Polio just got a whole lot sexier! That’s because later this month The Sessions, a new film starring the always incredible John Hawkes (and directed by Ben Lewin, who’s disabled) will be making the rounds in theaters. I am extremely excited.
Based on the the true story of disabled poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, The Sessions recounts the writer’s visits with a sex surrogate in 1980s California. O’Brien contracted polio at the age of six, and as a result spent the majority of his time inside an iron lung. Enduring extreme isolation and not knowing anyone outside his family for many years, O’Brien absorbed his family’s strict repudiation of sexuality and struggled with self-worth, conceptions of masculinity, and a damaged self-image.
As an adult, O’Brien established himself as a writer in Berkeley, a.k.a. birthplace of the Independent Living movement. After interviewing several sexually active disabled people for an article he was composing, O’Brien—a virgin in his thirties—identified the division he felt between himself and his interviewees. In his fantastic essay, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” O’Brien wrote, “It took me years to discover that what separated me from them was fear—fear of others, fear of making decisions, fear of my own sexuality, and a surpassing dread of my parents. Even though I no longer lived with them, I continued to live with a sense of their unrelenting presence, and their disapproval of sexuality in general, mine in particular.”
The poet met with his psychotherapist who suggested he contact a sex surrogate, a person who facilitates sexual experiences for therapeutic purposes. Initially terrified of the thought of sex, he quickly developed a trust with his surrogate, Cheryl, exploring the joys of foreplay while rehabilitating an impaired sense of self. Eventually his V-card was revoked, though in the aforementioned essay he described sex as a bit of a letdown, saying it “didn’t feel like the greatest thing in the world. Intercourse was certainly pleasant, but I had enjoyed the foreplay—the kissing, the rubbing, the licking—more.” After successfully consummating the relationship, O’Brien decided to end the sessions and celebrated by buying a futon.
O’Brien later came to view his sex therapy with ambivalence—not because of what had transpired but because he wondered if it had raised false hopes and expectations for his love life. He continued to struggle with isolation coupled with a deep-rooted fear of being loved. Based on the trailer and reviews for the movie, The Sessions likely won’t dwell on O’Brien’s post-surrogate (and universally pondered) question of, “Is there anyone out there for me?” Instead it looks to focus on the specific time O’Brien spent with Cheryl as he acquired an education in the carnal and improved his fragmented self-esteem. It also appears to be lighthearted, moving, and genuinely funny. This is particularly thrilling as disability and humor are often depicted as diametrically opposed concepts in the media, while disability and sexuality remains largely taboo. The Sessions thus has a chance at portraying a radically different, non-stereotypical version of disability—one that is sexy, comical and realistic.
You can read some of O’Brien’s writings here, and check out the trailer for the The Sessions below.