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The Sessions
October 22, 2012 9:11 AM   Subscribe

The Sessions, which opens nationally on October 26th, is a film depicting the true story of the therapeutic relationship between the disabled poet Mark O'Brien and the professional sexual surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene, to whom O'Brien lost his virginity at the age of 36. The film, adapted from O'Brien's moving essay "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," was written and directed by Ben Lewin, who, like O'Brien, contracted polio at the age of six.

O'Brien, who died in 1999, is also the subject of a documentary, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien.

Sexual surrogacy occupies uncertain legal territory. The International Professional Surrogates Association, which provides training for sexual surrogates, says only that "the legal status of surrogate partners is undefined in most of the United States and most countries around the world."

Prevously: Florida's last sex surrogate; sex workers and disability
posted by showbiz_liz (21 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

posted by Sys Rq at 9:16 AM on October 22, 2012

Oh no, fix it mods!
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:17 AM on October 22, 2012

The movie's a phony arthouse trifle, sadly. Those interested in this subject would do better to seek out the documentary Scarlet Road, which is about Australian sexual surrogate Rachel Wotton. Trailer.
posted by eugenen at 9:18 AM on October 22, 2012

And another previously.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:25 AM on October 22, 2012

The first episode of season 3 of Boston Legal features Jane Lynch portraying a sexual surrogate for Jerry Espenson, one of the breakout characters of the show who suffers from Asperger's.
posted by Talez at 9:26 AM on October 22, 2012

There's something incredibly kind and wonderful about this.
posted by Kevin Street at 9:32 AM on October 22, 2012

There's something incredibly kind and wonderful about this.

When I read what you wrote, my initial response was this:

"But they do get paid for it. If the surrogates were giving out freebies to people who couldn't afford them, that would be kind and wonderful. But if they're just doing their job, it's no different to anyone else doing their job."

And then I read O'Brien's account of the experience.

I work in and around the caring professions. The number of people who give that much of themselves in order to try and make sure people get the very best opportunity of transforming their lives are really pretty few and far between. It probably helps that O'Brien is a smart, intelligent person who the surrogate can develop a real rapport with, but even so, that degree of commitment to the job is highly unusual.

Anyway, it put paid to my cynicism.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:53 AM on October 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

There's something incredibly kind and wonderful about this.

Until you get to the end ...

"Which leaves me where I was before I saw Cheryl. I’ve met a few women nearly as wonderful as Tracy, but they haven’t expressed any romantic interest in me. I feel no enthusiasm for the seemingly doomed project of pursuing women. My desire to love and be loved sexually is equalled by my isolation and my fear of breaking out of it. The fear is two-fold. I fear getting nothing but rejections. But I also fear being accepted and loved. For this latter happens, I will curse myself for all the time and life that I have wasted."

I wanted it to be a sweet, happy story, but it seems more complicated than that.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:54 AM on October 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

It's always more complicated....
posted by Pendragon at 9:56 AM on October 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

Until you get to the end ...

O'Brien wrote that essay in 1990, but later went on to meet a woman named Susan Fernbach, who was his partner for the last few years of his life. I can't find too much info on her, but she's mentioned briefly in several of the links.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:01 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wanted it to be a sweet, happy story, but it seems more complicated than that.

You should go ahead and watch the film, then, since it methodically ignores all complications.
posted by eugenen at 10:02 AM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I saw an hour-long documentary last year about a sex surrogate, but I cannot for the life of me remember where I saw it. It was filmed (and likely released) in maybe the early/mid 1980's and was pretty graphic. The client wasn't physically disabled - he had emotional issues. Was it linked from somewhere on Mefi, or did I see it elsewhere?
posted by item at 10:03 AM on October 22, 2012

That didn't take me long to figure out. It was Private Practices.
posted by item at 10:04 AM on October 22, 2012

Even if he hadn't met someone later... There are some thresholds that not just every man, but every human being needs to cross, and once they're behind you it's hard to remember what you were like before. Having your hopes raised but never fulfilled again is still better than never having any hope at all.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:06 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

...and Private Practices is available on Netflix streaming. Apparently I watched it on 8/25/11 and rated it 4 stars.
posted by item at 10:07 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's a pretty good sampling of Cheryl in her own words.
posted by mister nice at 10:07 AM on October 22, 2012

And just last night I was thinking that I should post something on the blue about this film. Foiled again!

As someone with a severe physical disability, I'm curious to see The Sessions. I read O'Brien's essay back when I was twentysomething and struggling with my own sexual frustrations. His essay crystallized my own deeply conflicted feelings about seeking out a relationship. Why put any effort into it when rejection seem like a near-certainty. And the thought of someone actually wanting to put up with all the shit that comes with my disability? That prospect is almost as paralyzing (er, forgive the pun).

I hope the movie explores that conflict. Even though I now have a few romantic and sexual experiences under my belt, it's something I've never been able to truly resolve.
posted by wintermute2_0 at 10:42 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sexual surrogates? Isn't that just a high class sort of prostitute, with a bit of therapy on the side?

I'm reminded of the old joke -- you aren't paying a prostitute for sex, you're paying her to go away afterwards.

This looks like it differs from prostitution insofar as -- in this case, at least, there appears to be a genuine relationship between the two participants. It might not always be enough of a relationship for the person who is paying, but from what I can tell here, that's an issue that surrogates recognize as they go into the deal. And presumably, they can talk about that stuff as they negotiate the relationship?

I'm not a big fan of talking therapies. I tend to regard them as voodoo, often exploiting the client. But if someone recognizes that risk, and has a serious open discussion about the risks, ultimately you have to credit the client with enough ability to recognize and act in their own interest.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:08 PM on October 22, 2012

This looks like it differs from prostitution insofar as -- in this case, at least, there appears to be a genuine relationship between the two participants.

That seems very No True Scotsman to me. It looks to me like the line is completely arbitrary if it exists at all. Don't get me wrong; that isn't a criticism of either sexual surrogacy or prostitution. I just hate these kinds of nonsensical distinctions. One disabled person paying somebody for sex = healthy and beautiful. Another disabled person paying a different person for sex = tawdry and dangerous. Come on.
posted by Justinian at 2:53 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Fair comment, Justinian -- and I had my doubts about that as I was writing it.

Almost all of the sex workers that I've known have seen their job as one in which they wanted to get in and get out with the money as fast as they could -- and that was what was informing my comment. I'm guessing that if you weren't comfortable with your body or your sexual identity, you could come away from such a transaction feeling worse rather than better.

But almost all of the sex workers that I've known have been drug addicted street workers. I bet when you move up the status heirarchy and pay more money, you get more for your dollar. And I've also known drug addicted streetworkers develop long-term close relationships with their customers.

Nevertheless, if I had a friend in the same position as O'Brien, I'd be much more comfortable sending them to a sexual surrogate than a random sex worker. If it was just about emptying his sack, it wouldn't matter, but the surrogate seems to offer something closer to psychological therapy around sex as well. At the end of the day though, neither are giving it up for free, and the financial nexus seems to be the heart of the transaction.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:38 AM on October 23, 2012

The Sessions: Life In An Iron Lung
posted by homunculus at 1:11 PM on October 27, 2012

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