Quadriplegic sex and dignity


The Sessions (MA). Director: Ben Lewin. Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, Wiliam H. Macy.

Mark (Hawkes), a charming and witty poet and journalist, is commissioned to write a feature about disability and sexuality. Himself a quadriplegic and a virgin, Mark's encounters with people who speak candidly about how disability hinders or enhances their sexual activity, stir his own romantic and sexual frustration.

He visits a therapist who suggests he meet with a 'sex surrogate', a woman who provides specialised sexual services. A devout Catholic, Mark first gains the approval of his local priest, Fr Brendan (Macy), then begins a series of sessions with the surrogate, Cheryl (Hunt). His interactions with her form the bulk of the film.

There is no doubt this is a human dignity issue for Mark. He reports to Brendan the humiliation of ejaculating involuntarily while being bathed. His decision to engage Cheryl's services comes only after his most recent attempt at initiating a romantic relationship. For Mark, the emphasis of his coital longing is on physical intimacy.

It is a weakness of the film that the priest is played mostly for comedic value. The sight of respected character actor Macy sporting a dorky mullet hairdo elicits only laughter. At one point Brendan shows up at Mark's house attired in sweaty lycra and headband, apparently having decided to pop in for a visit while out for a jog.

The character is a clown, not a 'fool' whose corny exterior belies his wisdom. When Mark first approaches him for advice, Brendan merely gazes momentarily at a crucifix on the wall before advising him to 'go for it'. During the film he mostly offers platitudes or looks uncomfortable as Mark recounts his encounters with Cheryl.

These scenes represent a missed opportunity to give weightier consideration to otherwise unspoken ethical questions, such as whether it is ever ethically defensible for a woman to be paid for sex — which might be seen to inherently exploit her — in the service of another's dignity (even that of a person with a disability).

The film is not concerned with this question and in truth does not suffer much for it. Cheryl is portrayed as a character with her dignity intact, in control of her encounters with Mark and demanding he respect her person and her privacy. Sex, as she teaches it to him, is a shared act between two equals, not a tool for male gratification.

On the other hand The Sessions is on firm ground with its affirmation of the dignity of those who experience disability, and should in fact be commended for its frank and humane treatment of such individuals' sexuality. This is true both of its portrayal of Mark and of the characters whom he interviews early in the film.

The 'sessions' themselves are particularly touching, conducted by the two actors with courage and sensitivity. In recent years Hawkes (Winter's Bone) has emerged as a character actor of chameleonesque quality; here he inhabit's Mark's immobile but not insensitive limbs completely. It is a career-best performance from Hunt, too.

The film reveals intimacy as a natural result of their physical interaction, even if ostensibly it is reduced to a financial transaction; Cheryl's struggle to keep the relationship professional provides a deeply affecting subplot. The Sessions has its flaws but on balance is one of the most effective life-affirming films you'll see this year.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Sessions, William H. Macy, John Hawkes, Helen Hunt



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Existing comments

Thanks for this review. If this is a "career-best performance from Hunt" then it's a movie worth seeing for that fact alone - she's a very fine actor. I read an article recently about Ben Lewin, the director, and the story has very much a personal perspective for him. I'm unsure whether I'll be brave enough to watch this film though.

Pam | 15 November 2012  

This movie poses a challenge to traditional Catholic teaching on sexuality and emphasis on reproduction. I think the church really needs to have a deeper look at the importance of sexual intimacy and how dogmatic and rigid teachings have created an unhealthy and negative outlook towards what should be seen as a natural part of life - like food, clothing and shelter. Humans may be the only animals with a consciousness of morality/mortality, but we underestimate how little we know about how sexuality influences so much of our psychology/spirituality.

AURELIUS | 15 November 2012  

As a person with quadriplegia acquired in my early 20s from a car accident, I was old enough at the time to have experienced some relationships and one involving physical intimacy. At the time, I know men found me attractive and sought me out. After I was injured, I was shunned, rejected and continually humiliated by the opposite sex especially single men of my own age. Over the succeeding decades this has largely remained the case. And this, together with continued attitudinal prejudice and oppression, has been the deepest psychic wound of my disability experience, much more so than any physical losses, any of the myriad frustrations related to poor access, loss of opportunities and long vanished dreams.

Bravo for the gift of this film which tells one of our precious stories with profound honesty and resounding truth. Frequently our lived experiences are mocked and discarded especially when it comes to matters of sex and intimacy. May there be many more such films telling it how it really is.

Catherine | 16 November 2012  

I shall be seeing this film fairly soon. The trailer was enticing. Helen Hunt has the sort of strong feminine presence which would bring her part off successfully. I can think of few actresses who would be as good in the role. John Hawkes presents his character with the dignity it deserves. I am grateful for Catherine's excellent post about what someone in a similar position suffers. Bravo Catherine! Would that more people with disabilities like yourself would speak out like you. We need them to. William Macy's character has to be a clown: the traditional Court clown had an important role and was the only person who could say or do certain things without incurring severe retribution. From a traditional Christian - not just Catholic - way of thinking the film's way of presenting the moral dilemmas involved is paradoxical. Therein lies the point. Somehow love and dignity come up trumps. It is a Zen solution which needs to be intuited rather than understood in our normal logical way of thinking.

Edward F | 21 November 2012  

Certainly, it would be terrible to disabled. Certainly, it is preferable to have sex (if you want to have it) than go without.Noone is saying the disabled are not sexual beings.However, the vast majority of prostitutes/sex industry workers don't want to be sex objects. Separating sex from love , and this is what Cheryl and Mark were doing, is prettied up prostitution. I know prostitutes and I know they suffer deeply and feel worthless, Let us not encourage men to think it is ok to use women.

Catherine | 22 November 2012  

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