My boss recently asked if I’d seen The Sessions. He apologized almost immediately, stating that perhaps talking about it was inappropriate…but he thought it might connect with my “academic interests”. Color me intrigued.
The Sessions (2012), based on journalist and poet Mark O’Brien’s quest to experience physical intimacy, stars John Hawkes (O’Brien), Helen Hunt (sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene), and William H. Macy.
O’Brien, who contracted polio at age 6, could experience the sensation of touch but could not move from the neck down. He spent much of his life inside an iron lung because his condition made breathing difficult. As a virgin in his mid-thirties, he was inspired to seek out a sex surrogate after interviewing other individuals with disabilities about their sex lives.
What is a “sex surrogate?”
A sex surrogate is an individual who may become physically involved with clients to help them work through difficulties surrounding sexual activities. A sex surrogate is not a prostitute nor a sex therapist.
Hunt’s character mentions that, unlike a prostitute, sex surrogates do not want your continued business. They concentrate on overcoming a specific sexual problem — emotional (body image issues) or physical (premature ejaculation). Their methods can include direct sexual contact, but not necessarily. Their goal is to help clients acquire the skills to establish healthy sexual relationships, not provide sexual pleasure. Trained in areas such as sex education & sexology, sex surrogates are legally certified and only meet clients through therapists.
Sex therapists, much like other therapists, are licensed professionals who tackle emotional difficulties through discussion — never sexual contact — but who are educated on the specifics of human sexuality.
The Sessions brings disability & sex out into the open. In his article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate1,” O’Brien writes
Why do rehabilitation hospitals teach disabled people how to sew wallets and cook from a wheelchair but not deal with a person’s damaged self-image? Why don’t these hospitals teach disabled people how to love and be loved through sex, or how to love our unusual bodies?
23 years later, reading reviews that call this movie “disgusting,” I realized that our society is much more at ease imagining people with disabilities as asexual. But O’Brien makes it obvious that he is not excluded from the natural desires for (or the right to experience) romance, love, and sexual intimacy.
The Sessions is also refreshingly sex positive. Part of what O’Brien has to overcome is a negative, shameful view of sexuality from his upbringing. The encouragement he receives from those close to him is very inspiring. His friends & assistants are comfortable engaging in frank discussions about sex, and even his priest offers support instead of disapproval. Everyone involved treats sex as natural & enjoyable.
Unfortunately, it was because I was so impressed with these progressive themes that I was surprised by some details that were not exactly sex literate. First of all, protection is never mentioned. No condoms on the nightstand, no diaphragm in her purse, not even a discussion between the characters.
Secondly, some unrealistic expectations concerning intercourse were perpetuated. Without mentioning that it rarely happens, one of the sessions focused on simultaneous orgasm. Cohen-Greene is also portrayed as reaching orgasm through intercourse alone, which only 1/4 of women regularly experience. (If she was providing clitoral stimulation, it was largely ignored.) Sexual ideals like these cause many people (especially women) to worry that their bodies or sex lives are abnormal. For a movie that embraced sexual differences, this felt out of place.
Lastly, I didn’t know how to interpret the strange love triangle between O’Brien, Cohen-Greene, and her husband. The original article does not mention this, and I worry that it insinuates that sex surrogates cannot have satisfying marriages because they have outside sex partners. I liked that she got to know O’Brien as a person, but does attachment to a client cheapen the profession?
Try to look past the occasional lack of sexual realism and relish the sex positivity that is so rarely expressed in the media. The Sessions made me laugh, warmed my heart, and opened my eyes even more to a very important struggle that many people with disabilities must face, but no one ever talks about. I highly recommend it to everyone.
1. O’Brien, Mark. (1990). On seeing a sex surrogate. The Sun, issue 174. Reprinted online at: http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/174/on_seeing_a_sex_surrogate