Sex in the cinema: THE SESSIONS


Have you ever wondered what someone who works in the field of sex therapy thinks about The Sessions? I can tell you.


A few weeks ago I watched Ben Lewin’s film, in which Helen Hunt plays Cheryl, a sexual surrogate who is hired by Mark, a severely disabled man (John Hawkes) living with cystic fibrosis. Like many Hollywood movies these days, the film is “based on a true story” about Mark O’Brien, a journalist and poet in Berkeley, California, who was the subject of an Academy Award-winning short documentary feature called Breathing Lessons, which mostly portrayed the life of someone who spends much of his day in an iron lung. The Sessions zeroes right in on the most intimate aspects of O’Brien’s life, his relationships with the staunch female caretakers who bathe him and evince subtle/overt disgust for his body, and his wistful desire to experience sex before he dies. The sexual surrogate that Hunt plays is herself a kind of sacred intimate, a social worker whose job entails getting naked and physically intimate with her clients, with the intention of healing.

My overall response is to be impressed with Hollywood for being willing to make a film on this subject and to treat it with as much honesty and respect as they did. I give Helen Hunt a lot of credit for being willing to be so free with her body and the filmmakers for making a film that many people can identify with whose circumstances are very different from Mark O’Brien’s. The tone is neither sniggery-salacious nor overly solemn. I keep thinking about the moment when she invites him to touch her breasts and says, “If you touch one, you have to touch the other. It’s kind of a rule.”

As a professional, I could take issue with a few things that are “Hollywoodized” and not an accurate depiction of sexual surrogate work. Her first session with him is way too rushed. Most sexual surrogates do NOT walk in the door and get naked nearly as quickly as she does. Especially with someone whose issue is lack of sexual experience, there’s usually a process of progressive desensitization to anxiety-provoking situations. Of course, that would be tedious to document on camera. The film plays up the dramatic moment of her “hurting” him at the beginning, to establish his extreme sensitivity, but it makes her look obtuse, and that seems pretty unrealistic to me. In the scenes where he ejaculates immediately, the movie suggests that the encounter is over when that happens, which is exactly the nightmare that men who struggle with rapid ejaculation fear. In real life, in Mark’s sessions with the surrogate, she didn’t end the session there but continued to work with him to let him regain his erection and experience arousal longer. And at the end, her emotional attachment to him is exaggerated in a way that is sentimental and melodramatic — typical for a Hollywood movie but way overplayed as a depiction of how most sex surrogates deal with completing treatment.

It’s very interesting to go back and read Mark O’Brien’s essay “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which was published in The Sun. You can read it online here. You’ll see that the movie hews to certain facts and embellishes many others. At the time of his sessions with Cheryl, he was 4’7″ and weighed 60 pounds. Such a brave man!

You can also view Breathing Lessons online here (and I encourage you to).

I don’t do sexual surrogacy, but – as I’ve written about elsewhere – there are similarities and differences between sexual surrogates and sacred intimates. For instance, I’ve worked on and off for nine years with a man who has a version of increasingly disabling muscular dystrophy, gets around in a state-of-the-art motorized wheelchair, and has very little ability to move his limbs. Getting him out of the chair and onto the massage table, and then back, is extremely arduous, but it is very meaningful to him to receive the kind of loving touch I offer, which is somewhat different from what he receives from his husband. And it’s meaningful to me to provide a safe place for him to have this experience. I always feel very honored to work with people who have unusual bodies, knowing how emotionally fraught it is for them to show themselves to others. And I think they get about me that I have a lot of reverence for the life and pleasures that are possible in each individual body.

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