As her character does in The Sessions, Cohen answers the phone with a warm Boston accent. Her friendly disposition instantly puts me at ease. No subject seems off limits. At one point, when recalling O'Brien's "Love Poem for No One in Particular," her voice wavers on the edge of weeping. Exuding compassion and honesty, her disarming personality makes it easy to see how she forms such an intimate bond with so many people, helping clients overcome all manners of sexual dilemmas through her specialized therapy, which often includes sex.
Drafting on the exposure generated by The Sessions, Cohen teamed up with Lorna Garano to pen the memoir, An Intimate Life: Sex, Love and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner, which juxtaposes accounts of Cohen's clients with the story of her own exploration of sexuality and love.
Your memoir repeatedly explains how the main difference between a surrogate partner and a sex worker is that you don't want your clients to return. You want to teach them the skills to have a successful and fulfilling sex life. However, the book doesn't go into the legality of surrogacy work. Does the law accept your distinction between surrogacy and sex work?
It is in a gray area. At one point, many years ago, some legislatures in California were going to talk about surrogate work. I was asked to be a part of it and of course I said yes. But then I never heard anything more about it ... They didn't know what to do with us or how to differentiate surrogate partners from sex workers. Usually we are just lumped in with sex workers, which is fine with me ...
I have been on panels with women who were street walkers, high class call girls, phone sex workers, and massage women. When I'm on those panels, no one ever asks what the difference between us is in terms of what we do, because it is clear what their intention is, and what my intention is. I'm not saying I'm better than them or anything like that. Afterwards, I've had some great talks with the women. Once one turned to me and said, "Cheryl, would you please stop fixing these men who are premature ejaculators. They are our bread and butter." I said, "I can't help it. These men are not having a good time and I want them to enjoy their sexuality fully."
... I know I live in a little bubble here in Berkeley, but I would like to see that bubble expand so more and more people have that opportunity to get help. If you are in places like the Midwest, you are not going to find sex surrogates there ...
"Devotees" are people who have a sexual fetish for severely disabled people. Would you encourage a relationship between a person with an extreme physical handicap and a devotee?
I would say it matters if the devotee is just there for a very short time and sex is all they are interested in, as opposed to getting to know the real person behind the disability. That would bother me because the devotee is getting what he/she wants, but is the person with the disability getting into a sincere, tender, intimate relationship? ... Mark O'Brien had a person like that who I wondered about. She hovered around him and wanted to be seen with him. I once asked him, "Where is this woman now?" and he said, "I hardly ever hear from her anymore." That wasn't fair to him.
I never thought of it that way. I do think dyslexia helped me have more compassion, especially for people who have unseen disabilities. I thought I was mentally handicapped as a child, that I had something terribly wrong with my brain, but no one knew it because I didn't look any different. When you see a person with cerebral palsy who has a wide range of spasticity in his movements, people assume he has less than average intelligence, which is not so. I have always been open to digging in and communicating with disabled people like I would with anyone else ...
Why do you think there are so few male surrogate partners who work exclusively with women?
We have more now in the [San Francisco] Bay area. We have at least three heterosexual male surrogates. I know we have a couple of gay male surrogates, and I think we have one who is bi. I think it is because women don't have the discretionary funds that men do. We don't make the money that men do for the same work.
What kind of problems do women seek surrogate partners to help them with?
The women who do come to male surrogates are women who have been molested, or who have body image issues. There are women out there who have never had orgasms ... The women I have worked with need to work on body image and genital image. They need to learn how to accept themselves and not feel like they are odd. The ones who have never masturbated, I show them how I masturbate. I show them different positions women like to get into, toys, how I use my hand.
I love working with women, opening them up so they don't have the shame and guilt, which women tend to carry around more than men. You don't call a man who has been with a lot of partners promiscuous, but you hear it all the time about women. We get labeled as whores or sluts or whatever. I'm in that category for many people. We as surrogates try to help people be broader and to stop judging others. Some of those notions are so engrained in our culture ... Recently, I had a client tell me that the sexual revolution really messed men up. He said, "It used to be that we could have sex when we wanted to. The women wouldn't complain." It was very difficult for him to see the double standard. It was sad.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s came soon after potentially life threatening STDs — like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis — became largely curable with the widespread use of antibiotics. When AIDS appeared in the early 1980s, there was a backlash against the sexual revolution. You also saw droves of sexual surrogates leaving the profession. Do you think a culture's view of casual sex is at all correlated with the prevalence of deadly STDs in a society?
I think that is part of it, but I also think it has more to do with that whole double standard, how women are mothers and they should not be out having casual sex. The idea of women being able to take control of their bodies, to regulate their bodies with birth control, has a large part to do with those attitudes as well. STDs have always been there, and we've always had to take precautions against that. I think men wanted the right to just go out and have sex, but they didn't want women to. We still have the Madonna/whore mentality in our culture.
How do you deal with clients who adhere to a strict religious or moral code that forbids them from participating in the more intimate parts of your surrogacy work, or do those types of clients just not contact you?
Everything is intimate from the moment we first start meeting one another in my living room and we talk about what brought them to me. Then we go into the bedroom and I take them through the breathing, relaxing, and spooning exercises. All of those things are intimate. Nothing is mechanical...
There is a story in the book about a man whose wife ended up divorcing him after she walked in on him masturbating. She didn't want to go into therapy or talk about it. She was disgusted with him. He thought something was wrong with him. He went for several years feeling guilty. He couldn't even get an erection to masturbate. He was so ashamed. Well after seeing a therapist and working with me he became more and more himself again. That is what I want people to do, find who you are, not who you think you should be sexually. Do not judge yourself so harshly. Whatever turns you on, if you can find another adult who consents to what you want to do, that is the idea. Someone who is open who doesn't make you feel bad about yourself.
One of the problems I had with The Sessions was how Mark's character fell in love with you. Based on the section in your book describing your encounter with him, the film obviously exaggerated your romantic connection.
It was poetic license. There was a lot of stuff that was different. The reason we ended it after our sessions was because he didn't want to get attached to me. We kept in touch intermittently through his life until he died. I went to his apartment on his birthday. I brought him a lobster because we both love lobster. He sent me the poem.
So that was a real poem he wrote for you?
It was real. He sent it to me a year later. It was in a short book of poetry. It was the first one. The first time I read it, I got choked up. I still do any time someone reads it. It kills me. At first I thought, "Well maybe he wrote this for me." Then I thought, "No, no, he didn't write it for me. He wrote it for the future partner he wants to have." But I helped him feel this way, that he could at some point meet this woman. And it did happen. When it finally happened, he called me and said, "I met a woman I want you to meet someday." ... And I did get to meet Susan. I met her when his documentary was shown here in Berkeley. I saw him one more time after that and then he died ... No, Mark and I didn't have a love story, but we had a like story that was very, very important.
I imagine many of your clients fall in love with you. How do you keep them from becoming too attached?
Every step of the way I show them things they can do with a partner, and it will always be more intimate than what we do, because they will have all those other feelings that go along with it. They are not in love with me. They may be in like with me, and I really like them. Some of them do say, "I love you," and I say it right back: "I love you in this very moment." And you can love them in that moment. It makes you feel that good. That is okay to say. It is good for people to be able to feel feelings. You can't go through this process like a robot ...
If you've finished my book, you know I married one of my clients. We've been in a relationship for 33 years ... I don't see my clients as sick, or wrong, or broken. They come in with the confusions they get from their culture, family, religion, or whatever ... I also work on social skills with clients, because I want them all to find that person for them...
Do you see a difference between someone who has a genuine sexual issue and a person who simply has a difficult time finding a sex partner?
I think there are men who have had a very hard time finding a sex partner, who still carry with them all of that shame and guilt. I'm starting with a man next week who had one sexual experience, and that was 10 years ago. He is 41. He said it was horrible. She went after him. I haven't gotten the whole story ... but he doesn't feel good about what happened, which is the most important thing, so we are going to explore and see where we can go.
Many people are simply worried about what is expected of them. They feel lonely about their sexuality and intimidated ... I get clients who say, "I'm so glad we are not having sex." In our sessions we don't have sex right away. It's a matter of taking time to relax. That to me is the most intimate kind of sex ... There are people who are more thoughtful, and mindful, and want to explore, but a lot of what is coming at them in our culture in terms of sex is over the top for them. The older they get, the more they start to worry that they are going to be perceived as inexperienced. That makes them even more frightened of moving into that realm of being sexual with no experience whatsoever. They are afraid of being awkward and clumsy, which is a real problem.
Does surrogacy therapy work for most of your clients?
I would say that anyone who has an experience with surrogate partner therapy, at the very least they will walk away feeling better about themselves. There is no getting away from that if you stay in the process. Some people are afraid. I see they are not doing what I suggest and things are not progressing. I would say that happens to about five to ten percent of the people I've worked with. I tell them, "Listen, there is something going on. You are not ready for this. You need to work with your therapist more. I will be here if you choose to come back."
In one of the most chilling sections of the book, you try to help a child molester recently released from prison, only to discover that he is targeting a new victim. Do you believe you can change the desires of pedophiles, or is the only solution to teach these men how to manage their desires in socially acceptable ways?
I don't think you can ever take that desire out of them. I do feel in his case there was no way he was going to be taught. He was a sociopath ... When a person is a psychopath, they are an out of control predator. It is very sad ... There was nothing in him that was socially acceptable or manageable. I think he could not be changed. I have met other men who were pedophiles who were deeply saddened and regretful. Some even tried to help some of their victims financially and paid for their therapy ... But, when you get to the stage where you are a sociopath, you don't have any of that empathy.
My biggest fear of having an open relationship is the possibility that my wife will find someone she is more compatible with, especially since their relationship would be new and exciting. In your case, an open marriage did allow you to meet your second husband, Bob. Does loving someone unconditionally mean loving them enough to allow them to explore the possibility of finding someone who is a better match?
Yeah, I guess so ... but our marriage didn't end because of the open marriage. It ended because he lied to me so many times ... He didn't share who he was with me. He was great at listening to me and my issues ... but he wouldn't really talk about what his deepest, darkest fears were.
The open marriage end of it allowed me to see what I did and didn't want to do with my partners. Except for Bob, I always picked people that I didn't picture myself leaving my husband for. At the time I met Bob, my husband was in a very intimate relationship with someone else, then he started having children with her. That was the most devastating blow to our marriage. I never thought we had to make that rule. Later on he told me he started having children with her because I had hurt him. He never told me I had hurt him. We never talked about it. To this day I am not sure what hurt him. So it is communication with someone else. Really deep communication. It doesn't mean you are not going to hurt people in other ways, but having a friendship is a huge piece of being married. Being friends and lovers goes hand-in-hand ...
I think one of the things couples need to do is to not be afraid that the other person is going to think less of them if you share what makes you feel sad or embarrassed. That is what unconditional is to me. So when you do share those things, if that person comes back at you and makes fun of it, shame on them. But if you stick around and allow them to keep doing it, then shame on you.
Read more about Cohen and buy her memoir, An Intimate Life: Sex, love and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner, on her website, CherylCohenGreene.com