What is a sex surrogate?
And how is a sex surrogate different from a sex therapist?
These questions go all the way back to the origin of both professions in the 1960’s. The simple answer is that sex surrogates get naked with their clients, and sex therapists don’t. (One might say sex therapy is the lecture course, and sex surrogacy is the lab).
Actress Helen Hunt received an Academy Award nomination in 2013 for her performance as sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene in the movie The Sessions. The film wasn’t a perfect account of either sex therapy or sex surrogacy. But it took on sex, love, disability, religion, and a host of other issues with courage and grace.
A few months after writing about The Sessions, I happened to hear from Cohen Greene herself, the sex therapist whose work had been the subject of the film. She had recently written a memoir, An Intimate Life, about her life and work. We spent some time afterwards on the phone discussing many subjects of mutual interest.
Here’s an excerpt—
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So you do have orgasms with your clients?
Yes, I do. When I’m feeling like I can. But the client has to be ready.
He’s usually still trying to perform for me. It’s hard for men just to be for themselves. They need to be able to do that, before I can let myself go with them.
Where did you learn about men needing just to be for themselves?
My husband Michael was the first man I met who could do that. Michael knew how to be selfish about his passion. Michael would get into himself, and if I didn’t follow then that was my business. He didn’t care if I had an orgasm. It was liberating. He didn’t base his masculinity on it.
And that’s what happens with a client eventually?
Sure. If and when he’s ready, when he feels more comfortable with himself and can really be present — then, if I feel excited, I might let myself go with it.
Like you did with Mark O’Brien in The Sessions?
Yes, the movie was accurate there. Sometimes afterwards a client will say, “Wow, you were there.” And I’ll say “Yes I was. I wasn’t worried about you. Just like you shouldn’t be worried about your partner.” But I have to be careful not to let myself go and move too fast if they’re not ready.
You sound a little maternal there.
I see men who have been so wounded by life experiences, and have gotten so little compassion from the people around them. Being a sex surrogate is kind of like raising kids—paying attention to them, distracting them from negative paths, coming up with ideas – “oh, let’s try this!”
Do you think being a mother influenced your work as a sex surrogate?
Absolutely. It’s like you see a child crying, and you want to know what’s going on. With a man, I’m listening and I know his story. I know what happened when he was a child, and in his early sexual relationships.
A month after Michael and I got married, I found out I was pregnant. I’d ask Michael whom he’d save in a lifeboat. He said, “You, because we could always make another baby.” Then I looked at my first baby and I told him, “Remember that lifeboat? Forget it. I’m saving the baby, and you’re going to save yourself.” He said he knew that was going to happen.
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Sex Therapist at the Academy Awards — Helen Hunt in The Sessions
Sex Therapist at the Academy Awards, Part 2 – The Courage to be Seen
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One Sex Surrogate’s Private Life
Your husband Michael was a habitual liar, rarely earned any money, and fathered children with another woman. But you stayed with him.
I LOVED him. He was the first person who told me I was intelligent. I am dyslexic, and it affected my confidence.
I still think of him a lot. In good ways.
But how did you handle your feelings about all the bad things he did? How did you become so forgiving?
Life brings you these things. You don’t let that be the end of it.
From your book, it’s clear that your husband Michael’s insisting on an open marriage was pretty traumatic for you. Yet you eventually embraced a non-monogamous married life, and it eventually led to your work as a surrogate. The line between adventure and trauma can be a confusing one for people. What’s your take on non-monogamy at this point?
I did get into it, for about a year and a half. There were about six men. Some of the sex was fantastic. But I always picked men that I knew I wouldn’t have married.
How did you handle the jealousy?
Jealousy is a cancer of the emotions. It eats you up. In Berkeley in the 70’s, Michael met another woman, and she asked me to speak to one of her women’s groups—because they were confused about my work and my lifestyle. They asked her, “Is THIS your Michael’s other partner?” I said, “No, he’s OUR partner.” They asked about jealousy. I said “I’m extremely jealous of her. She’s young, beautiful, and so intelligent. I thought he was going to leave me for her.” She said she had TRIED to get him to leave me, and that he said he loved me and wouldn’t. I couldn’t believe we were saying all this in the public in the middle of this group.
Do you think he was a sociopath?
Things happened to him when he was three years old. He awoke from anesthesia from hernia surgery, and they restrained him and send his parents away for 2 weeks. He was inconsolable for a year afterwards. He loved women, but he had to abandon them first, before they abandoned him.
Are you still non-monogamous?
When I met my current husband Bob, his qualities and ability to love were so different from what I’d experienced before. I’d never met anybody until him that I’d felt all those things for. He’s helped me understand what “unconditional” means. I’d felt that way with my kids, but to have a partner treat you that way—I’d never experienced that. After meeting Bob, I chose not to be with anyone else except him and Michael. Now since Michael has died, Bob and I are strictly monogamous (outside of my work as a surrogate).
Has growing older changed your feelings about sex?
When I was a younger woman, I felt I was being dragged around by my hormones. Now I feel I’m in the driver’s seat. I’d hold back more with clients when I was younger. I’d often masturbate after a really great session with a client—especially if I had to be careful not to use that energy with them because they weren’t ready. Now if I’m with a client and that time comes, then I just let that happen.
Sex Surrogacy For Men with Anxiety
So many men have anxiety problems that interfere with their being present sexually. What works best for that?
For very shy men, we’ll start with hand or face caressing. But most clients are OK to undress in the first session. I tell men, “If you get an erection that’s fine. But you’re not going to use it the first time you get one. And 90% of guys don’t get erect the first time. So if you don’t, then welcome to the 90%.”
In the fourth or fifth session, I’ll sometimes suggest I hold their hand and stroke my own vulva with it. Kind of like using their hand as a toy.
People are so serious about sexual matters. Very few parents are saying when they see their child masturbating, “Look at you! does that feel good? I like to do that too! But right now it’s distracting me a little. Why don’t you go in your room and take your time! Don’t rush!”
In The Sessions, you’re depicted as falling in love with your disabled client. Did that really happen, or was it just added for drama?
It was added for drama. We felt really strongly about each other. We really liked each other. But it wasn’t the kind of romantic love depicted in the movie.
I want clients to understand that they will have a better experience if they respect and like the person they are with. The work I do is really not about sex. It’s about intimacy and vulnerability. It changes people’s lives when they understand they are OK and lovable.
Copyright © Stephen Snyder, MD 2014