cheryl: Did she seek me out? No. What actually happened was, we had a lunch,  Ben Lewin [the director] and -- I'm trying to think of who -- I was with the Lewins, I believe; that's how it got arranged. Yeah. So Helen and I met in Santa Monica just before the movie started shooting -- it was the first week of shoots, really. That week started on a Monday -- the shooting -- and I think I met Helen the Friday before because I was down there for over a week. We had lunch, and we spent several hours together. We went to her car, and she wanted me to read her the script with my accent -- you know, well, I can't help it. (laughs) She had me on tape reading the script; she asked me what I would say under certain circumstances, what I would do. I explained to her. Then, I went to her home another day and spent some time there with her and Matthew, her partner. I showed her how I do sensual touch -- everybody was clothed. People say, "Did they get naked together?" She watched closely, my god. Matthew was lying on his back, and I was touching his legs and his feet and his face and his hair, and she was studying the whole time. I was so impressed with -- he said, "Huh! This is really good," and she said, "I know, I'm watching." I couldn't have asked for anybody to do me any better and show me that much respect. It was just wonderful. I love her.

PHX: And she gets the Boston accent too.

Cheryl: She did. She really got it. I didn't know if she was going to use it, because there was some question about whether Ben wanted her to use it or not. But when I went to see the movie at Sundance, I had emotions that I've never felt before in my life. It's still hard to describe. I was sitting there, and she walked in -- it's the phone call, when the therapist calls her to ask her about coming in to meet this client that was severely disabled, and then when she walked into the room and she said, "Hello, Mark O'Brien" -- she said, "Mahk" [emphasizing the Boston accent] -- I thought, oh, god, thank you. You're wonderful.


PHX: You've been in this profession for over 30 years now. I was wondering if the acceptability, social and also professionally, within the psychiatric and psychological profession, has gotten better or worse, and whether the public perception has gotten better or worse.

Cheryl: I'm jaded right now because everywhere I've been to  speak -- I've been to many screenings, and I've talked to the audience -- I'm just blown away by how accepting the people are here. I just get blown away by how wonderful people have been. There was in article in -- I forget if it was the "Wall Street Journal" an interview with David Schnarch, who wrote "Constructing the Sexual Crucible" and another book about marriage -- I respect his work, but he said  that sexual  surrogates are disapproved of by the American Psychological Association and the Association of Sex Therapists and Counselors. But I know so many therapists who work with surrogates because they see the value in short-term -- it doesn't mean they [the clients] stop seeing their therapists. Every time I see a client, the client sees their therapist right afterwards; within a day. It's all about working as a team together. What happens in the [therapy] sessions promotes much more depth in our sessions. So when I hear somebody who is famous for writing his books and belongs to the American Psychological Association, I wonder why wouldn't they want that? Why wouldn't they understand? Are they worried about losing their license? If one of them stood up and said, "This is a valuable tool in our therapy, and these women and men who do this work are professionals and compassionate and caring people and empathetic, and that's what many of our clients need because they've gone out in the world and had bad experiences or things have happened to them, like an illness, so they have to take medication, or a spouse has died, and they're afraid to go back out into the dating scene -- there's so many reasons -- they're disabled all of a sudden . . We can facilitate an amazing process for them, and that's still happening; I'm so sorry to hear that.

There are still certain people in the field who say, "Oh, no." Even Dr. Ruth Westheimer said that, at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. I go to their lecture series. She was there, and I wrote a little note to her, that said, "I'm a surrogate partner in sex therapy, and I find that my clients and I both -- it's a very rich and rewarding experience for me, and they get through therapy that particular concern about their sexuality much more." But she said, on the stage, "Oh no, no! We never work with those. That's illegal. That's illegal."

PHX: Dr. Ruth! Come on! I am so disappointed

Cheryl: My photograph was taken with her last night. I had no idea she was  so tiny -- she could've been in the Lollipop Guild in  "The Wizard of Oz." And I'm 5' 8," and I had heels on. I was looking down at her and thinking, you know, I wish we could talk privately because I would like to remind you  of what you said. But she was saying how wonderful I was, and the movie was so wonderful.

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