The Sessions & Sex Surrogacy

J and I finally watched “The Sessions.” I had been dying to ever since I heard it was about a sex therapist (correction, actually about a sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene) and her client, a man who had been paralyzed by polio, Mark O’Brien. I highly recommend the film to anyone who hasn’t yet seen it. The movie was based on O’Brien’s article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”.  I definitely recommend reading his original article as well. He is brutally honest about his own personal insecurities, guilt, and frustrations about being an individual with such a debilitating disability and still yearning for sexual relationships and experiences.

Something that J and I noticed pretty quickly with the film is that condoms were not shown or discussed, and presumably, not used. The events took place in 1988 or so, and the AIDS outbreak was in full force. We were both pretty surprised that condoms weren’t mentioned, and it is not clear from his article if they were used or not. 

The most fascinating part of this film, for me, was the difference between a sex surrogate and a prostitute. Masters and Johnson introduced the idea of sex surrogacy in the 70s as a therapeutic tool. To them, you can explain and explain how to ride a bike, but eventually you need to get on a bike and learn, and sometimes you need someone’s help to figure out the action and mechanics of it. They believed the same to be true of sex. Oftentimes, sex surrogacy not only includes help with the mechanical aspects of sexual intimacy, but also includes a focus on other psychological and emotional challenges (self esteem, guilt, anxiety, shyness, etc). Many times, too, a sex surrogate is part of a team of mental health professionals, and so the treatment that a sex surrogate recommends and engages in with the client is part of a wider treatment plan created with the client’s therapist. So, a sex surrogate engages in legal work as it is part of therapy (although at some base level, they may be paid for having sex with someone), while a prostitute does not. I think the distinction is thought-provoking, as I have heard of accounts of prostitutes’ customers who decide to pay for sex because they want the experience or boost to their sexual confidence or esteem, or because they have dating anxiety, or because they find it challenging to meet people with whom they could have sex.

Lastly, it was really interesting that, in the film and also in O’Brien’s article, vaginal intercourse was the pinnacle of sexual experience. He hadn’t truly experienced sex until his penis was in a vagina (even though later he acknowledges that he enjoyed the foreplay and other sexual acts more). From what was portrayed in the movie, there seemed to be a lack of sexual IQ on the part of the surrogate, even though that would not make a whole lot of sense to me in reality. She is surprised when O’Brien wants to make her come, and her whole treatment plan is driven toward vaginal intercourse. I understand that his desires for this probably played a role in the treatment plan, but I also expected more conversation between the two of them about the wide spectrum of intimate, sensual, and sexual touch and connection.

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