Monday, December 24, 2012

"The Sessions": A take on disability and human sexuality

A few years ago my law school colleague Bethany Stevens, a fellow wheelchair  user, shared with me her idea of writing a book about the sexual needs and experiences of people with disabilities. Some time later I found that her passion for the subject inspired her to go to California and pursue an advanced degree in the field. Being a private individual that I am, I've decided not to discuss the intimate details of my life, which coincided with my profession and desire to put out a respectable image out there. My primary concern was to be taken seriously- but that doesn't mean that I don't think the topic is of great importance. Neither it is particularly fresh and ground breaking. Still, I have great respect for people who go in to dispel the myths and misconceptions about what having a disability is like. And that involves every aspect of being human. While I don't believe in oversharing, what I want to share with you are my experiences and impressions after seeing the movie "Sessions", that is still playing this week at Gainesville's Hippodrome, the local arthouse cinema. Every Wednesday I go in to be surprised by whatever independent, documentary or foreign feature is playing. I never investigate or care to check in advance what it is. "Sessions" is a film that you should see if you get the chance not only because what is happening on screen may broaden the scope in which you think about disabilities but also in the context of viewer feedback that pops up on the internet. Many people were not prepared to see what they saw on the screen. They were obviously surprised  to watch some one with severe  physical limitations presented  as a sexual being. Many were uncomfortable. I've seen the word "gross" used to describe one of the most natural human behavior. What the movie is actually showing us is one thing. But the reactions to it bring up a different set of issues and speak volumes about our society.

Based on a true true story, the film is centered around Mark O'Brien, a middle aged, bed-ridden poet paralyzed after childhood polio. He spends most of the hours of the day in an iron lung and only has movement and control from the neck up. Raised catholic he has dreams like many others- To do it the proper way, propose to a girl and form a relationship. When he realizes that it's not a likely scenario a sex therapist suggests he enlists services of a sex surrogate-  a professional trained to use sex as a tool to help a client work through his problems and limitations. "Sessions" as they are only to meet six times, to give him the experiences that he never had before. This is not a fairy tale. And the film, although not too graphic doesn't shy away from presenting sex as a very technical endeavor . But it does so much more. It presents it as a very human experience. Something we grow up being ashamed of, yet common to all of us. People with different levels and types of disability all share the need for intimacy- to be touched, to be desired and wanted. To express themselves physically, because it's a form of expression just like any other. Yet, it seems the less mobile people are the more the public refuses them the right to have those feelings. The wants and desires. The society is more willing to see people with disabilities as great survivors, champions of life, winners with great spirit, so much so that it's uncomfortable seeing them as physical beings. But if there's one thing that the movie really makes us think about is how much sex is not simply an act that people do. It's connected to all those other aspects of our life. Our self image, our body awareness, our fears and limitations. The progress of the main character comes from outgrowing his own mental barriers and accepting his physicality. Helenn Hunt does a wonderful job playing a sex expert slowly working through Mark's issues with himself- that have as much to do with his condition and his relligion- to give him more confidence, awareness and understanding of himself.

 Honest and open, with nudity that is not intended to arouse or is airbrushed t is also very humane in treating people with disabilities as multi faceted and complex. Yet, there's been a lot of complaints about the lead's age and appearance. Odd when you think it was a true story. Some were uncomfortable to see the sex surrogate in the form of an aging mother performing these acts on a skinny man only able to move his head.  It really got me thinking. What has happened to us as a society. So she wasn't Julia Roberts in her 20's and he wasn't Richard Gere. Has the main stream media really conditioned us into believing that only the young and attractive are entitled  to have sex? Don't we ever look in the mirror? What is this obsession with being young and pretty? Are we only able to accept things attractive to look at? There's more to beauty than firm skin and fit shape

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