When Cheryl Cohen Greene’s daughter was 10 years old, she came home and told her mother that her friend had called Greene a prostitute.
What her daughter said in response about her mother, a 67-year-old surrogate sex partner who practices in Berkeley, echoes Greene’s own attitude: “My mother is not a prostitute — she helps people who don’t feel good about themselves and their sexuality.”
Greene is a surrogate partner who is referred to clients by therapists and who works to explore clients’ problems with sexuality through a gradual process of intimacy that usually ends in intercourse. Her philosophy is that comfort is essential to therapy and that no one should have sex with someone he or she does not like.
“I’m not having sex with people I think I’m going to walk down the path with and have a lifetime with, but I’m with people I like,” Greene said. “I cry with clients, out of joy. I’ve had clients who’ve cried because I’ve touched their face. They’ve cried because the only time they’ve had their face touched was to be slapped in the face, and that makes me emotional and it really does.”
Although the goal of surrogacy is not to create lasting relationships, Greene recalls many friendships with clients with tenderness and joy.
One of those friendships is the basis of a new documentary called “The Surrogate,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month and focuses on her relationship with former client Mark O’Brien.
O’Brien suffered from disabilities, like many of Greene’s clients. He contracted polio at the age of six and was paralyzed from the neck down, which led to discomfort with sexuality that Greene worked to address. O’Brien once wrote that because of Greene, he was able to fall in love and be comfortable with his body.
Greene said, with tears in her eyes, that the two remained close friends until his death in 1999.
Greene’s nonjudgmental attitude toward her work and clients also stretched into her personal life and was how she developed a relationship with her husband, former client Bob Greene.
The catalyst for Greene’s career was a book she read in the early 1970s called “The Surrogate Wife,” which was about sexual therapy through surrogate partners. Since then, she has joined San Francisco Sex Information, where she has been a member of the training staff for 20 years, became a certified sexologist and earned a doctorate in human sexuality — all while working as a surrogate in Berkeley for 38 years.
Everything that occurs in Greene’s sessions is related to ongoing therapy and is intended to provide insight into clients’ issues, which range from concerns about ejaculation to having little to no sexual experience. Greene estimated that she has had about 950 clients since she became a surrogate in 1973. Although most were straight, single men, she has also worked with couples, women and homosexual men.
Her therapy is short-term, usually consisting of six to eight two-hour sessions, which cost $300 each.
Greene typically engages in sexual intercourse toward the end of therapy, and although it is not always necessary, most of her clients require it to address their issues.
The preceding sessions involve breathing methods, sensual touch, talking, showing men how to put on a condom — which Greene said she always uses in therapy — and learning about the partner’s body.
“I know most of you probably think that’s all I do is have sex with people, but there’s so much more to what I’m doing with people, helping them broaden themselves,” Greene said.
Besides the obvious difference that there are no legislative regulations over surrogate partners, there is also a difference in intention between prostitution and surrogacy, Greene said.
“Going to see a prostitute is like going to a restaurant: You go into the restaurant, they prepare the dish that you’ve selected and they hope that you like it so much that you’ll come back and you’ll bring friends,” Green said. “Going to a surrogate is like going to a cooking class. You go in, you learn the recipe, you get the ingredients, you make it together and share it, but you’re not coming back to cooking school all the time.”
Sybil Lewis covers Berkeley communities.