When Sex is About More Than Sex

Reflections on the new film, "The Sessions"

Posted Nov 21, 2012

The Sessions, written and directed by Ben Lewin, sensitively portrays the longings and poignant loneliness, of Mark O’Brien—a poet and journalist disabled by polio at age six, living in an iron lung.  On the surface, The Sessions is a story about sex surrogacy, sex in the disabled, and Mark O’Brien’s determination to lose his virginity and experience sex like any other man. But is The Sessions really about sex? At a deep level, I don’t think so. 

Sex, of course, is an important part of anyone’s life. But sex brings with it a host of other needs and feelings. In Mark O’Brien’s case, intercourse wasn’t the only thing he wanted to achieve. Mostly, he was trying to overcome excruciating feelings of being unlovable; of believing no one wanted to touch him. As he said himself in On Seeing a Sex Surrogate: “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.”

Before I went to see The Sessions, I watched on YouTube a short Academy Award-winning documentary called Breathing Lessons, made in 1996 by Jennifer Yu. Yu captured a very emotionally open Mark O’Brien—and showed, in raw detail, his excruciating self-hatred and feelings of ugliness. Apparently, this documentary significantly influenced the movie and John Hawke’s development of the Mark O’Brien character. But after watching Breathing Lessons, I felt The Sessions fell short of showing Mark’s real internal struggle  How trapped he was not only inside the iron lung and a body whose muscles did not cooperate with his desires—but, more so, in his loneliness; in his belief that he was someone who couldn’t be loved.

It’s hard to stay open, when self-hatred is consuming—and, if anything, The Sessions made it look a little too easy. Perhaps, that’s Hollywood. But The Sessions, and most importantly, Mark’s life, did show the kind of courage and determination necessary to overcome those unrealistic self-hating feelings that can seem all too convincing. Mark and The Sessions (the movie and Cheryl Cohen Greene’s help) prove it’s not impossible. Mark O’Brien’s life sends a strong message: Never give up on what you want.

Copyright 2012 by Sandra E. Fenster, Ph.D. 

A note from your friendly headshrinker, Dr. Jennifer Kunst: It is a real treat to share the work of my friend and colleague, Dr. Sandra Fenster. Dr. Fenster is a training and supervising psychoanalyst at the Psychoanalytic Center of California. She has a private practice in Beverly Hills, CA, where she treats individuals, adolescents, and couples. Visit her website at