Sunday, January 15, 2012


creative commons Lorika 13
Sometime after Kinsey, sometime before Masters and Johnson, came along a few micrograms of chemicals that changed sexual congress forever.

Sexual intercourse is for procreation, say traditionalists. It is the most intimate of bonding rituals between man and woman, affirming the permanent pairing generally required for a stable family. I accept that.

I also accept that males of the human species can regard sex as a contest, a sport, an affirmation of power, or even a matter of seeking fundamental obeisance from the female of the species, a dynamic altered only slightly by the invention of the contraceptive pill.

Although I cannot testify personally, the use of the pill, and secondarily the right-to-choose movement, have in some environments allowed sexual contact evolve into a thing no more important in a day's activities than a good work-out at the gym, a thing to be done for physical and emotional health with the same degree of commitment generated by a date to play tennis.

Or at least the popular media would have us believe. How prevalent the hook up mentality is I don't know.

Into that mindset (my own) came an article about Cheryl Cohen, a surrogate partner. The link sent to me by another writer who knew I had served some time in an iron lung.
One of her clients, the poet and journalist Mark O'Brien, was stricken with polio at 6 and spent most of his life in an iron lung. In 1986, when O'Brien was 36 and a virgin, he hired Cohen Greene as his surrogate partner. They met six times and remained friends until O'Brien's death in 1999.
Their story is now an independent film, "The Surrogate," which premieres Jan. 23 at the Sundance Film Festival. Starring John Hawkes ("Winter's Bone") as O'Brien and Helen Hunt ("As Good as It Gets") as Cohen Greene, it's adapted from a 1990 article, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," that O'Brien wrote for the Sun magazine of North Carolina.
I read the article and the hundreds of comments, a good majority of which jumped to the conclusion that surrogacy is prostitution.

First, setting aside the framework of morality, the difference between surrogacy and prostitution lies in intent. The woman's announced intention is therapy. To recognize that, though, a person must understand she functions within the parameters of belief where the right to sexual contact is a right akin to food or shelter.

Even before bringing disability into the equation, I regard the issue so quantum-level complex that I have nothing rational to say, really. I simply believe sexual interaction is more than an exercise to maintain physical and emotional health. But if a person is barred from achieving the (not a) sexual bond by a physical or emotional problem, what is that person to do? I can only answer for myself.

While all males lust, even those in iron lungs, there is an emotional parallel to physical lust: intimacy.

An emotionally mature male values intimacy -- a touch, a kiss, a caress -- a significant connection with his partner. I am sure the paralyzed man had his physical curiosity satisfied, but he had no relationship, no chance to know the surrogate intimately. What did the contact generate but satisfaction of the man's curiosity?

I have no doubt the surrogate crossed the paralyzed man's emotional barriers, albeit temporarily, but in an iron lung -- or even with a physical disability that isolates a person from social interaction -- those emotional walls are very necessary to exist successfully in relative isolation.

Do we know the full story? I think even those who have read the article in The Sun that the man in the iron lung wrote will ever comprehend all that occurred within the heart and mind and spirit of that man.

I do not think even the most introspective of us, the most self-aware and analytical, are capable of fully exploring all that we are capable of feeling. I know I have never revealed or explored the depths of my emotional fragility, how close I feel to the loss of control, the depths of my anger, the expanse of my loss, because of the constraints of my disability. I have learned that exploration is a desert without water.

Finally, there is the philosophical element: the triumph of will, the choice to focus on the absolute, the power of prayer, the comprehension of what cannot be changed.

Stephen Hawking spoke about disability in this way. "One has to have a positive attitude and must make the best of the situation that one finds oneself in; if one is physically disabled, one cannot afford to be psychologically disabled as well."


Middle-aged Diva (Carol) said...

Gary, there is so much here that I read it twice and I still want to reread it. When you write things like this it gives us able-bodied folk a view we wouldn't ordinarily have. There's an essay in every paragraph. Thanks for giving me so much food for thought on this Sunday, my friend.

Ramsey Hootman said...

Loved both of your posts on this topic, but commenting on this one because I think my point is more relevant here.

I think this issue comes down to what we prioritize: emotional intimacy or physical intimacy. I think more and more our society places physical intimacy first and hopes emotional intimacy will follow. Personally, I think it's important to place emotional intimacy first, even after physical intimacy is added in.