The man is sharp, witty, good-looking – and profoundly disabled. The only part of his body he can move is his head. But he can still be sexually aroused and, perhaps more importantly, his heart and mind are pulsating with life. Mark O’Brien longs to be loved, but he also wants not to die a virgin.
So what can he do? After much agonising (for he is a Catholic), he hires a sexual surrogate to initiate him into the pleasure of sexual release.
The surrogate, or sexual therapist, teaches him, step by step, how to have sex. Yet, through her, he also finds healing at a deep, emotional level.
This is the disturbing real-life plot of a brand-new film, The Sessions – the whole idea of which might make some people feel queasy.
Talking about sex and disabled people is one of the last taboos, even though we live in a highly-sexualised society that sometimes seems unshockable.
It’s ironic that vulgar comedians are allowed to make disgusting jokes about sex on television, yet the people who chortle in approval are (I’d put money on it) the very ones likely to mutter, ‘Yuk – too much information!’ if told the frank story of Mark O’Brien
Yet I believe we should all see this movie, which opens in UK cinemas on Friday, because it handles the issue of sex and disabled people with tenderness and compassion.
And we do need to know about this. People are disabled in war and peace; countless families cope with caring for those with physical and mental impairments which make life very difficult indeed.
We’re all too aware that superbly-fit young men leave for Afghanistan and return grievously afflicted by disability, needing long rehabilitation at magnificent centres. But there’s one thing we can’t aid them with: sex.
Yet you may secretly wonder how they will cope with their girlfriends and wives. Can they have a full life in that way? How does a marriage survive disability? How desperate can it make you feel?
My own brother (who died two years ago) had a terrible car crash when he was 19 which left him a paraplegic. Visiting him in hospital introduced me, at the age of 17, to young men who had lost the use of their bodies through motorcycle, sport and diving accidents (to give just three examples).
I remember flirting with one good-looking biker, who loved the attention. But at night at home I couldn’t help wondering sadly what his love life could possibly be like in the bleak future.
It was a question I would never, ever have asked my brother, even though he was to marry much later. You couldn’t, could you? It’s not a subject families talk about.
Yet The Sessions does. I feared it might make uncomfortable, prurient viewing. But, on the contrary, it takes you – with tact, delicacy and humour – into the mind of an intelligent man who faces up to his own need for sexual healing (to use the name of a classic Marvin Gaye song) and decides to act.
It’s significant that the director Ben Lewin had childhood polio, as does the character of Mark O’Brien in the film. No wonder this film takes such a courageous stance, asking the questions we able-bodied have only dared to wonder. Not only this, it answers them in the most uplifting way.
The true story is very moving. Californian Mark O’Brien was born in 1949. He contracted polio when he was just six and spent the rest of his life paralysed. His condition meant he needed to spend as much time as he could bear in an iron lung.
But in it – with the help of carers – he managed to go to university, produced poetry and articles (tapping a typewriter with a stick in his mouth), and became an advocate for the disabled.
At the end of the 1980s, he was put in touch with sexual surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene and their ‘sessions’ to help him achieve his desire of full sex are the subject of this film.
The frank performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt are nothing short of extraordinary. The tears in their eyes are real. And so were mine.
The issue of how far disabled people should be ‘helped’ to a full sex life has caused controversy in the past. In 2010, some people felt outrage that a young man with learning disabilities was going to be funded through a government scheme (called Putting People First: Transforming Adult Social Care) to go to Amsterdam and have sex with a prostitute.
It wasn’t the issue of prostitution which bothered me, nor the young man’s needs and wishes. It was the fact that his social worker described sex as a ‘human right’ (meaning that it must be paid for from the public purse) that annoyed me.
At the time I wrote: ‘We might well ask how giving a young man a handout to buy loveless sex with a prostitute can do anything to promote his independence or his dignity. Surely it could actively damage his wellbeing, too – even if only on a level of stoking future frustration.
‘And I can’t help wondering about the “human rights” of all the sad, shy people who write to my Saturday advice column, desperate for love and – yes – sex. No one will give them a handout to buy what they cannot find in the usual way.’
In The Sessions, there is no talk of human rights, nor any bitterness. Mark O’Brien has the means to do what he wants, discusses it with his priest, tries to come to terms with his shame and fear -and then forms a real relationship with Cheryl.
She is at pains to distance what she does from prostitution, considering herself an expert therapist who works in a very specialised way.
In real life, Cheryl Cohen-Greene is a certified sex surrogate with a doctorate in human sexuality.
About her profession she has said this: ‘People have asked me over the years, how do you work with people who are differently-abled? I always say it’s not hard for me. I just have to learn what their special needs are.’
In this country, organisations like The Outsiders (outsiders.org.uk) and Tender Loving Care (tlc‑trust.org.uk) work to recognise the sexual needs of disabled people and offer help, including putting them in touch with registered sex workers.
I know some readers might find this unacceptable. I don’t. I believe they provide an invaluable service. If you find the thought unpalatable, I suggest you go to see The Sessions to start understanding the needs of others, which is an essential part of humanity.
For this is not about the ‘right’ to sexuality. It’s about the need for tenderness and respect, as well as sexual release.
People who are disabled fall in love, and it is perfectly natural that such love would want physical expression, as well as the talking and laughing which forms an important part of the therapy shown in The Sessions.
This film isn’t really about sex at all. It is about the ways we comfort each other.
The Sessions is an antidote to the cheap sex scenes that are the stock-in-trade of film and TV. It’s as far from pornography as the stars are from the earth – and reminds us of the beauty that can exist within an entire person, whatever the limitations of the body.