Over the last forty years, Cheryl Cohen Greene has had intimate relations with more than 900 people. Although her job involves getting paid to have sexual contact with strangers, Cheryl is not a sex worker: she is a surrogate partner.
An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner recounts the exceptional life of one of America’s first clinical sexologists. After coming of age in a strictly Catholic family in the 1950s, Cheryl cast off her rigid upbringing in favor of sexual revolution. She married a man her parents disapproved of, altered the terms of that relationship through an open marriage, and eventually began a career in surrogacy.
The memoir details how Cheryl overcame feelings of shame she’d internalized during her upbringing, and explores the use of hands-on, therapeutic techniques to help others overcome sexual fears and inadequacies. Cheryl’s story provided the basis for the movie The Sessions, starring Helen Hunt and William H. Macy, which was lauded at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. I spoke with Cheryl about the common ground between surrogates and feminists.
How were you introduced to surrogacy?
Coming from Catholicism, I had learned so much guilt and shame regarding my sexuality, and it was important to me to not pass that legacy on to my own children. I had heard about Masters and Johnson’s work on human sexuality when I was living in Boston in the ‘60s, but it wasn’t until the early ‘70s, after I had moved to Berkeley, that a friend told me about the book Surrogate Wife: The Story of a Masters & Johnson Sexual Therapist and the Nine Cases She Treated. Reading this book changed my life. As a culture, there are so many people who have been wounded around their sexuality, and I thought it was incredible that I might be able to help people make the transitions and changes within themselves that I had done on my own.
Did you start training right away?
Just after I read the book, I went with a girlfriend to a meeting being held at a church by three women who were interested in starting a San Francisco Sex Information switchboard. They showed us two films where women were caressing themselves and sitting comfortably naked. I had never seen erotica before and was fascinated. Once the films finished playing, we got into small groups to learn more about being trained for the switchboard, and I picked the group with one of the switchboard founders, Maggi Rubenstein, because I admired her so much. She was so easy to open up to that I just had to find a way to get more involved in their work. Within a few days, I was put in contact with a therapist who worked with surrogates, and they also encouraged me to take part in the switchboard training. So, I applied, was interviewed, and got accepted into the program. That’s how I got started and I’ve been doing it for forty years.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about your work?
Surrogacy isn’t entirely about sex. It’s about changing a negative mindset and judgmental attitudes most of us carry around about sex. We don’t really know our sexualities that well, so surrogate partners guide clients to pay attention to what makes them feel good. We help them to stop feeling shame about their desires.
When sexual partners get together, they often don’t tell each other what they know or what they like. They fumble around together and assume the other will figure it out. Women especially think they should just tolerate sex with a man, even if they aren’t really enjoying it. These kinds of things have been going on for years. Our culture still holds these Victorian ideas that men go to a prostitute to have good sex and that a wife is just there to have his children. Women still believe that a “lady” doesn’t tell a man what she likes, and if she knows what she likes then she must be doing something shameful.
Have cultural attitudes about sex changed during your time as a surrogate?
It’s changed a little bit, but when I talk to groups of young women, it’s clear a lot of it is still going on. Roe v Wade was passed forty years ago, and we’re still fighting about whether women should be able to make our own choices about when and if
to have kids. There is still a sexual double standard for women.
When I’ve given lectures about my work, there have been audience members who react to me is as though I’m dirty or not respectable because I’ve had sex with over 900 people. To them, I become an object of distain and possibly abuse. It’s terrible that women who are open about their sexuality are seen as having a questionable character, and for many people that’s justification enough for abuse.
It’s ironic that certain kinds of female sexuality are so visible in the media, yet women’s sexual pleasure remains demonized.
I always tell people that they don’t need to be in love with whoever they have sex with, but they should at least respect them. And they should respect themselves. We have a culture that focuses on sex, but not on respect.
So much of what you’re saying is reflected in contemporary feminism. How do feminists respond to surrogacy?
They react similarly to everyone else. A friend asked me to speak to a feminist group she’s a part of because when she told them about my work they were horrified. I was nervous, but went anyway and answered all of their questions. By the time I left that gathering, there were women hugging me goodbye and telling me they were embarrassed about how they had misjudged me. I don’t expect to have this effect on everyone, but I do believe putting myself out there will help people to think about sexuality differently. That’s all I ask.
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