sex, bodies and disability – the sessions

The sessions

This is the body God gave you. This is the body God gave you…

The Sessions is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien and his relationship with a sex surrogate. It’s 1988. Mark, a writer, is paralysed from the neck down by polio and uses an iron lung to keep breathing.

Margaret and David gave it 4 and 4.5 stars, so I was surprised to find it was showing in Darwin. It’s about an issue close to my heart, so I went out and saw it immediately.

John Hawkes

The director, Ben Lewin, had the good sense to cast a disabled actor John Hawkes (a polio survivor himself) as Mark, rather than some able-bodied guy (who’d go on to get an Oscar for such a ‘moving performance’). Hawkes is brillant.

After O’Brien declares his feelings for one of his carers and is rejected, he contacts a sex therapist, Cheryl. Cheryl makes it clear, she’s not a prostitue, she’s ‘a sex surrogate’. ‘Prostitutes want to keep your business’, she says, whereas she limits her therapy to six sessions. Her aim is to help him overcome his feelings that his body is  no good and that he does not deserve sex, so that he can choose to pursue an intimate relationship in the future.

Of course, I had some concerns about the wisdom and ethics of sex surrogacy. I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps she merely helps him replace one set of emotional and psychological issues by replacing them with others. But I could also see the impossibility of convincing him that his body really was good without actually having sex. I say suspend your judgement on this issue until the end of the movie and think about the ethics afterwards (then I’d love to hear your thoughts).

The sessions

Do not see this movie with your parents or on a first date.

There is a lot of nudity and a lot of sex (so much that I was scared to make eye-contact with the other cinema-goers after it finished).

But it’s not gratuitous. The sex is about as realistic (sometimes awkward and uncomfortable) as you’ll ever see, rather than a vehicle for the audience’s lustful fantasies. The sex and nudity is important. If the camera had been shy of showing the naked, sexual, disabled body, it would play into the myths that disabled bodies are repulsive and other, bodies that we should be uncomfortable viewing or even thinking about. No, the film forces us to see disability and to see real people.

Mark comments at one stage that he’s so used to being the only naked person in the room whenever he is washed or examined. It’s a terrible power imbalance and you see it as one of his less-thoughtful carers bathes him with disgust. It’s actually very moving to see both him and Cheryl naked and feeling no shame. They’re equals.


I feared that the film would push the myth that meaning and identity is found in our sexual histories or sexual preferences (and thus people with disabilities need sex to be ‘whole’ people). But it didn’t. The priest character, Mark’s best friend, is fabulous. He’s also celibate – reminding us that sex is not necessary for a meaningful life. It’s clear, however, that celibacy is an avenue he’s chosen to pursue; no one assumes he is asexual. I think this is the difference; the priest has chosen how to use his sexuality, whereas the man with a disability has had his sexuality denied (by himself and those around him), until now.

Although the movie is primarily about sex and disability, it also asks a deeper question. What does it mean to be ‘made in God’s image?’ How can we say ‘this is the body God gave me?’ when our bodies don’t work like we wish, when we’re considered ugly, unlovable, untouchable? Mark is a practicing Catholic and even jokes at one stage, ‘I’m religious because I couldn’t stand not having someone to blame for all this.’

Like all good movies, it only hints at an answer; the priest explains that Mark ‘loves and is loved, both emotionally and physically.’ Perhaps love has something to do with it.

I laughed, I cried etc. etc. Go see it (not with your mum though).

Then I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think of sex surrogacy? What do you think this movie says about being ‘made in God’s image’, beauty and intimacy?

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