The Oscar nominations have been announced and the fizzy frenzy of the movie awards season is in full swing. Among the nominees for best supporting actress is Helen Hunt in her role as a compassionate sex surrogate in The Sessions. Oscars aside, this film has already done great things by challenging our commonly held assumptions that disabled people don't or shouldn't have sex lives.
Based on the life of disabled writer and Berkeley activist Mark O'Brien, who spent most of every day in an iron lung,The Sessions tells the story of O'Brien's determination at 38 years old to start his sex life by arranging sessions with a sex surrogate. The Sessions is a tender, funny, and explicit story about the erotic flourishing of a man paralyzed since childhood who had full bodily sensation but no access to sexual experience. The film shows us the innovative way O'Brien found to remove the barriers to enjoying the right to sexual health that most nondisabled Americans do not face.
Writing in December about his picks for the best films of the year, New York Times critic Stephen Holden described The Sessions as"profoundly sex positive," noting that this original film "equates sex with intimacy, tenderness and emotional connection instead of performance, competition, and the conquest." In doing so, The Sessions turns around our stereotypes about disabled people and is a lesson for us all about resourcefulness and rights.
In his manifesto, "A Sexual Culture for Disabled People," disability studies scholar Tobin Siebers asserts that people with disabilities are a sexual minority whose rights are systematically denied through discriminatory practices, exclusionary environments, and most fully through what he calls"the ideology of the ability," which is a pervasive belief that only able-bodied people are fully human and therefore fully sexual. The Sessions affirms that the struggle for sexual self-determination among people with disabilities is a central human rights issue of our contemporary moment. As a disability studies professor and a person with the disability myself, I'm optimistic that the film will encourage a fuller acceptance of sexual access for people with disabilities and help make much needed services such as sex surrogates be recognized in our society not only as a progressive rehabilitation treatment but as a fundamental part of a civil and human rights agenda. Such services are now common practice in countries with liberal social agendas such as Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. In 2003, for instance, an organization in Zürich began a "touchers project" for disabled people that provided sex surrogates similar to the story presented inThe Sessions.
But the added benefit -- let's even say pleasure -- we can get from Mark O'Brien's story is a spirited example of how disability can present us with an opportunity to find creative solutions to challenges of daily living by using the implements at hand and the capabilities we have to get what we want and need in life. Because disabled people live in world that's not built with their bodies or capabilities in mind, they become experts in figuring out ways of doing things and strategies for getting the job done. Blind people, for example, often develop expert wayfinding skills that sighted people only need when our well-lighted world fails us. Wheelchair users know how to locate ramped paths and accessible entrances that we all need when our bicycles or strollers run into barriers. Deaf people know how to communicate silently, a skill all of us could use in our noisy, crowded world.
Few of us nowadays will spend most of the day in an iron lung like Mark O'Brien, but disability can come at any moment. And as we age, all of our bodies change over our lifetimes in ways that require creative solutions to new physical or mental limitations. Having sexual self-determination and access to sexual relations is a basic human right. Mark O'Brien's use of a sex surrogate is not compensation for disability but rather an adaptability all of us will eventually need to develop. O'Brien's story and the entire movement for the sexual rights of people with disabilities offer a lesson in sexual resourcefulness that can serve as a model to all of us for creating the sex life we want. As The Sessions amply shows us, there's plenty of pleasure all around -- whether we are able-bodied or not.