Cheryl Cohen Greene spent her childhood in fear of her body's sexual urges; on Sundays, she'd search for new priests to hear her growing list of confessions. Then, at age fourteen, in the early 1960s, she had sex for the first time — and enjoyed it. Married young, she moved with her husband and children to Berkeley in the early 1970s, and one day attended a lecture sponsored by The San Francisco Sex Information, a sex hotline group. It changed her life: Cohen Greene realized that she didn't have to feel bad about being a woman who enjoyed sex; she could turn her proclivity into a career. Soon after, she became a sex surrogate — a certified professional who works intimately with clients on their sexual stumbling blocks.
Over the years, Cohen Greene helped men work through issues like premature or delayed ejaculation and little or no sexual experience (sometimes with clients as old as seventy). "It's a profession I feel very at home in," said Cohen Greene. "I'm really proud of what I do." A certified sex educator and clinical sexologist, she is one of about fifty practicing sex surrogates in the country. Sex with clients doesn't happen immediately or sometimes at all: The protocol is six to eight sessions after being referred by a clinical therapist. And her clients are never called patients — that would be too clinical and suggests there's a problem that needs correcting. "It's never [about] curing or fixing," she said. "Just giving alternatives."
Everyone told her to write a book about her unorthodox life, so she did. An Intimate Life: Sex, Love and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner, co-written by writer/publicist Lorna Garano, is a memoir told through language as matter-of-fact as a textbook, describing risqué situations usually reserved for erotica: Cohen Greene's open marriage, client encounters where she helps men live out their sexual fantasies so they can go home to their straight-laced wives, explorations of clients' bodies and her own in front of a mirror — every chapter describes a new client and sexual awakening. Alongside these stories, Cohen Greene writes a sort of sex-surrogate history, from the swinging Seventies to AIDS in the Eighties.
Her most famous patient was 36-year-old Mark, who'd spent most of his life in an iron lung with almost no physical contact with women other than his doctors and nurses. He wrote an article about his experience, which was picked up by Hollywood and is being released as the film The Sessions, starring Helen Hunt as Cohen Greene. (See our review on page 33 in this week's paper.)
At 68, Cohen Greene is compassionate, empathetic, and a great listener. She strives to educate parents and teens, assist couples, and make everyone feel comfortable with their own bodies and sexuality. And she knows that, in many cases, talk therapy is not enough: "Sometimes you need touch."
You can hear more about Cohen Greene's work at a Q&A on Sunday, November 4, at The Works Cooperative Exercise and Dance Studio (2566 C Telegraph Ave., Berkeley). 4-6 p.m., $20. 510-841-1373 or Works-Exercise.com