'I've had 900 sex partners'

ART IMITATING LIFE: Surrogate partner Cheryl Cohen Greene is played by Helen Hunt (pictured with John Hawkes) in "The Sessions".
ART IMITATING LIFE: Surrogate partner Cheryl Cohen Greene is played by Helen Hunt (pictured with John Hawkes) in "The Sessions".

I have had more than 900 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. 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. I use hands-on methods to help clients overcome sexual difficulties.

"Isn't that prostitution?" people 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 18 and the oldest was 89. They are CEOs, truck drivers, lawyers 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 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, non-judgmental 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.

Too many of us remain mystified about sex and about our bodies. 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 cars.

What we have real trouble with, however, is having an honest, mature and non-judgmental public conversation about it.

I grew up during a time in which rigid dogma about women's sexuality held sway. When I look back, I marvel at how it conferred so much shame and guilt around one of the most natural and healthy human impulses, and at the impact it had on me as a young person. But in the 1960s, the shifting social winds encouraged me to question and rethink nearly everything I had been taught. Many of the beliefs about sexuality that I had been inculcated with as a child didn't survive.

This process culminated in my career as a surrogate. Everyone has a right to satisfying, loving sex, and, in my experience, that most often flows from strong communication, self-respect and a willingness to explore.

It is my goal to inspire the frank and fearless consideration that can lead to all three.

* Cheryl Cohen Greene has been in private practice as a surrogate partner since 1973. The film The Sessions is based on her work. This is an edited extract from her memoir, An Intimate Life: Sex, Love and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner (Scribe Publications), out now.

- Daily Life