Is Hollywood, that notorious bastion of license and lust, asking us to grow up and start treating sex and sexuality in a mature way?
That’s the feeling I get from recent releases like “Hysteria,” which framed the issue of women’s sexuality as a legitimate medical concern. That’s also what I’m left thinking after having seen “The Sessions,” an unapologetic, brave, and moving film about a man seeking sexual fulfillment despite being mostly confined to an iron lung.
"The Sessions" is based on a true story. Journalist Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) had polio as a boy, and as an adult he hardly saw his twisted, immobile body as an organism capable of — and deserving of — pleasurable contact with someone else. In an essay titled "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate" (which formed the basis of this movie), O’Brien described the humiliation of involuntary arousal and ejaculation when his attendants would bathe him.
But as “The Sessions” depicts, O’Brien, with the help of a professional sex surrogate, worked through layers of sexual shame (not to mention guilt and anger around his disability) and found his way to sexual completion. Helen Hunt portrays Cheryl, the sex surrogate, in the film, and her no-nonsense approach skirts past embarrassment and prurience, inviting us along on a journey of compassion, acceptance, and tenderness.
Writer-director Ben Lewin (who suffered polio himself as a child, and walks with crutches) is sympathetic to his main character, but doesn’t spare him. We see O’Brien struggle with his religious beliefs and his poor self-image; we see him burn with lust and shame, and almost lose his nerve. All this only makes his smart, funny take on his life all the more endearing.
There will no doubt be those who accuse this film of being “pornography.” They have their own sexual shame and terrors to sort through. This is a film best suited to audiences who have more or less processed their conflicts and anxieties around sex and are ready to see the issue of human sexuality, and sensuality, given thoughtful, sensitive treatment. This is a movie not about sexual exploitation, but rather about sexual healing.