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Sex therapist at the Academy Awards: Helen Hunt in The Sessions

A Strange Thing, Mystifying

How many of you saw The Sessions?  Good – I see some hands.

Did it lead to much discussion?  Well it didn’t in my house either.

And in the popular press the same thing.  A few early reviews saying it was very moving, and well done.  Then nothing more.

A movie about a severely disabled man — the poet Mark O’Brien — who enlists a sex surrogate to help him experience physical passion, and about the emotional and religious complexities (he’s Catholic) that ensue.    It would seem this film would prompt endless discussion, with so many possible points of entry.

But it didn’t.  Everyone agreed that the film was “very moving,” but no one seemed to have much to say about it.

Maybe it’s that The Sessions involved things we’ve learned to keep quiet about —  such as that the world might be a better place if we could all give and receive sexual pleasure a whole lot more freely.   Such an idea of course generally meets with polite silence.   Even in our sex-saturated times, sexual surrogacy as a profession still hardly dares speak its name.

Or maybe that’s not it.   Perhaps it’s something else.  Maybe the movie prompts feelings that are simply too difficult to express with words.  That wouldn’t be surprising — given how sexuality reaches into the most primitive parts of our minds.  Maybe we’d all really love to talk about this movie, but we lack the necessary vocabulary.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the artist who shows his work at a gallery opening.   Someone comes up to him and asks him what a particular painting of his means.  He replies, “If I could tell you what it means, why would I have gone to all the trouble of painting it?”

When I first saw The Sessions a few months ago, I sought in vain to express on paper the feelings it evoked.  Now that Helen Hunt is up for an Academy Award for her work in the film, maybe it’s time to try again.

As any sex therapist will tell you, it’s seldom just about the sex.  It’s what sex has come to represent for an individual.   The Sessions’ Mark O’Brien is a case in point.


Knowing and Seeing

As depicted in the movie, O’Brien suffers most of all from a feeling of invisibility.   The town of Berkeley, California in his day was a mecca of sorts for sexual enablement of disabled people.   But even in such a community, O’Brien is so severely disabled that he can’t find a partner.

Among the most natural and profound meanings of sex is to be fully known, and fully seen.   But no one wishes to know this man, or to see him.   (It’s no accident one of the movie’s climactic scenes involves a mirror).

Unbeknownst to O’Brien, his sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Green contends with a subtler but not entirely different sense of feeling unseen.   For various reasons, her husband has ceased to see her in a way that affirms her.   A not uncommon problem in a marriage.   Her disabled client’s need to be seen awakens her own such yearning.

He sends her a poem about wishing he could touch her with his paralyzed hands —


Let me touch you with my words.
For my hands
–light and free-flying as bricks —
Ignore my wishes and stubbornly refuse
To carry out even my quietest desires.
Let my words enter your mind
Bearing torches . . .


The poem does what good poems do.   His words do enter her mind, and her being.  She weeps as she reads what he has written her — feeling his great loneliness as well as her own.

Their last session together, he and she are lying side by side, both staring upward.   Her bare breasts don’t convey sexiness anymore.  Just vulnerability.  He has seen her, known her, thought deeply about her. They have known each other.

It’s tragic, because there’s nowhere for them to go from there.   But still they have known each other.

Much of the silence surrounding this film, I believe, is this thing that’s beyond the power of words to fully express:   The silent yearning of the sexual soul to be known by another.

It’s difficult, but nonetheless important, to try to find words for such things.


stephen snyder md author photo Stephen Snyder, MD

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