John Hawkes (I recognised him from Miranda July's You Me and Everyone We Know) plays Mark O'Brien, journalist and poet, severely disabled by polio. He was wheeled around strapped horizontally to a gurney, typed his work using a stick between his lips, and while at home, lived in an iron lung. While it is my preference for disabled characters to be played by disabled people, I think John Hawkes played Mark O'Brien sensitively - though perhaps those with disabilities similar to Mark's may think otherwise. Todd has also opened my eyes up to the way the audience reaction may make some viewers feel - I strongly recommend you read his review.
Mark O'Brien was asked to cover sexuality and disability for a news story. In doing so he met a number of people with disabilities who were sexually active. He was recommended a sex therapist, who put him in touch with a sex surrogate, Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt (who has a smoking body).
Because of Mark's religious upbringing and disability, he felt guilty about sex outside of marriage, and so he sought permission by confiding in Father Brendan, his priest, played by William H Macy. Their discussions, while awkward, showed a deep friendship and respect between the two. Mark's disability and desire for love and sex enabled Father Brendan's religious beliefs to become more flexible - more tailored to an individuals' needs.
Sexual status defined him. He yearned for physical intimacy. He was so used to being naked in a clinical sense - for doctors, nurses and carers - that it felt strange for someone else to be naked in the room with him. After two sessions with Cheryl, he was proud to have lost his virginity, aged 38. The loss of his virginity signified freedom, a sense of independence, physical acceptance and fitting in. He was also proud to have brought Cheryl to orgasm. It was also an indication of reciprocated feelings - a great sense of achievement. I've had this discussion with friends before. Sometimes when people with disabilities have a sexual encounter, they feel as though they need to tell the world. I sure have.
I liked the impact Mark had on his carer, Vera - she started off working for him looking very serious and rigid, but as the film progressed, she became more of a friend to him, a staunch defender of his sexual needs. He had strong, eager feelings for her previous carer Amanda - who showed him tenderness and affection, but I saw that she struggled with her feelings about loving a man with a serious disability.
To an extent, sex has been hard to come by for me - perhaps because of the few relationships I've been in. I've wanted and needed someone who loves me and understands the sensitivities of my skin condition (see this post). I nodded along to Mark's sensitive reaction to touch - I too have heightened sense of feeling on my skin, because of the combination of its sensitivity and the lack of touch received. And I also related to the feeling of falling fast, for the slight bit of interest someone may show in me.
At first Mark found his sexual experiences so overwhelming, so new, that he had a heightened sense of feeling. There was a scene showing Cheryl undressing him, and his sleeve caught his fingers. It hurt him. Sex hurts for me - well some parts of it anyway. It's a combination of sore skin and my muscles and mind panicking. It has often meant that sexual encounters have left me in tears, feeling useless. I think that is one of the reasons I loved him so much. Because he wanted to be, and was, the one who helped me overcome that pain.
Mark did not want someone to take pity on him. He longed for reciprocated love, and for a while, Cheryl made him feel like he had it. Recently I mentioned a good friend of mine in conversation. He has a disability, is very attractive and I believe he's single. The person I was talking to said "I bet girls flock to him". Yes, because he's a great guy, I said. They replied, "No I mean, I bet girls want to save him, and being with someone with a disability makes them feel ten times more attractive." I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing, the superficialness of their point of view. I responded by saying that I can't speak for my friend but I don't want someone to feel sorry for me and so they feel obligated to be with me, nor would I want anyone to feel like they're doing a good thing/boosting their attractiveness by loving me. I was truly disappointed I was having that conversation.
That above mentioned theme was recurrent in The Sessions, and the ending was testament that people with disabilities can and do engage in reciprocated love, attraction and sex.
Related: read my interview with disability sex worker Rachel Wotton here.