Cheryl Cohen Greene: Sex Surrogate

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.”

Letters to the Editor: JCC closure, Kosher Jesus and prostitution

Effects of JCC Closure Widely Felt

Every morning I take my kids to school at The JCC at Milken. As we enter the Early Childhood Center, we are greeted by the teachers, the secretary and the director, who have become family through the years.

We are in disbelief and frustrated that this great place that we know and love will be shutting its doors to our kids, to us, to the teachers and faculty, to the seniors who have a place that cares for them (“Seniors Angry Over Plans to Close JCC,” Feb. 10). We are being sold out. 

As Jewish people we are bound to stick together, because of our past and for our future generations. We do not turn our backs and do not close doors.

Nir Shemer
via e-mail

These seniors are us. These are the people who paid the memberships, tuitions, the bills, raised the funds for the synagogues, Jewish Federation, Jewish schools as part of the Jewish community in their peak earning years. These are the people who bought the land that the sharpies are trading away. These are the older generation that is now being segregated away from the multigenerational contact that a JCC provides.  These are the seniors who provided and protected our public good all their lives and are now being deprived of it along with many other vulnerable segments of the Jewish and general community. Their slogan is written in Psalms 17: Do not abandon me in my old age.

Save the JCCs.

Pini Herman

Expand Our Embrace of Converts

I share Rob Eshman’s opinion that the Jewish future will be greatly enhanced by truly welcoming all those who feel drawn to Judaism and the timeless truth of its teachings (“The Embrace,” Feb. 10).

At my synagogue, Temple Knesset Israel of Hollywood, we are in the midst of a dramatic reinvigoration since welcoming an influx of congregants of Sephardic descent, primarily from Central America, who wished to learn and participate in our beloved Jewish rituals. Rabbi Robert Elias is currently teaching a third conversion class at our synagogue, and Shabbat attendance, not long ago less than 20, now averages over 60. The devotion of our new members is remarkable, and they have transformed our synagogue into a vibrant, diverse and certainly unique congregation.

A miracle, perhaps?

Harvey Shield, president
Temple Knesset Israel of Hollywood

You’ve written a moving and important article about embracing converts. The eyewitness account of the young boy reciting the Kiddush provides a convincing snapshot to show that when it comes to conversion, the Jewish people’s imports are better than our exports.

I hope you will write additional articles on the subject of conversion, especially about how the idea of embracing converts can become more widespread among American Jews.

Larry Epstein
via e-mail

Another View of Jesus

When Shmuley Boteach released his book “Kosher Jesus,” he expected to be throttled by the Christian community but instead was metaphorically “spat upon” by many within the Jewish community (“A Jesus Even Jews Can Love?” Feb. 10). Rather than acting like barbarians, let’s be civil and come to terms with the fact that Jesus has been one of the world’s foremost promoters of love, peace and tolerance. We may not accept him as the Son of God, but why overlook the fact that he was a religious Jewish rabbi and teacher, who, throughout his short life, relied upon, believed in and emphatically encouraged the study of Torah. What’s so bad about that?

Richard David
Culver City

Who Is the Real Criminal?

Gili Varon needs to reassess her evaluation of the criminalizing of prostitution (“Israel Must Criminalize Purchase of Sex,” Feb. 10). Perhaps if those responsible for the conditions that create the need for prostitution as a financial source for survival were held as criminals there would be no need for prostitution.

Paulette Mansfield

Jewish Summer Camp’s Benefits Are Numerous

I was mentioned in Gerald Freisleben’s article (“An Appreciation to Summers Spent in Paradise,” Jan. 27)  as one of the wonderful wives of his camp friends. As a pediatrician and specialist in adolescent behavior and emotional development, let me offer a professional translation into the truly invaluable meaning, depth of connection and enduring worth that immersion in the Jewish summer camp experience offers. Not only is camp a great place to form lifelong friendships, it is an inoculation against teenage angst and deleterious risk taking, and a remedy for current teen disillusion. Twenty-first-century teens need help learning to tolerate boredom and distress safely, and to experience social life as real human interactions and not screen versions. Camp is that place.

Sharon Pollock

Demonstrations to press Israel on prostitution

Demonstrations to put international pressure on Israeli lawmakers to criminalize the purchase of sexual services in Israel are set to be held in four major cities worldwide.

Organized by the ATZUM-Justice Works social activism organization, the protests will be held Feb. 5 outside the Israeli Embassy and Consulate buildings in New York, Washington and London, as well as the Knesset in Jerusalem.

The demonstrations are expected to show support for a bill to be voted on Feb. 12 by the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee on Legislation that would levy severe punishment on consumers of sexual services in Israel.

The legislation, proposed by Orit Zuaretz of the Kadima Party, is based on laws that have been enacted in Sweden, Iceland, Norway and most recently in France. The model works on the principle that in order to effectively combat sex trafficking and prostitution, the demand for sexual services must be confronted.

“Simply put, prostitution is a form of modern slavery and must be eradicated—not just in Israel but throughout the world,” said Rabbi Levi Lauer, founding executive director of ATZUM.

“The time has come for our society to stop tolerating the purchase of sexual services. There must be real consequences in place for those who purchase sex to the great detriment of women, children and Israeli society as a whole.”

More than 15,000 individuals are estimated to be working in the prostitution industry in Israel, including 5,000 minors.

Israeli Vice

The young Lithuanian woman in the prison libraryhas the narrow chest, hunched shoulders and wary eyes of someone whohas known poverty and is not sure where the next blow is coming from.She talks to reporters to convince herself that she was not aprostitute, not one by choice anyway.

Her first name, which is all she will tell, isGiedre. She is 19, with lank, sandy hair, pale freckles on palecheeks, stone-washed blue jeans and a black boucle zip-up jacket.Giedre is one of 39 illegal immigrants from the old Soviet Unionawaiting deportation in Neve Tirtza women’s prison near Ben-GurionAirport. Almost all of them, according to the governor, Betty Lahat,worked in Israeli brothels.

The prisoners are the tip of a multimillion-dollarracket, which recruits hundreds of women a year in Eastern Europe forwhat the Israel Women’s Network brands “a modern slave trade.”Criminologists estimate that about 2,000 women from Russia, Lithuaniaand Ukraine are currently working in Israel’s sex industry. Manyarrive by sea, on tourist visas or cruise ships from Cyprus. Some aregenuine tourists who are kidnapped by local gangsters.

The women are bought and sold by pimps andtraffickers for prices up to $20,000. Some were promised jobs asnannies, waitresses or dancers. One woman, arrested last month inHaifa, confessed that she was a doctor who couldn’t make a living inher profession back home.

Giedre, who has a Jewish father and a Christianmother, says that she came to Israel to stay with an aunt. After afamily quarrel, she moved into a cheap hotel in Herzliya, near TelAviv. One night she returned from a disco to find her room ransacked,her bag, passport and money gone.

When she went downstairs to report the theft, shewas lured outside by a Russian girl who had befriended her. Two burlymen grabbed her and bundled her into a windowless van. She was keptfor three days in a locked room of a two-story house withoutfood.

“On the third night, I was desperate,” she says.”I tried to break out. I shouted for help. But it was no use. Twomen, who spoke Russian with a Georgian accent, carted me off to amassage parlor. When I refused to work there, they beat me up. Theyraped me, punched my body, slapped my face. Finally, I agreed to workfor them.”

Giedre was put in a room with another girl. Shehad sex with six clients a day, half an hour each. The two girlsslept and worked in the same room. There were five other girls in thebrothel. Some told Giedre that they had 15 to 20 men a day, for whichthey were paid $1,000 a month.

The Lithuanian teen-ager worked for a week butdidn’t wait for a paycheck. Before dawn one day, she climbed out ofan upstairs laundry room and fled barefoot down a rope of sheets.After finding her way back to her aunt’s, she was arrested foroverstaying her visa. When she can produce the money for a ticket,she will be put on the next plane out.

Another prisoner, who calls herself Russita,admits that she was a prostitute in Lithuania. Mafia agents broughther to Israel on forged papers with tales of rich pickings. One agenttook her passport on arrival. One pimp sold her to another, who madeher strip so that he could see what he was buying.

“When I asked what I’d be paid,” she says, “hetold me I’d have to pay back his investment first, then I would get$100 a month. Before then, I was sold on to a third pimp, who put mein a massage parlor, where I received up to 30 men a day. They paidhim 150 shekels [about $42] each.”

Russita was arrested during a police raid.Prostitution is not a crime in Israel, but she will be expelledbecause she has no papers. Like most of the Neve Tirtza girls, shearrived at the prison without money. The Lithuanian Consulate willprobably pay for her ticket home.

According to a 30-page report published at thebeginning of this year by the campaigning Israel Women’s Network,most pimps are Israeli citizens, either native-born or Russianimmigrants. Police raid brothels from time to time, but the networkfound that pimps were prosecuted only in the most extreme cases. Eventhen, they usually receive light sentences. “The pimps go free,” saysEfraim Ehrlich, head of the Tel Aviv vice squad. “The women go toprison.”

And, like Giedre, Russita and many Natashas, theywait to go home with nothing to show for their trip to the PromisedLand.