Relationships & Sex on Screen: “The Sessions” (2012)

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The second installment of Relationships & Sex on Screen: Love, connection, and sexual surrogacy work in the 2012 film, "The Sessions."

The Sessions

Photo: Fox Searchlight

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in the 2012 film, "The Sessions"

I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be held, caressed, and valued. But my self-hatred and fear were too intense. I doubted I deserved to be loved.

~John Hawkes, as Mark O’Brien

Based on a true story of a man paralyzed due to polio and needing an iron lung to survive, “The Sessions” is an emotionally powerful film that conveys sexuality and the struggle for connection in heart-breaking and genuine, awkward and joyful ways, without resorting to titillation or sexist tropes. Helen Hunt, nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress, plays the surrogate partner Cheryl Cohen Greene, who receives a referral from a sex therapist contacted by the main character Mark O’Brien, played by John Hawkes.

Sex Worker, Sex Surrogate, or Sex Therapist?

A prostitute wants your return business, I don’t.

~Helen Hunt, as Cheryl Cohen Greene

The movie portrays the surrogate partner consulting with a professional sex therapist (the movie at this point differentiates between the work of a sexual surrogate and a sex therapist, as the therapist does not engage with her clients sexually, although later on Hunt’s character is referred to as a “sex therapist.”)

Another notable point the movie brought up was when Hunt’s character, while dictating her notes from the last session with O’Brien, says he had been “indulging” in romantic feelings for her after they successfully had intercourse. While she notes this behavior is “typical,” she was in a sense blaming the patient for his “indulgence,” when in fact having an orgasm with another person promotes emotional bonding, through the flood of hormones such as oxytocin that are released.

A True Story

The “real” Mark O’Brien wrote up an account of his experiences, what led him to see a sex surrogate…

As a man in my thirties, I still felt embarrassed by my sexuality. It seemed to be utterly without purpose in my life, except to mortify me when I became aroused during bed baths. I would not talk to my attendants about the orgasms I had then, or the profound shame I felt. I imagined they, too, hated me for becoming so excited…

…as well as how it helped–and did not…

I wonder whether seeing Cheryl was worth it, not in terms of the money but in hopes raised and never fulfilled… One thing I did learn was that intercourse is not an expression of male aggression, but a gentle, mutually playful experience. But has that knowledge come too late? Where do I go from here? People have suggested several steps I could take. I could hire prostitutes, advertise in the personals, or sign up for a dating service. None of these appeal to me. Hiring a prostitute implies that I cannot be loved body and soul, just body or soul. I would be treated as a body in need of some impersonal, professional service — which is what I’ve always gotten, though in a different form, from nurses and attendants. Sex for the sake of sex alone has little appeal to me because it seems like a ceremony whose meaning has been forgotten.

Notably, the writer and director of the film, Ben Lewin, is also a survivor of polio. The film will be released February 12, 2013 on DVD, and is available to rent now on iTunes. If you are interested in more discussion on how psychology and mental health issues are portrayed in the media, see the Facebook page of the Media Watch Committee, of Division 46 of the American Psychological Association.

Adam Fisher, M.A.

is a Ph.D. student in Counseling Psychology at Indiana University. Adam's professional interests include couple & sex therapy, parent education, and working with college students. His dissertation is investigating the effects of religious belief change on romantic relationships.
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