Sexual Honesty in The Sessions: Confronting our Desires and Limitations

John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in THE SESSIONS (2012)
The Sessions (2012) | Fox Searchlight
As part of my plan to become a sex educator, I once took a “Sexual Attitudes Reassessment” course. A portion of the class involved watching different types of pornography and then discussing our reactions with the group. The subject matter ranged from “vanilla” sex to connections between non-traditional couplings, the elderly, and people with disabilities. The exercise was meant to help us understand our ingrained biases and feelings about sexuality, and it was profoundly helpful at bringing to light some unspoken truths. We do a great disservice to others when we marginalize their desires because of their limitations. After all, we each have plenty of both. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been tempted by my desire for sexual pleasure. And, looking just as far back, I have always been afraid of fully allowing myself to embrace it.

Sex is complicated, and people don’t talk about it enough. And for some of us, the talk we do hear is frightening or confusing; stories about teenage pregnancy and broken hearts, diseases and damnation. But despite these scare tactics, I was always fascinated by the subject, by sex’s ability to soothe and inspire, the way it caused people to act. People seemed changed, even driven by sex, modeling their behaviour sets and personalities around achieving it. I saw a blind freedom and a total exposure of self in the possibility of embracing sexuality in self-honest terms.

I wanted to know what that was like.

In 2012, The Sessions debuted at Sundance Film Festival. The movie is based on the life of poet Mark O’Brien, who was, at a young age, paralyzed from the neck down by polio and spent much of his life thereafter inside an iron lung. At 38, sensing he was “close to his best-by date,” he decided to lose his virginity. Without any convenient or romantic options, and with the blessing of his priest, he hired a professional sex surrogate to help him achieve this goal, and later wrote an article for The Sun about his experience. The Sessions, starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt and directed by Ben Lewin, is based on that article, and unfolds with remarkable honesty as a sex-positive examination of spiritual healing between two people.

I never saw my sexual self in a movie character until I met Mark.

Mark, who sees sex as sacred and seeks to learn about it, does not frivolously chase or selfishly demand sex from others. For him, it is a moment of connection and personal development. But he is also heartbreakingly restrained and stunted because of his physical limitations, and shamed not only by his desires, but by the limited methods he has to achieve them.

Hawkes portrays Mark as charming, humorous, and saint-like in the acceptance of his fate. He never comes off as self-pitying. Mark is a realist as much as he is a religious man. He is frank about the limitations of which he is already keenly aware—his inability to move most of his body and his self-consciousness about its twisted frame. And he navigates the discovery of his religious limitations with an open heart, a negotiation that director Ben Lewin handles with remarkable sensitivity.

Mark is Catholic, and he knows that sex outside of marriage is frowned upon by God, and by extension the Church. Ultimately, this might explain why Mark is just plain scared. He writes, “My desire to love and be loved sexually is equaled by my isolation and my fear of breaking out of it. The fear is twofold. I fear getting nothing but rejections. But I also fear being accepted and loved. For if this latter happens, I will curse myself for all the time and life that I have wasted.”

Mark approaches each of these fears with the help of Cheryl (Hunt), a sex surrogate with a full and complex life of her own: a husband, teenage son, and all her own private hopes and desires, realized and unrealized. Hunt was nominated for an Academy Award for the role, which she occupies with tremendous grace and confidence. She plays Cheryl in a remarkably calm and grounded way, which, in combination with her comfort with her natural, middle-aged body, makes her a thoughtful and wholesome choice to be Mark’s guide. The peace she emanates somehow transcends the screen.

The film opens on Mark with a literal itch he can’t scratch, the poet alone in his house, confined to the iron lung, trying desperately to scratch it with his mind. Immediately, we understand the frustration he must feel at the observed helplessness. Shortly thereafter, the disapproving eyes of his caretaker echo that same helplessness, as he achieves an erection during his sponge bath.

We meet Mark with his sexuality out of control, a phenomena happening to a man with no forum in which to discuss it freely. When he’s assigned to interview other people with disabilities about their sex lives, he takes on the assignment begrudgingly, taking notes on their stories like an anthropologist. He feels out of place and separate from them, further igniting his already burning, frustrating desires.

I can never understand or relate to Mark’s literal physical disabilities, and thus can only comment on them through the metaphoric terms so generously offered on loan by his story. I do, however, connect with him through his faith and how that faith impacts his sexuality.

In spite of my familiarity with the stock material, I never saw myself in cinematic characters who were virgins for the sake of religious piety. A childish naivete and basic fear of sex was unfamiliar to me. On the other hand, when formerly-celibate film heroines hopped upon a pendulum that was swinging in the opposite direction, engaging in quietly dangerous promiscuous exchanges with whoever made flirtatious eye contact, I felt even further removed.

With The Sessions as my starting point, I’ve gradually come to learn that sexuality is the highest and most powerful form of spirituality. The two cannot be separated. An ecstatic moment is akin to seeing the face of god—a sliver of time spent at full release and unconstrained by anything but pleasure. This is not a radical or new concept. Still, the reconciling of these two parts is difficult for many people, as it was for me, for much of my life.

Many look at major religions and see a distorted obsession with sexuality, an institutional fixation on controlling it or eradicating it altogether, particularly for women. I encountered a strange example of this in pledging parties, where young girls pledge to their fathers that they will not have sex until marriage. While I didn’t partake in this problematic ritual, waiting until marriage was nonetheless an important aspect of my own life and identity. Repeated youth group talks about saving myself and giving myself as a clean, untouched gift to my husband had a direct impact on my choice to remain a virgin throughout my teens and into adulthood. A hyper-manifestation of slut-shaming, this mindset teaches young religious women that they are damaged goods if their hymen is broken. And this mindset, once subconsciously accepted, often blooms into a psychological paralysis just as real as any physical disability.

Since nobody was talking about sex, I learned as much as I could about it. When I was very young, I regularly watched the late-night Canadian call-in Sunday Night Sex Show with Dr. Sue, and admired her frankness and immunity to embarrassment (I’ll never forget the person who called in about female ejaculation, to which Sue responded that the amount of ejaculation varied; for example, you could “fill a milk bag” with it—how Canadian!). I watched documentaries, took classes, read books. I might not have been permitted to have sex, but I was definitely going to learn all I could about it.

This is probably where I connected first, and most strongly, to The Sessions. Mark educates himself, even to hilarious detriment, becoming convinced his penis will not fit into Cheryl’s vagina and will somehow harm her—a sort of childlike innocence and moment of misunderstanding. Mark and I were unified in our late-blooming and juvenile refusal to allow our own sexuality to be a mystery. The problem, for us, would never be lack of knowledge.

The complication of the fixation was intensified, presumably for both of us, because masturbation was also off-limits. Whereas Mark was physically unable to stimulate himself sexually, a situation I can hardly imagine, the community I was part of preferred to pretend that abstinence in self-pleasure was a testament to faith; Jesus alone would keep our budding sex drives under control.

This, of course, was not the case. We weren’t supposed to talk about it, think about it, or do it. But it was all I thought about. Most of my adolescent journals are filled with self-loathing and guilt about my inability to temper my sexual urges and unquenchable desires. I tried to talk to my girlfriends and mentors about it, but it seemed that none of them struggled as I did, or were unwilling to share due to their own shame. The most open among them usually just asked for tips, or acted like sex had never even crossed their minds.

I had a high sex drive and much larger breasts—billboards all too ready to display my secret desires. This carried on through most of my early adult life. When I attended a Christian college, a friend was assigned as my “accountability partner.”

“Pray for me,” I’d plead, “I can’t stop touching myself!” I can look back at this now with a hearty laugh, but at the time it was a terrible, shameful, debilitating struggle. The first time I had sex I spent the next day in bed, panicking that I’d become pregnant as punishment for my inability to remain celibate until marriage.  Even now, though I’m no longer religious, the shame is hard to shake.

There are always lapses in self-education. As much as I taught myself how to achieve pleasure, after each act, I was also learning how to punish myself through emotional flagellation. I hated my own actions despite my enjoyment of them, because I was expected to. And because of this, there was never complete release. I also misunderstood the sexual urges of others, becoming surprised and unfairly disappointed when my main partner’s sex drive turned out to be lower than my own. By denying my sexuality for so long, I was denying the most primal, natural aspect of myself. I was also denying myself the truest spiritual experiences I would have, and my deepest, most understanding connections with other people.

Mark, too, wrestles with how God might react to his achieving sexual intimacy with another person. He has spent his entire life believing that either God or his parents would intervene before he’d be able to do the deed. Though he takes his faith seriously as a practicing Catholic, he possesses a lively sense of humour and believes that God must also, since he was created in His image. This mindset helps him immensely in his journey. His fantastic priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), along with being the most charming and likeable clergyman in memory, takes Mark’s confession and hears his request for a “quote in advance.” Through their budding friendship, Father Brendan will face his own private and unsung struggles with sexuality. It’s clear that Mark understands sex as one of the prevailing themes of the Bible, and as time goes on Father Brendan becomes more open and visibly interested as Mark recounts his experiences and desires. We never see past a surface-level reaction, but one can assume that the priest, too, is being thoughtfully challenged about his own beliefs and choices.

So how are these limitations overcome? Mark is, through one moment of vulnerability, connected with Cheryl as a sexual surrogate who has devoted her natural gifts to helping sexually-restricted people overcome their hurdles, whatever they might be.

The Sessions employs a type of sexual conversation we don’t see much in film, but one that is a vital part of healthy sexual relationships in real life. Cheryl is a veritable angel in Mark’s life. Not only does she help him achieve his main goal—sexual intercourse with another person— she teaches him to be aware of his body and his desires. Her openness and honesty allows Mark to work through his fears and limitations on his own time. Cheryl undresses freely before him with a confidence in her body that doesn’t allow for self-criticism and that in turn does not allow for criticism of the other. Mark hasn’t seen his penis in 30 years, so Cheryl holds a mirror up to him, “this is your body,” she says with an equal measure of fact and compassion. She brings perspective and praises his penis. She asks Mark if there are any body parts she shouldn’t touch, not only because they may cause him pain, but because we all have parts we’re sensitive about. She essentially says: “This is what I’m going to do, and this is what I need you to do.” She laughs off awkward situations (like Mark choking on her vulva), but she’s also emotionally sensitive and aware of childhood traumas and self-hate, challenging Mark about both. Some may find this sexual exposition uncomfortable, but the honesty, at least for me, is extremely sexy.

Media normalizes a specific form of sexuality, one that embraces salaciousness and voyeurism over personal connection and growth. That’s a fact. And it should be natural and normalized to see people talking openly about sexual health, contraception, and consent not only while initiating the act, but throughout. It shouldn’t seem strange to hear someone ask about a condom, or what their partner’s sexual history is. Sexual conversation in film is a poor example of real life, where laughter, mistakes, and personal histories dictate what is and isn’t allowed in the bedroom. Cheryl selflessly and firmly insists Mark not just tolerate anything; she encourages him to be vocal about his fears and desires.

At the height of their sessions, as Mark tries to achieve full penetration, Cheryl encourages him to “breathe deeply and think of something delicious.” What does Mark think of? Nothing sordid. He thinks mainly of touching. Not sexual touching, but sensual touching—water, hair, wheat, fur, bodies. He climaxes at the thought of having the ability to stroke his partner. We see Mark is as selfless as Cheryl; he wants her to experience pleasure, as he sweetly asks if she also came while he was inside of her for five or six seconds, then puts simultaneous orgasm on the menu—a challenging feat even for practiced couples.

When he begins his sessions with Cheryl, Mark repeatedly ejaculates at the slightest touch. He believes that not only is God punishing him by making him ejaculate prematurely, but that He’s also pointing out how useless sexuality is, which perhaps is even more cruel than simply denying it. But Cheryl doesn’t allow him to wallow in his religious guilt and insists that he stop blaming his higher power and give her credit for being so irresistibly sexy. Though a very private person, she shares her own experience with the church, which didn’t appreciate her attitude about sex—mainly discouraging her for enjoying it. Though she’s left the church by the time we meet her, she never chides Mark for his religious beliefs, and displays a compassionate awareness of their effect on his sexuality.

This understanding and honesty is the only way any of us ever get past our limitations. It requires being open and aware of ourselves and the other party (or, parties) involved. Being aware of your own body requires experimentation and comfort. I was shocked to learn, in casual conversation, how many people have no idea what their own vulva looks like, even displaying a sort of fear about this level of self-awareness. But the more aware we are of our bodies and ourselves the more we can be with and of others.

Perhaps the best gift about being open and honest is the reprieve that others find when they can come to you with their weird questions and embarrassing stories. Everyone wants to know if they’re normal. Honest people become the ones who take their friends to buy their first sex toy, the ones who help the crying/laughing friend get the diaphragm from last night unstuck, who reassures them that no, a tampon can’t get lost in your body, and that’s probably just an ingrown hair not an STI (but it’s always good to get checked). When people feel safe and open, they also become honest and vulnerable; witnessing that is very rewarding.

Every character in The Sessions shows this transition and begins to share about their own experiences because of Mark and Cheryl’s frankness about their own. Vera, Mark’s seemingly-stern caretaker is open about her first sexual experience and the size of her boyfriend’s dick (“penis sounds like some vegetable you don’t want to eat”) as well as with the incessantly curious hotel concierge. Mark’s male helper, Rod, admits that he finds sex overrated but necessary, enjoying other methods of sexual release just as much or more than full intercourse. Every side character has their own open dialogue about sexuality and pleasure, and it’s so wonderful to see onscreen. Knowing the delicate atmosphere that such confessions require makes it even sweeter.

An honest sexual act can be profoundly healing. But Mark makes it clear that, though he feels “cleansed and victorious,” the encounter did not really change his life. And, as movies and life so often go, Mark and Cheryl do fall in love, even though it’s not part of the plan or the deal. When Mark, comfortable and inspired by their openness asks what happens next, Cheryl replies, “After poetry and sex? Nothing or everything. The rest is by negotiation, as it were.” Perhaps that negotiation can be more smooth and enjoyable if we have already conquered our fears and limitations and can give our full attention to our desires while helping someone else achieve theirs.

There was no Cheryl in my life to help me navigate the strange landscape of my sexuality. Most of it has been discovered on my own through trial and error, and I’m still learning to balance my fiery passion with my runaway mind. I probably talk about it too much for polite conversation. On occasion I’ve been asked, “Is sex all you think about, Becky?” Often, yes, but so much of my life surrounds it that it’s difficult not to. Sex is the center of my complex universe, orbited by love, food, and God, eclipsing the mundane meaninglessness of life. It’s an act that lets me show all my faces, it communicates my feelings for which there are no other outlets. If, by being open, I can help someone achieve this for themselves, then I feel it’s more than worth it for me to think about it all the time.