Mark O’Brien was a survivor of polio. In his late 30s, paralyzed from the neck down, but with sensation, nonetheless, he resolved to experience intercourse. “The Sessions” is the story of his sexual – and romantic – awakening, first with an attendant, and then with a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt. O’Brien is played – unimaginably movingly – by John Hawkes. It’s a testament to Hawkes’s performance that I found it hard to imagine that the actor wasn’t paralyzed from the neck down. (All the acting is phenomenal: William H. Macy, as Father Brendan, O’Brien’s priest/confessor/friend, is Oscar brilliant; Moon Bloodgood his seemingly asexual, but delightfully loyal, playful, and open-minded attendant, and Annika Marks, as her predecessor, and his first real love interest.)
The movie is moving, and though fucking is at the center of the movie, and though Helen Hunt is naked in much of her time on screen, the movie is not at all “hot” in any conventional sense.
Or actually, in any sense.
And this is my gripe with the movie. I don’t know the details of O’Brien’s story, or of his relationship with Cheryl, the sex surrogate portrayed by Hunt, but man, if I were him, I’d have fired Hunt and gotten a new surrogate after the first session, so brusque, and asexual was she. Of course, the thing is, beggars can’t be choosers, and I’m not sure that a man paralyzed from the neck down and hiring a surrogate – and who had never had a sexual encounter previously – possibly could know that she was being businesslike, rather than intimate. But just about the only thing Cheryl had going for her (other than her Helen Hunt good looks) was her willingness to fuck O’Brien, and her gentleness in recovering from her clumsy mistakes (taking his shirt off too roughly, for example; touching his cock within moments of meeting him).
I don’t blame Hunt – her performance endowed Cheryl with a lot more sensitivity and gentleness than the screenplay did. But the character seemed to think that her job was to introduce O’Brien to the experience of having his penis in a vagina. Which, to be fair, on some level it was. But I think the story would have been much more compelling if in fact she had been introducing O’Brien to the experience of, if not “making love,” at least, “having sex,” as opposed to that of “inserting his penis in a vagina for a period of time and ejaculating.”
Although she did, over the course of the movie, develop feelings for him, her boundaries were so well maintained, her propriety so perfect, that even so, she barely allowed herself to be more than slightly friendly with, gentle to, him. Especially during the period of time that many of us are accustomed to filling with something called “foreplay.” During that time? Cheryl was removing her clothes as if she were at the gym, or removing his clothes as if he were, well, a paralyzed patient, and she his nurse. Though she was at times tender in a somewhat affectionate way, there was never anything resembling the sort of tenderness that has accompanied virtually every sexual encounter I’ve ever had (except for the very few in which tenderness was itself anathematic).
Don’t get me wrong. Cheryl wasn’t cruel. She was kind, friendly with him. But that was all. She seemed entirely unwilling to indulge the idea that sex is in some way “special,” that it’s something other than a purely physical activity – sort of like a two-person version of tooth-brushing. When I fuck a woman I’ve never met before in a sex club, I’m more tender, more emotionally demonstrative, than Hunt was with him, even on their final “date.”
I don’t know anything about sex surrogacy, about the mores and norms of having sex for money when you’re not a hooker. Maybe this is accurate – maybe this is how sex surrogates do it. But it seemed pretty unappealing to me. And if I had a friend in a similar position today, I’d advise him to hire a hooker, not a surrogate, on the basis of this portrayal.
I’d love to hear/read others’ reactions. The popular press has praised Hunt’s performance as “sensitive” and “gentle” and all sorts of other good things, and has, for the most part, refused to distinguish between Hunt and Cheryl. Did you see the movie? What did you think?
Oh, and a postscript: my relationship to fucking has come up a little in my life lately, in sexual encounters about which I’ve not written here, and I joked with T that it might be interesting for me to hire a surrogate to work with me on my issues around fucking. (Which seem, primarily, to manifest in my losing a hard-on when prolonged fucking is called for, when oral isn’t the “main course.”)
She asked, “Well why don’t we work on it?”
My answer was, essentially, I need a therapist – someone who’s got emotional distance from me, from whom I have emotional distance.
We talked about a couple of other people we know, none of whom seemed to fit the (my) bill.
But honestly, I’d much prefer not to pay for this service. Given my past, I’m always a little leery of any commercial activity around sex, and one thing I know from experience, all too well, is that an inevitable side-effect for me of paying someone for sex, to have sex with me, to have a sexual encounter with me, is that I feel like shit, that I’m left with a bitter aftertaste of the “she wouldn’t have done it but for the money” variety. (There’s another post to be written on how/why it is that, given that knowledge, it’s still something I’ve done, but this ain’t that post.)
So if I could find a nice sexual partner, one to whom I was attracted and who was willing to work with me, very consciously, explicitly, about the complicated relationship I have with fucking, that would be interesting. (T says to me, “Huh – so this is a bit instrumental, eh?” It honestly wasn’t my intent when I wrote the post, but sure, I guess it is.)
See “The Sessions.” But don’t expect a flawless movie.