|IMDB review synopsis|
I've not seen The Sessions. I did read Mark O'Brien's essay on which the film is based.
Among disability activists, the film is celebrated for its realism, and I've talked with other people about it as well. Those folks who aren't in the movement tend to see the film as progressive, as a translation of a story about a man with a disability into an appealing, romantic narrative.
Still, to me, it seems false, offering a dangerous premise, one that leaves the person with the disability stranded on an island of isolation. And make no mistake about it. Even with the ADA, social opportunities are limited for people with disabilities, not only because of personal perceptions (prejudices) but also because of simple things like a majority of houses being inaccessible.
(Yes, I use a wheelchair. And yes, I see everything through the lens of a wheelchair user. And yes, I know that things are far, far better now because of the ADA and because of mobility devices, educational facilities, transportation, and even attitudes.)
Back to sex, and sex and disability: Let's start with the assumption that sexual contact is perceived now (or at least by a growing majority of people) as something akin to good, healthy physical release, no more intimate than a sweaty workout at the gym. I am both a moralist and a romantic, I know, but I cannot move away from the concept of sex as the ultimate expression of love, nor can I believe that the sex as sport rather that a part of a long-term relationships will change (has changed) society in ways we will not understand fully until, perhaps, too late.
Even considering both mindsets—sex as fun or sex as a spiritual communion—I believe the protagonist in The Sessions was mistreated, or allowed himself to be mistreated, or chose to subject himself to mistreatment.
Of course, I am no mind reader. I never met O'Brien, and it is perfectly possible that Mark O'Brien may have thought the experience and its consequences hunky-dory, but to me, the situation would be similar to giving a person locked away under life imprisonment (this is a very bad analogy; don't tell my activist friends) one day of freedom only to lock him up again forever.
O'Brien, or any other person with the same level of disability similarly employing a sexual surrogate, was taught how to be sexually intimate, and then denied physical intimacy after the temporary experience.
I suppose that makes the question: did the protagonist (it is easier to think of O'Brien, the real person, in those terms) want sexual experience or intimacy? If he wanted sexual experience, why didn't he simply hire a prostitute?
O'Brien is dead. I would have liked to ask him. I do think—and I cannot remember if this is in the film—that he made some effort to extend contact, and the therapist refused.
If this is so, O'Brien wanted intimacy—the full physical relationship possible between two people who love one another. Sex is certainly a major part of that, but it is only part of it.
It's a subject that has haunted me for fifty years—not sexual intimacy as such but rather how much strength of character, obstinacy, and willful blindness it requires to step outside the anger and frustration generated by the oppression of a restrictive physical disability and live.
Given its actors, I have no doubt The Sessions is a good film and worthy of the accolades earned, but scrape away the glamour, and holding the neediness of the character in my hands, the film leaves me sad.