Authors: Cheryl T. Cohen-Greene
Table of Contents
a note on names and other identifying details
Throughout this book I share stories from my practice. Names, physical characteristics, and mannerisms have been changed to secure the privacy of my clients. Many of the client stories presented here occurred many years ago, and, because of that, I have had to reconstruct dialogue and sensory details that have escaped memory. In addition, to protect their privacy, I have given pseudonyms to many of my personal friends, family members, and acquaintances.
For my husband, Bob,
whose love and support made this book possible.
I love you!
Surrogate partner therapy involves three people: the client, the surrogate partner, and the “talk” therapist who weaves it all together. That’s me. I make the initial recommendation to incorporate surrogate partner therapy for selected clients.
Once the process has started, the surrogate partner and I confer after each surrogate/client meeting and plan the next. Then the client processes the surrogate experience in a “talk” therapy appointment with me. Cheryl and I have talked through more than one hundred sexual journeys of clients seeking something better.
Thirty years of collaborating about clients with Cheryl has taught me many things. Here are three of the most important: Sex therapy, like life, is never linear, so keeping a spare tank of energy around is always a good strategy. An open-hearted surrogate partner can find real sexual attractiveness in a person least likely to grace the cover of a magazine. And last, the Age of AIDS won’t stop a brilliant surrogate partner from doing her work.
Cheryl is one of a kind. She’s the person I want to sit next to at sexuality conferences to get her unique take on the research and what it means to her work. She readily generates a no-punches-pulled sexual realism, but it’s wrapped in a soft blanket of optimism and nearly boundless compassion.
to be compassionate. Genuine empathy is required when talking honestly with another naked person about how to touch and receive touch. It’s also a necessity when explaining the crucial importance of adopting good sexual hygiene for future sexual partners. A surrogate partner can’t be role-modeling sexual communication that works in the real world if it’s insincere. Sitting naked face-to-face, eyes-to-eyes for all these years has fostered an unconventional yet very rewarding career for Cheryl.
Surrogate partners are educators for their clients and they are “normalizers.” Many clients enter sex therapy with a near-terminal case of uniqueness, thinking that they are beyond help and hope. Many clients whom I’ve referred to Cheryl came into my practice with the mental equivalent of “one shoe nailed down to the floor.” They kept circling around and around their “stuff,” unable to change—and felt stuck with their sexual problems. And while surrogate therapy is centered around the client, it’s also very much about leading the client out of the set of ideas that nailed the shoe down in the first place.
Clients aren’t the only ones with set ideas about sex. I recall attending a sexuality conference at which Cheryl was presenting. It was 1985; AIDS was a reality in the world of sexual contact. The audience of sex therapists, researchers, and educators sat in the audience eagerly awaiting Cheryl’s presentation on being a surrogate partner when serious, life-threatening, sexually communicable conditions had entered the landscape. How could a surrogate possibly use a condom with a man with erection dysfunction?
Like most conferences in hotels, there was a table at the back of the room with a continental breakfast. As Cheryl got to the condom part of her presentation, she asked for someone in the audience to get her a banana from the table. Chuckles rippled through the room. Once the banana fetcher had volunteered, Cheryl asked him to eat the banana—more chuckles.
Then Cheryl asked the banana eater to bring her the peel. There, before a convention room full of people, Cheryl opened a condom packet and, holding the peel in one hand, slipped the condom over it with the other hand in about three seconds. The resemblance between the empty banana peel and a flaccid penis was unmistakable. Case closed.
Many clients doubt their sexual attractiveness. I remember asking Cheryl how she was doing with one particular man I had referred to her. We both knew that a part of his sexual growth would involve his believing that a woman could be turned on by him. I asked her how she was working with that part of it. She replied instantly with her distinct Boston accent, “Oh, he has really great ears and a great neck. I find them sexy.” And that’s why the amazing story of Mark, in the opening chapter, rings so true. If anyone had a reason to wonder about his attractiveness, it was Mark.
One would think that after doing this work for so many years, Cheryl would become slightly jaded about her clients or blasé about teaching some of the same concepts over and over. But she doesn’t. Each time we confer about a recent session with our mutual client, there’s Cheryl explaining in detail exactly what she said to the client—as if it was the first time I had heard it or that she had said it. There is no way to pretend such freshness, but it’s the reason why a woman nearly 70 years of age can do the work she does with such joy and such purpose.
We have shared the lectern at conferences, witnessed major passages in each other’s lives, and stepped into various media settings together hoping to enlighten—only to find the wizardry of video edits sometimes negating our educational intentions. I am honored to write the Foreword for a book that reads like a cliff-hanger—despite the fact that I know all the twists and turns of the plot, many of the characters, and how it all turns out. I hope that you will find it, as I have, a privilege to listen in on her thoughts.
—Louanne Cole Weston, Ph.D.
I have had over nine hundred sex partners. I haven’t had intercourse with all of them, but I’ve had it with most of them. I sometimes reveal this in the talks I give, and, as you can imagine, it sparks a strong reaction. Often, I ask the audience what words come to mind when they hear this figure. Here are a few of the most common: whore, skank, slut. Well, I’m none of those—even though some people will undoubtedly disagree. I am a surrogate partner. These days, people hear that title and think what I do involves carrying children for infertile couples. When I explain to them that I use hands-on methods to help clients overcome sexual difficulties, they come away only slightly less confused. Isn’t that prostitution? they wonder, sometimes aloud.
Whereas prostitution is one of the world’s oldest professions, surrogacy is one of the newest. Clients are always referred to me by talk-therapist colleagues. They may be suffering from erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, anxiety around their sexuality, little or no sexual experience, difficulty communicating, poor body image, or various combinations of these issues. Virtually all of the men (and sometimes women) I see long for more intimate and loving relationships in and out of the bedroom. The work of a surrogate is to give them the essential tools for building healthy and loving relationships.
As a surrogate, I have a series of exercises I use with clients to help them resolve problems and achieve their goals. A good deal of my time is also spent educating them about anatomy and sexuality. I work closely with the referring therapist, checking in with him or her after each session to discuss the client’s progress. Clients typically see me for six to eight sessions. One of the biggest misconceptions about surrogacy work is how much intercourse takes place during those sessions. It’s true that I have sex with most of my clients, but it is only after we have gone through a number of exercises designed to develop body awareness, address body image issues, achieve relaxation, and hone communication skills. It is usually in the later sessions that we have sex. It’s worth noting that I am a “surrogate partner,” not a “sex surrogate.” My ultimate aim is to model a healthy intimate relationship for a client, and that involves much more than intercourse.
My clients come from all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. The youngest client I worked with was eighteen and the oldest was eighty-nine. They are CEOs, truck drivers, attorneys, and carpenters. Some are hunks; others are average looking. I’ve worked with a virgin septuagenarian, a college student suffering from premature ejaculation, and men of all ages who don’t know how to communicate about sex.
I started this work in 1973, and my journey to it spans our society’s sexual revolution and my own. I grew up in the ’40s and ’50s, a time when sex education was—to put it mildly—lacking. As I educated myself, I found that most of what I had been taught about sex was distorted or wrong. The lessons came from the playground, the church, and the media. My parents could barely talk about sex, much less inform me about it. Unfortunately, many parents today remain as ill-equipped to provide reliable, nonjudgmental sex education as mine were a half a century ago. I often think about how much smarter, healthier, and happier our kids would be if parents had the information and skills to have honest, age-appropriate discussions with them.
Despite what I and many others had hoped for in the exhilarating days of the sexual revolution, too many of us remain mystified about sex and about our bodies. The assault on fact-based sex education led by those who wish to turn back the clock, and the barrage of misinformation we get from the twenty-four-hour media cycle, have many of us as confused as ever. We joke about sex, rail against sex, expose people for having inappropriate sex, and, although I’m hardly the first one to point it out, use sex to sell everything from chewing gum to SUVs. What we have real trouble with, however, is having an honest, mature, and nonjudgmental public conversation about it.