Thursday, October 25, 2012

Thinking about The Sessions

creative commons: love outside the box
There's some buzz in the disability world about the new film, The Sessions, and the buzz is positive. 

I'm not so sure myself. Color me ambivalent. 

The film is based on an essay printed in the prestigious The Sun, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate" by Mark O'Brien. O'Brien was paralyzed by polio as a child, paralyzed to the point that he spent a majority of his time in an iron lung. That's not an environment where a fellow meets many prospective mates. 

Despite—or because of—his isolation, O'Brien wanted to experience sexual intercourse, and so, through his therapist, he hired a surrogate.

And experienced sexual intercourse.

As another paralyzed man, there's something off-putting about the whole adventure. I certainly understand his motives, and I am deeply empathetic to his feelings about the infantilization of people with disabilities, his own self-image, his frustrations with his life, his longings, and his sense of unworthiness. And his yearnings for sexual intimacy.

O'Brien, according to his essay, had been in therapy for a long period. I've never been in therapy. I suppose (O'Brien is deceased now) O'Brien was in therapy to cope with his physical disability, his confinement in a damaged body. 

I am damaged. I cope, more or less. But I fear that whatever equilibrium I have been able to construct would itself be damaged by therapy. "An unexamined life" may not be worth living, but I'm not especially eager to have another person examine and then interpret my life for me. As Abraham Lincoln said, "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be," and since miracles are in short supply and its apparent I'm going to ride my way out of this world, I have resolved to go about looking for things to be happy about.

But back to sexual relationships.

O'Brien was unhappy about his lack of sexual intimacy. He did something about it while receiving counsel. The process was complicated and fraught with emotional minefields. All of that makes me wonder why he didn't simply hire a prostitute. Let's face it. A crip ain't gonna find romance easily, and this all occurred twenty years ago. Long enough ago that the modus operandi prevalent today—the hook-up culture, sex as a invigorating game of tennis exercise—wasn't much in the news.

Even at that, I'm guessing that sex-through-hook-up ain't gonna be easy for a dude* who spends most of his time in an iron lung. 

My problem with the choice of surrogate over prostitute arises because of the implicit promise of sexual surrogacy. Generally, sexual surrogacy is meant to overcome the emotional or physical problems related to sexual intimacy, which it does by having the surrogate become emotionally intimate with the client. O'Brien then was given a taste of the power of unity possible through sexual intimacy ... and then left to cope with the isolation that anchored him to loneliness. What's the value in being taught how to be intimate and loving if you're still going to be denied (by circumstance) the opportunity to be intimate and loving?

In my mind, he permitted himself to be teased with what he might not ever obtain.

And so, if his desire for sexual relations was simply a desire for experience, would not the hiring of a prostitute been simpler, more straightforward, and ultimately less stress-inducing?

And dare I say it: more in control of his own destiny?

I've seen this little discussed among disability activists. Most celebrate the accurate, unsentimental and yet emotionally powerful, interpretation of living a life disabled. I haven't seen the film. I cannot comment to that.

I have read the essay, however. I have seen the short documentary about Mark O'Brien, Breathing Lessons. It is the essay that speaks to me most clearly, the piece in which O'Brien writes of his fears, of his feelings of forever being perceived of as a child by his parents, of his social isolation, of the difficulty in separating the life of the mind from an incompetent and incapable body. 

And if you are frustrated enough and angry enough, bitter enough and isolated enough, there is this to be deciphered from the written-in-blood runes on the pages: in those sessions, Mark O'Brien, I think, understood once more one of the hard, cold truths about living a life disabled.

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