Cheryl Cohen Greene has spent the last 40 years making her living having sex with people, but she’s not a prostitute. Greene is one of a small number of specialists in the United States known as sex surrogates, whose job it is to help clients with sexual anxieties become more comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality, even if that means sleeping with them. And while that sounds like a fascinating enough story in and of itself, it’s Greene’s interaction with one patient in particular, Mark O’Brien, a brilliant author crippled by polio, that has catapulted her to fame through her portrayal by Helen Hunt, nominated for the supporting-actress Oscar, in “The Sessions.”
“It’s all about shame and guilt,” said Greene, speaking by phone from her home, her Boston accent thick as ever, even after decades out West. “Most of us do not feel a very deep level of comfort with who we are.”
That’s where Greene comes in. “What I try to help them do is stay in the moment, in their body, feeling the sensations, being able to relax and communicate,” she said of her work with her nearly 1,000 past clients. “What they need to do is stop trying to be what they think other people expect, and learn about themselves enough to be able to present who they are in as natural a way as possible.”
Even in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, where Greene has done most of her work, it hasn’t always been easy. People have hurled insults like, “You’re nothing but a prostitute using another name,” and even questioned whether what Greene does causes more harm than good to her clients. Through it all, Greene has shrugged off the criticism, knowing that her work is righteous and has helped countless men live more fulfilling lives.
Cheryl Cohen Greene. Photo by Photo by Dave Allocax
A friend of Greene’s once came up with an analogy that she loves to share. He said that going to a prostitute is like visiting a restaurant. “You look at the menu, you see what they’re serving, and you choose. They prepare it, they hope you love it and you want to come back and refer a friend.” Going to a sex surrogate is like going to cooking school. “You get the recipes, you get the ingredients, and you learn how to mix it and make the dish, and then you go out into the world and you share that with other people. You don’t keep going back to cooking class.”
That’s the ultimate goal for Greene when it comes to her clients — independence. As is noted in “The Sessions,” a surrogate is supposed to have only six sessions with a client; after that, the client is expected to head out into the world. “That’s the goal of this therapy: Can a person transfer what they’ve done with me to another relationship?”
Even among Greene’s hundreds of clients though, O’Brien was a special case. “Ten percent of the people I’ve worked with have been disabled people physically ... noticeably disabled. The rest of us are disabled in our sexuality just by living in this culture,” Greene said. When O’Brien came to her, he was nearly 40 and had never had sex with a woman. He and Greene began a process that is lovingly presented in “The Sessions,” to help him learn to appreciate his own body and sexuality.
“In the movie, Mark and I fall in love, or there’s a tenderness that develops,” Greene said. “It did develop, but it didn’t develop quite the same way.” And though Greene noted several inaccuracies in the film, they didn’t seem to bother her. In fact, in some cases, she found the use of “poetic license” ended up impressing her. “Mark and I became friends, and when I ended therapy, I didn’t walk away from him the way it happens in the movie. I always cry when I see that scene, it’s just so touching, but it isn’t the way it ended.”
One scene that Greene noted as accurate was a scene in which Helen Hunt holds up a mirror for John Hawkes, who practically channels O’Brien, so that he can see his body for the first time since childhood. The scene is juxtaposed with one of Greene going into the mikveh to convert to Judaism. The conversion is one of the more powerful scenes in the film, and, according to Greene, “It’s actually real,” though she notes that, in real life, “I was pregnant when I got into the mikveh — eight months pregnant. I had a 3-year-old daughter, and she went into the mikveh with me. And I wish Rhea Perlman had been there. The woman who was there was scary.”
Greene spent time with Hunt to prepare her for the role. “I met with her at a raw-foods restaurant in Santa Monica, and I had never had raw food. I’d had salads, but I didn’t know ... it was fabulous,” Greene said, laughing. “She was just so real with me, no pretense. She’s a marvelous person.”
Greene even went to Hunt’s mansion to show her how to do the sensitive touch that Greene used on O’Brien. Her client for the demonstration? Hunt’s partner, the writer/producer Matthew Carnahan. “If Helen wins [the Oscar], I would be ecstatic,” Greene said. “If she doesn’t win, I’m still so honored.”
Greene also met with the film’s writer and director, Ben Lewin, when the project was in its infancy. Lewin, who grew up in Australia and was stricken with polio himself as a child, first learned about O’Brien and Greene through the magic of Google, of all things. “I still believe that electricity is produced by monkeys running inside barrels, but the Internet certainly changed my life in this respect,” Lewin said, speaking by phone.
Prior to working on “The Sessions,” Lewin, who’d once had a busy career, hadn’t been able to find work for nearly a decade. He kept busy by selling high-end watches, among other things, though as he points out, chuckling, “I wasn’t out of it. I wasn’t getting any work.”
Now riding high on the success of “The Sessions,” Lewin, who seems remarkably humble, commented that “there is a kind of pleasure in being reinvented. My agent kept telling me, ‘Oh, before you were Ben Lewin; now you’re BEN LEWIN.’ ”
Writer/director Ben Lewin on the set of “The Sessions.” Photo by Sarah M. Golonka
According to Greene, Lewin was unsure of what to expect when he met with her. “He said, ‘I don’t know what I expected you to be. I thought for a while maybe you were somebody who had a thing for having sex with disabled men.’ ”
Lewin says that Greene’s help was invaluable to making the film. “After meeting her, I really began to see the film as a relationship movie, and more of a two-hander than a biopic,” he said. Meeting Greene also helped in another way. Lewin had brought along a friend from Australia with him to meet Greene, and after their meeting, the man opened his checkbook and wrote a check for 20 percent of the film’s budget. “He was the audience, and there was an audience for this unusual story. So meeting Cheryl was a threshold event.”
For Greene, the attention is wonderful, but she knows that her interaction with O’Brien was just one part of a very interesting life. She’s recently published a book called “An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner” that deals with her relationship with O’Brien but also delves into her interactions with many of the other clients she’s helped over the years.
If there’s one message Greene thinks people can take away from her work with O’Brien, it’s that “there is somebody out there for everybody. It’s just whether they pass like ships in the night or they come together and they meet. The meeting is what I pray for them to have, and Mark got it, and that was beautiful."