New film ‘The Sessions’ breaks the taboo on disability and sex. Caroline McGinn investigates the reality behind the story
In 1988, Californian poet and activist Mark O’Brien decided it was time to lose his virginity. It wasn’t going to be easy. O’Brien was 38 years old. He was shy and cerebral, and a devout Catholic. And childhood polio had left him paralysed from the neck down: O’Brien spent most of his time in the full-body embrace of an iron lung. ‘As a man in my thirties,’ he wrote, two years later, ‘I still felt embarrassed by my sexuality. It seemed to be utterly without purpose, 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. I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be held, caressed and valued. But my self-hatred and fear were too intense.’
O’Brien’s search for sexual love is now the subject of a film, ‘The Sessions’. It’s a frank, slightly romanticised version of O’Brien’s visits to see a ‘sex surrogate’, 41-year-old Cheryl Cohen Greene. Oscar-nominated Helen Hunt plays Cheryl as a cross between a sex worker, a therapist and a liberated angel. Through ‘body awareness exercises’ – ie stroking, talking, kissing and sex – Cheryl relieves the O’Brien character (played by John Hawkes) of some of his inhibitions and his virginity.
‘The Sessions’ is the first mainstream US film to feature a profoundly disabled, explicitly sexual romantic lead (the French, naturally, got there first with last year’s ‘Rust and Bone’, in which a woman has her legs bitten off by a whale then goes on to have lots of sex). Out in the real world, this isn’t so unusual (minus the whale). Sex surrogates have practised discreetly in the UK since the ’60s. And there’s growing pressure from disabled groups to talk about disabled people and sex.
That’s not always easy. The Paralympics brought strong role models into the public eye. But according to a recent Observer survey, 70 percent of respondents would not have sex with a disabled person. It can be particularly hard for some severely disabled people who face huge obstacles: fear, stigma, and medical or logistical challenges that make sex a specialist subject.
That’s why erotic publisher and campaigner Dr Tuppy Owens founded the TLC website, which connects disabled people with sex workers whose specialities include deaf-blind striptease, working around colostomy bags, and lapdancing for amputees. ‘That can be tricky,’ Owens says, ‘because many don’t actually have laps. We need to cater for disabled people’s sexual needs and stop thinking it’s risqué or hush-hush. Sex workers and disabled people are both stigmatised. So they already have something in common.’
There are dozens of sex worker profiles on the TLC site. Each has the usual phonebox CV – ‘a wide range of fetish equipment, prostate massage, spanking and electro play’, for example. But they also list disability experience: ‘I’ve had clients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, visual impairment, Asperger’s, quadriplegia, tetraplegia and cerebral palsy,’ writes Pru of Streatham Hill. A practical checklist on wheelchair accessibility and hoists features on every page.
Seeing a sex worker relieves one problem but creates others. As well as the stigma, there’s the moral anxiety, the £100 to £150-an-hour cost – and the risk that you’ll give up on love. Adam, a 37-year-old wheelchairbound Londoner who lost his virginity to a sex worker, has mixed feelings. ‘She’s great,’ he says. ‘But it’s easier than putting myself out there trying to have a relationship.’ Others, like O’Brien, would never hire a prostitute. ‘It implies,’ he wrote, ‘that I cannot be loved, body and soul, just body or soul. Sex for the sake of sex… seems like a ceremony whose meaning has been forgotten.’
Sex surrogacy is often mistaken for prostitution, because surrogates are paid by clients. But it was pioneered by respected American sexperts Masters and Johnson in the 1950s. Thirty-twoyear- old Padma Deva works as a surrogate in London and the home counties. ‘Prostitution is entertainment; surrogacy is about therapy,’ she explains. ‘It’s not like you’re going to come to me, get naked and get your rocks off. You pay for a consultation, get STD tests, see me for nine sessions over a period of up to six months. You’re not going to have sex for a while.’
Deva’s clients – generally single, able-bodied men – come to her with specific problems such as premature ejaculation. She’s not cheap – a set of nine sessions costs £3,900 – and there is a limited number, so clients can’t keep going back for more. ‘I want to prepare the person so that when they leave me, they are able to create a really good relationship, not just an average one,’ says Deva.
Surrogacy is about intimacy as much as sex. ‘Boundaries are very important,’ says Padma, ‘for the surrogate to keep her sanity as much as for the client.’ In ‘The Sessions’, O’Brien and his married surrogate fall for each other. Which happened to Deva in her first year of work. ‘Someone walked through the door and I clicked with him in every way. Luckily I was working in a therapist team with supervision. It was hard. But there’s no situation where the client’s wellbeing would be served by a relationship with me. He was a virgin. He’d never have known if I was the right one or just the first.’
‘It’s not something you should do without support,’ says sex and relationship coach Sue Newsome. She has worked for years with disabled clients including Dominic, a tetraplegic whom she ‘made love to’ in a demonstration to the Royal Society of Medicine in 2008. ‘When someone has a spinal injury,’ says Newsome, ‘they have hypersensitivity at the point of injury. I work on his head, face, neck and shoulders, which gives him a state of arousal that he feels in his whole body, even though he couldn’t feel it if I touched his legs.’ As Dominic himself explains, ‘I can only feel from my shoulders upwards. The sensual massage stimulates the areas that I can feel. But it’s about intimacy and pleasure, not sex. Feeling that someone’s on your wavelength is as important as being caressed.’
It’s powerful, authentic testimony. But can it help anyone? David Brown has run the ICASA centre for transpersonal therapy in the UK since 1994. ‘Our lowest success rate is for people who can’t ejaculate: around 40 percent,’ he says. ‘For premature ejaculation, it’s 90 percent. And for mid-life virgins, the success rate is 100 percent.’ There’s no reason to doubt his experience or good faith, but the subject’s crying out for more independent research; until then, all we have is a PhD study from 1983, anecdotes and gut instinct. ‘Where do I go from here?’ asked Mark O’Brien after he completed his sessions. ‘My isolation continues, along with the consequent celibacy… Our culture values youth, health and good looks along with instant solutions.’
He was right about our culture. But, happily, he was wrong about his own prospects. Not only did he have sex before he died, he was honoured for his work and he was loved by the partner he ultimately found – which is about as much as any of us can reasonably hope for.
Another taboo bites the dust, but ‘The Sessions’ is only the latest in a long line of sexual trailblazers on film…
It might sound crazy now, but when Alfred Hitchcock showed an unmarried couple in bed in the early scenes of his 1960 thriller, it was deemed utterly scandalous.
LAST TANGO IN PARIS
In 1972 Bernardo Bertolucci showed an older man having lots of anonymous sex with a young Parisian woman.
IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES
Japanese director Nagisa Oshima shocked with a 1930s-set story of a woman who cuts off a man’s penis during coitus. Oh, and the sex in this 1976 movie was real. Mary Whitehouse was unamused.
SALO OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM
Sex, violence, fascism and the force feeding of shit collide horrifically and terrifyingly in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s vision of hell from 1975. Not exactly a date movie.