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“I Just Saw The Sessions, and I Don't Get How Being a "Sexual Surrogate" Is Legal?”

On seeing a sex issue



“On seeing a sex surrogate” is a script written by American poet and journalist Marc O’Brian, on which the 2012 film “The Sessions” is based on. The approach of the film director is surprisingly honest and straightforward focusing on the love-erotic adventure of Marc O’ Brian who is a disabled man suffering from the polio virus since the age of six, largely paralyzed from the neck down, but strongly determined to end up his virginity. Although the director is keeping the style of a typical Hollywood romantic comedy product, he is much more straightforward and honest towards questions of sexuality. A complex interweaving of sporadic but not less important social, religious and political topics make this film valuable of a closer overview.

There is a focus on spheres of equally sensitive themes of disability and religion, human sexuality and sexual rights, and finally about sex-therapy legality, all of which director Ben Lewin pulls off skillfully. Lewin uses a refined sense of humor while opening up these themes following the life sequence of the main protagonist Marc O’Brian (John Hawkes), when he determines for a sexual and love-erotic experience with a woman.

The story is not just a pure adventure game. It is a romantic drama as well, full of affection, desire and despair. Carefully guided through the everyday life of Marc O’Brian, we are also introduced to his anxious world view shaped by catholic premises. He perceives sex as something terrifying, forbidden, exorcised form his life since he got punished with the polio-virus. His world view is terminated by an aerial view of Virgin Mary gazing above him and repeatedly asking him to overcome despair with assent, to substitute bodily desires with virtues of the heart, to understand and appreciate when an attractive woman attendant shares no same affections for him as he does for her. However, his desire for a sexual experience does not get diminished by this influence of the catholic education. He is desperate to feel presence of a naked woman body beside him, per se to experience being loved by another person, to feel sexually desirable. Perfectly normal desires, I would say, just they are shadowed by an unpleasant display of a disabled body. With a help of his psychotherapist and even with a greater help of his own endeavor to meet with a woman sexually, he arranges with a sex-surrogate a terminate number of sessions in which explicit work with the body and sexual intercourse are encountered. He also does not forget to ask his priest for a blessing. It is an initiation process after all, and it requires blessing from the heavens above!

The feminine and elegant sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) stands for an actual individual whose been working with O’Brien in real life. In the interview given for the “Ability Magazine” at the premiere in LA, Cheryl Cohen Greene talks about her experience with Marc O’Brian, and emphasizes the fact that she likes her clients and that she likes her work. This affection is romantically pointed out in the film.

Nevertheless, the fact that a working field of sex-surrogates includes the actual sexual intercourse as a parcel of the therapy practice underlines the specificity of such profession and the difficulties of being recognized. The first (I assume also normal) reaction on the film is to question upon legality of the profession: “I Just Saw The Sessions, and I Don't Get How Being a "Sexual Surrogate" Is Legal?” directly from the title, a journalist for a life-style online magazine, sets a notion of a visible disturbance with the fact that the lines of a therapy which includes sexual (or bodily) activities are not strictly drawn. From another interview with Linda Poelzl, sex-surrogate actively working on the west coast, we can read that she is highly aware of such conjunctures: “People assume sex surrogate therapy is one big sex party. And clients often assume they can get a few sex lessons and then they are fine, but it’s usually more complicated than that.” Poelzl works in the field of human sexuality as a certified sex-surrogate for more than a quarter of a century. Alongside with close collaboration with psychotherapists, The International Professional Surrogate Association (IPSA) is the only existing organization that legally occupies sexual surrogate therapists. “Prostitution and fear of legal repercussions have taken a toll on the profession. Consequently, Poezl’s line of work is both highly risky and thinly populated”. As she says “We are a dying breed”.

As a part of a legal protection she contracts with the client a “confidentiality agreement” which helps differentiating her work from prostitution. It states: “CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT: I understand that the surrogacy sessions are for the purpose of expanding my ability to feel physical pleasure and emotional fulfillment through greater intimacy and increased sensation and to overcome sexual dysfunction. I acknowledge this session series is not for the purpose of sexual gratification or entertainment and may or may not include sexual intercourse, manual, or oral stimulation. I understand and will abide by the above agreements.”

It is normal for people to think of such profession as something odd and weird. A lot of people think, “Sex, sex, sex!” But …Sex surrogate work is about a relationship with less focus on psychological processing. It’s helping a person relax and talk about their feelings. I teach them about touching, body language, how to show confidence…once you get some, that is.” - explains Poezl in her interview standing in the magazine rubric: odd jobs.

The film however highly romanticizes this aspect of the profession, guiding the viewer to watch the movie only through O’Brien perspective and not willing to sneak up more closely to the other side. Marc O’Brian experiences the stroke of luck this beautiful woman to fall in love with him, and to have personal affections for him. Although in the actual script it is clearly stated that O’Brian is satisfied with the initial purpose of the sessions, and is willing to go on with his life, believing to find a right match for him, the director of the film surprisingly goes in direction of a poignant romance spaced with humor. After successfully ended sessions with Cheryl, he continues in a successful love (presumably love-erotic) relationship with another beautiful woman. What I find very disappointing is the very end of the film. In a pure Hollywood style the director goes into a teen-age-like imaginary of a funereal where three beautiful women are crying for him, the great hero. As the director felt that he is in charge of fulfilling the wishes of the real Marc O’Brian.

Regardless the bad-ending, this film opens up serial of questions about legality of the catholic church who is not able to help their believers on one side, and the illegality of the sex therapists, which role in the society is deeply undermined, misunderstood and replaced with those of (also in some states legal!) prostitutes.

The poet, the journalist, the man Marc O’Brian experienced real healing only through a real involvement of another human being during these sessions. Therapy does not begin with lying down on a couch and ends up with medicament prescriptions. Needs or wounds cannot be healed with medicaments. In a documentary shot few years earlier with O’Brien starring himself he mentions at one point his experience with the sex-surrogate “I had my portable respirator standing by I didn’t needed for an hour. I should think of sex as respiratory therapy”. This is the only part of the documentary when he actually smiles.

However Marc O’Brien was brave enough to overcome one of his greatest fears and frustrations and to fulfill some of his greatest desires as well. But what is with the society we are living in? Is it possible for such a society to overcome the abbreviations of the hard science and stand up for practices that involve direct bodily, even sexual contact? To make step back and recognize legality of a sex-therapy? I doubt since we live in a society which has only ambitions to get richer but not healthier.