Sex, Shame and Healing: A Memoir of a Sex Surrogate

An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner, Cheryl T. Cohen Green with Lorna Garano (Soft Skull Press, 2012)  $15.95

an-intimate-life-sex-love-and-my-journey-as-a-surrogate-partnerFollowing Helen Hunt’s portrayal of her in last year’s The Sessions, Cheryl Cohen Green decided to write a book to better explain her profession as a sex surrogate. Based in San Francisco and a student of the Masters and Johnsons model of sex therapy, Cohen Greene offers a series of vignettes interspersed with her memoirs of a good Catholic girl who grew up to disappoint and frustrate her parents. A familiar and cliché trope perhaps, but given the nature of her work a curiously unique one. What does one do as a sex surrogate? And how is that different from prostitution?

Unfortunately, Cohen Greene’s memoir doesn’t answer either of those questions. I’ve read several articles, books, and essays on sex surrogacy and while this is certainly one of the more human treatments of the profession, the book suffers from the author’s inability to expressly name how her work differs from prostitution – a fact that she readily admits neither The Sessions nor, in her final paragraph, she herself has been able to resolve.

As I watched The Sessions, I wondered if it would make the difference clear to the general public. If it doesn’t, I’m not worried… When people have difficulty grasping it, I turn to be beloved and late friend Steven Brown’s cooking analogy… Seeing a prostitute is like going to a restaurant. Seeing a surrogate is like going to culinary school.

Throughout the memoir, she attributes confusion on sexual matters (ex: clitoral or vaginal orgasms, the AIDs epidemic, asexuality, etc) to “the media” and conflicting, distorted, and outright confusing messages grounded on conservative values. But given the opportunity to share her life’s work with a readership already interested in her work by way of the critically acclaimed The Sessions if not curious what a professional has to say about sex – even someone like me, who is seeking to enter the sexual health profession – Cohen Greene leaves the reader frustrated and unsatisfied. I am reminded of the maxim that those who talk about sex the most are the worst at it, and am ready to attribute Cohen Greene’s shortage of explanation to a belief that her skills are best employed without words and behind closed doors.

This is not to say that the book is unreadable. The vignettes of her work with clients are highly reflective. With each page, I found myself working through some of my own sexual issues—things I have been taught and messages I have adopted through life about what is right or normal, what is permissible, and mistakes I have made in previous relationships. Cohen Greene’s memoir is not just an entertaining and informative mature summer read, it may very well qualify as one of the best self-help books I’ve ever read. That she never fully and directly explains the nature of her work is entirely forgivable; sex is different for each person and she is wise to stay broad in those sections where a reader would want her to be more specific. The absence of an explanation of how one goes about having “better” sex is a mercurial question and likely cannot be answered in a weekend read like this, even if it would be helpful to the nature of her profession to clear up whether or not she is a glorified prostitute. A reader will surely put the book down seeking answers for the questions in their own life rather than bemoan the absence of a working definition for sex surrogacy, which seems from her depiction as something akin to a “hands-on” almost-therapist overseen by a certified therapist who is trying to help their patient achieve a holistic understanding of themselves instead of mental assent to prescribed self-actualization.[1]

What is more, Cohen Greene chronicles a decades-long movement away from the Catholicism of her childhood to a compassionate form of agnostic-humanism. The migration begins with the shame instilled in Cohen Greene as she masturbates “in front of” an angry God; it ends when she begins a relationship with her future husband Michael, who helps her see a generous and forgiving God.

I explained how I believed God was watching as I wantonly dismissed the rules, and my fear that when I died, he would act. Michael scoffed at this. After all, he wasn’t Catholic. He was Jewish. At the time I had no idea what that actually meant. All I knew was that he didn’t seem to think of God as some kind of cruel schoolmaster.

Cheryl’s memoir reverberates with the long-thought, rarely-spoken choice of sex or religion. Can a person of faith resolve the shame instilled by religious culture while still holding onto tradition? For Cohen Greene, the answer seems to be no. Yet the vignettes she shares of her experiences with clients seem to point so clearly in the direction of things that religion stands for – hope, healing, transparency, forgiveness, love, overcoming fear, and even a sense of justice that sets things right. Hers is not a worldview where everything is permissible, but an inversion where the disabled are given the gift of a humanity that celebrates their sexuality, where the grieving can be comforted, and where those who hurt and endanger others are dealt with swiftly. Sex, for Cohen Green, is not about liberation and freedom. It is about affirming that which humanity so often shames, and in this way offers a refreshing, and welcome challenge to those of a religious persuasion. Do we—myself included—pray to a god who watches us masturbate, then condemns us afterward? Can we help restore humanity to those we have marginalized, like the disabled and aged? And how can extend forgiveness to those who threaten society even as their actions demand justice to protect childhood innocence? Cohen Greene may not offer much by way of answers, but she certainly names commonly held convictions among those of us who believe in transcendent ideals.

As a memoir, it’s engaging. As a self-help book, it’s outstanding, but more than that, An Intimate Life is an accessible and comfortable introduction to issues both inside and outside of the bedroom. The frustrations we as readers feel in-between may just help arouse long dormant questions.

Randall Frederick is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He has just finished his second M.A. at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes for The Huffington Post, and does religious consulting.

[1] Sexual surrogacy is outlawed in many countries and, even in the U.S. where it is legal, many states differ on its legitimacy, effectiveness, and the penalties attached to its prohibition. Many in the mental health profession have expressly condemned sexual surrogacy as Cohen Greene presents it.

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