We recently saw the wonderful movie, The Sessions; one that is sure to garner some Oscar accolades come Academy Awards season. The Sessions stars John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien, a writer unable to move from the neck down from polio. It’s based on an article he wrote in 1990 for the The Sun, about hiring a sex surrogate to have sex with for the first time, at the age of 38. A devout Catholic, he lived most of his life in an Iron Lung that kept him breathing. He could leave it for hours at a time, transported on a gurney by an attendant. In the movie, what is striking about Mark is that his body is not paralyzed in the typical sense; rather, he can feel anything that touches him; he is just unable to move.
Mark’s sexual journey begins while researching an article he is writing about sex and the disabled. He’s at first mortified and then mesmerized by the vivid, earthy descriptions his interviewees give about how they have sex (one of the funniest lines in the movie comes from a woman he is interviewing who thanks her lucky stars her husband smoked as much pot as he did because since he lost his sense of taste he can go down on her for hours.)
Inspired by the people he interviews who have sexual lives amidst varying degrees of disability, he decides to hire a sex-surrogate, Cheryl, played by a mostly naked and always outstanding Helen Hunt, to relieve him of his virginity. The difference between a sex surrogate and a sex-worker, she explains, is that sex surrogates will only meet with you a prescribed number of times, while a sex-worker wants continued business. Hunt, approaches having sex with Mark with the professional and intellectual curiosity of that of a sociology professor.
Their first encounter, is punctuated by her casualness as she takes off her clothes and the terrified-yet-intrigued reverence with which Mark looks at the first naked woman he’s ever seen. It also abruptly ends; with a lightining-quick ejaculation and mortification the moment she places his crippled, stiff hand on her breast.
Over their next encounters they work methodically and painstakingly. Cheryl, to accustom him to naked bodies, touching, caressing, and eventually penetrative intercourse. Mark, on the other hand, feels a type of frustrated sexual pleasure at having sex with a person he doesn’t know at all, and he attempts to create an emotional connection with Hunt; in one instance through poetry he writes for her:
Let me touch you with my words for my hands lie limp as empty gloves
Let my words stroke your hair
Slide down your back and tickle your belly
Ignore my wishes and stubbornly refuse to carry out my quietest desires
Let my words enter your mind bearing torches
He describes seeing his naked, adult body for the first time: “Holding it so that I could see myself, Cheryl asked what I thought of the man in the mirror. I said that I was surprised I looked so normal, that I wasn’t the horribly twisted and cadaverous figure I had always imagined myself to be.”
Mark’s journey to “become a man” in the fullest sense of the word moves beyond the need to use his penis for its carnal purpose, to an exercise of exorcising inner demons that afflict the able-bodied, just as much as the disabled, that tell him he’s not good enough to be loved. He describes how deeply he is moved by receiving a simple caress of affection after giving Cheryl pleasure:
“…she kept holding me inside her. Then a look of pleasure brushed lightly over her face, as though an all-day itch were finally being scratched. Letting me go, she pur her hands down on the bed by my shoulders and kissed my chest. This act of affection moved me deeply. I hadn’t expected it; it seemed like a gift from her heart. My chest is unmuscular, pale, and hairless, the precise opposite of what a sexy man’s chest is supposed to be. It has always felt like a very vulnerable part of me. Now it was being kissed by a caring, understanding woman and I almost wept.”
Mark’s article ends with the questions each of us ask ourselves about the blurred overlapping of sexual and emotional needs:
“Which brings up the question – what do I seek? I don’t know. Someone who likes me and loves me and who will promise to protect me from all the self-hating parts of myself?”