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> > > Review: Fox Searchlight Pictures present The Sessions

28 January 2013

photo of an actress and actor in bed, talking to each other

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in 'The Sessions'. Photo © Fox Searchlight Pictures

There has been a surge of documentaries and films in recent times which claim to be exposing taboos about disabled people. The Sessions is the latest in a list including Rust and Bone and The Undateables. Most seem to be exploitative, narcissistic and made with the able-bodied gaze says Rosaleen McDonagh

The Sessions, directed by Ben Lewin, is based on the life of Mark O' Brien, a poet who lived in Berkeley  California during the 1980s. Mark O’Brien’s impairment meant that he was supported by an iron lung to breathe. In true Hollywood style, no expense is spared in ‘crippin up’ actor John Hawkes. The subject matter almost guarantees an Oscar nomination. Invariably, as with  most such films proclaiming to explore disability and sexuality, the sub plot is  “does my penis work?”

Sex sells and this is what this film trades on. Mark O’Brien can’t sleep in a standard bed or be off his breathing apparatus for less than three hours. He meets with a sex surrogate. The motif infantilises with cliché after cliché. This man has no friends who have impairments. The token disabled, black female actor provides her bed for the arrangement. Mark O’Brien’s confessional relationship with his priest is mirrored in his conversations with the sex surrogate. Guilt and shame are the prescribed emotions that are projected onto those of us with impairments.

Sex is a commodity and now people with impairments  are in vogue for commercial consumption.  The spectrum of the human condition, particularly in the area of sexuality, includes rejection, hurt and pain.  These matters are only explored in a pubescent way in the film. Empowerment seems too complicated a concept for this sentimental voyeuristic attempt at understanding the wider context of discrimination, stigma and social and cultural status of people with disabilities.

As a feminist with a disability, being safe and having an equal connection in an intimate context is something I have always believed is part of the various experiences of my life.  This one-dimensional film failed to explore the reasons why Mark O’Brien felt he had no opportunities to meet and have real connections with people.

Berkeley in the 1980s was the mecca for disability rights activism. The viewer gets no hint of this. The film never explores the society in which Mark O Brien lives. The message, in the form of cultural nuances, is that living with an impairment is wrong, we’re all dysfunctional. It reinforces elements of emasculation concerning men with impairments. This phenomenon of exploring people’s lives from a voyeuristic non-disabled gaze is dangerous and narcissistic. The Sessions offers nothing new.

Money and sex are always a dangerous mix. A mechanical view of male sexuality is far too often seen as the ultimate in human experience. Prostitution is prostitution in whatever guise it is dressed up in. Television talk-shows pushing the idea of brothels for people with impairments is disturbing. They collude with and give moral support to oppression. Credibility is offered to a particular category of men by endorsing the exploitation of women. This does not empower anybody.


Penny Pepper

9 February 2013

As someone label 'severely disabled', and a writer exploring sexuality in my writing, I found I warmed to most, though not all, of this film. I am going to write a piece on this and hope to post it on DAO shortly.

Ju Gosling aka ju90

30 January 2013

Great article discussing some very relevant issues. As a Co Chair of Regard, the national LGBT disabled people's organisation, we get regular enquiries from non-disabled people who expect us to support 'sex surrogates'. Films like this add to why they can't understand that, although we obviously take no view on what our members get up to in their own bedrooms (or anywhere else for that matter), it's not something we're going to campaign for as an organisation rather than working to combat social isolation.

Amanda Tink

29 January 2013

The thing with these kind of projects is that there will be compromises. The question is whether Lewin made the right ones. I think he did for the most part. It's very Hollywood, and there's a lack of disabled people. However, I do think The Sessions does a good job of saying that it wasn't just being disabled that made sex complicated for O'Brien. It was also catholicism, strong parental voices, masculinity, etc. As a disabled person I saw this movie as a step forward for representation of disability in cinema.

Alison Wilde

28 January 2013

I tried to watch this on a plane as I had too much time on a long flight. Despite my initial enthusiasm to watch it I couldn't get past the first ten minutes - it completely demolished my desire to watch any more


28 January 2013

"Brave and committed performances from a sweet-natured comedy" says Judd Apatow in the Guardian

"For all the frank chat and full-frontal nudity, this is a romance, the chirpiest weepy you'll see. Like his film's hero, Lewin is a charmer, sweet and circumspect, who speaks of his disability in terms of comedy, not struggle," says Catherine Shoard in the Guardian.

So where were Lewin's politics in the making of this film, one wonders?

Jo Verrent

28 January 2013

Really enjoyed this article - helped me understand my discomfort around the increasing publicity for the film and the subject matter in the media at the mo.

Humans create intimacy, have sex and relationships in many, many, many ways. We are humans. End of.

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