The new movie The Sessions tells the true story of poet Mark O’Brien who lost the use of his body’s muscles in childhood as a result of Polio. The movie is based on the essay “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” which Mark wrote in 1990 about his experience of seeing a sex surrogate at the age of 36 to learn about sexuality with a partner for the first time in his life. Due to the requirement of spending all but a few hours a day in a contraption called an iron lung, Mark had been isolated from peers from the age of 6 through adolescence and robbed of the common experience young adults have of experimenting with sexual relationships thereby learning what they like and don’t like from different experiences. It’s not until his mid-twenties when he attended the University of Berkeley where he studied journalism that he even gets to develop his social skills.
The lessons learned from this film offers the audience a critical opportunity to contemplate the ways in which most people in American society are robbed of a positive accurate sexual education. I have seen non-disabled clients over the years who have felt the same fear, self-loathing and frustration about their own particular sexual desires as Mark did. Similar to Mark, these are people who were well-educated, intelligent, and successful in their livelihoods but had either been taught negative things about sexuality by parents, teachers and spiritual leaders or had been raised in a vacuum of no information at all. This led them to believe as Mark did, that their desires were perverted and/or sinful. He wrote: “The attitude I absorbed was not so much that polite people never thought about sex, but that no one did. I didn’t know anyone outside my family, so this code affected me strongly, convincing me that people should emulate the wholesome asexuality of Barbie and Ken, that we should behave as though we had no 'down there’s' down there.”
Many of my clients are filled with misconceptions, myths, and extreme shame about the erotic desires and physical arousal that are part of most people’s sexual response cycle. Whether they have been brought up in a religious faith that forbids any romantic contact before marriage like practicing Muslims, traditional Indians (or Indian-Americans), or Orthodox Jews, or clients who had families that made negative comments about sex as they were growing up, these clients all struggle to find a way to integrate their belief systems with their erotic desires and or behaviors.
It is my role as a therapist to ask the right questions to find out what a client’s goals are regarding their sex life and to determine what emotional, psychological and physical impediments need to be addressed and by whom. I am respectful of a client or a couple’s desire to adhere to their religious traditions while offering them basic information that will allow them to begin to decide for themselves what they want in their sexual life.
Mark struggled with his Catholic faith and his family upbringing as he contemplated seeing a sex surrogate writing: “What would my parents think? What would God think?” Mark O’Brien had fallen in love with people in his life (including a caretaker and a fellow student at University of Berkeley) but his feelings had not been reciprocated and he felt the opportunities to give and get sexual pleasure within a marriage seemed few as he couldn’t even get a date. He consulted with both his therapist, another therapist who specialized in sex therapy and a Catholic priest to help him come to the decision to work with a sex surrogate. All these counselors gave Mark their perspective and useful information without putting pressure on him one way or another.
What people can learn from this film is that the many people who grow up feeling ashamed of their sexual thoughts have few people to whom they can go to who are willing and able to tell them the facts as well as process the feelings that can go along with sex. Instead, misinformed lessons are learned through the romanticized Hollywood romantic-comedies in which the amount of time it takes for a woman to get thoroughly turned on is reduced to some short period of making out before the clothes are ripped off. The hot passionate scenes abound in American films in which safer sex is never discussed before sex, men never stop to put on a condom and women climax with delight without any foreplay and through intercourse alone.
And more recently, there is the modeling for teens and young men of partner-sex based solely on the viewing of porn which is a format created solely for erotic entertainment and fantasy. Porn has little realistic information to offer young men in terms of how mutual sexual relationships should be negotiated, the wide variety of women’s sexual desires and response cycle and the visual modeling of how partners can be both givers and receivers of pleasure. Porn does not illustrate the way in which feelings of love might be integrated into a sexual union. And porn, like the movies never exhibits a man losing his erection and the many reactions he might experience and receive from a partner in that situation.
After getting his priest’s blessing, Mark learns that his body can be a source of immense playful, sensual pleasure and that he can give pleasure to a woman through his sessions with Cheryl, a sexual surrogate whom he hires to teach him about sexuality. Through body awareness exercises he finds out what types of touch he enjoys, what tickles and which ones are annoying. He asks Cheryl in a direct way whether she enjoys having her ear licked and she answers no but that some women might and supports him in his asking. Verbal discussions and non-verbal total body touching are critical skills to develop as part of anyone’s sexual repertoire.
When he eventually learns how to have intercourse he finds out that all the sensual play beforehand and after intercourse can be part of a tremendously moving and sensual experience, and is an important part of a person’s life. Mark also comes to feel entitled to express that part of him. He writes: “Another lesson learned: sex is a part of ordinary living, not an activity reserved for gods, goddesses, and rock stars. I realized that it could become a part of my life if I fought against my self-hatred and pessimism.” Important lessons indeed.