Director Ben Lewin’s The Sessions has slowly, but surely been getting acknowledgment over the year for its frank portrayal of disabilities and sex. Based on Bay Area poet Mark O’Brien’s 1990 essay “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” the film follows O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) during a tiny slice of his life—when he decides to lose his virginity at 38 to surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene. The root of this is the fact that O’Brien suffered from polio as a child, forcing him to live the majority of his life confined in an iron lung. That, combined with his Catholic background, made him wary of his body and sex.
His story was previously told in the Academy Award-winning short, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, and now in this film, as well as Cheryl Cohen Greene’s memoir, An Intimate Life. All three challenge the way disabilities and sex have traditionally been discussed or viewed in the media.
“I found these taboos easy to embrace,” says director Ben Lewin, a man who also suffered from polio as a child. “I got energy from the idea that these were untouchable subjects and it was really a matter of developing and writing it in a way that was broadly accessible.” The script took about two years for Lewin to write and the movie has already received numerous accolades from critics. At Sundance, the film won the Special Jury Prize and Audience Award. It seems as if Lewin’s broad take on sex and life has panned out.
However, it’s taken a long time for audiences to warm up to these subjects. In 1932, for example, director Tod Browning released Freaks, a Pre-Code film that essentially destroyed his career after making the highly lucrative Dracula. Freaks featured disabled actors in principal roles as circus performers that take revenge on a stereotypically beautiful trapeze artist by turning her into a human duck. This happens after she poisons her fiancé, the so-called “midget,” Hans, for money. The film straddled the line between exploitation and drama.
While horror elements are apparent in Freaks, one could also look at the movie as an examination of differently abled bodies and love. Part of the mystique and outcry surrounding the film were the not-so-subtle sexual references in regards to these bodies—ranging from conjoined twins, little people, the intersex Josephine Joseph to a relationship between the “bearded woman” and the “human skeleton.”
“It sort of cut too deep for the time,” says Lewin. “There’s been a very rich history of disabled heroes and heroines in literature and film from The Hunchback of Notre Dame—a guy who could leap from steeple to steeple and liked pretty girls and some of them liked him back—to Peter Dinklage as a major heroic figure in Game of Thrones.”
Unlike Freaks, the idea of exploitation is nonexistent in The Sessions. “I think this movie is sort of how weird everyone is about sex and it shows that by being not weird,” says Helen Hunt, who plays Mark’s surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene. “It’s so simple and unadorned that you can kind of see how weird everyone is about it.”
Part of getting over that weirdness was actually meeting with Cheryl Cohen Green to talk about her experiences, especially since Mark O’Brien passed away in 1999. This month, her book An Intimate Life was released, which chronicles her conservative upbringing and contrasts it with stories of her clients—which range from disabled individuals like O’Brien, to a virgin in his 70s, to a man unable to maintain an erection after his wife caught him masturbating and asked for a divorce. It reads as one part confessional memoir, one part advice guide.
“I didn’t really see how good the part was at first,” says Hunt. “Once I started talking to Cheryl, I could see how loud she talked, how frank her accent is, how excited like a kid she is about certain sexual things.” That element of openness left Hunt feeling like the audience would be truly excited to learn who Cheryl is. “I thought being like her would be a surprise,” she says.
Cheryl has been speaking at venues and had the occasional talk show gig talking about surrogacy over the years, usually to audience members’ judgment. The Sessions shows a different side of her—someone that’s human and not part of the world we traditionally think of as sex work. “By just getting to know her, you start to figure out why she does this,” says Lewin. “There is a profoundly humanitarian side to it, but she’s not a Mother Teresa type at all.” She is someone who is earthy and salty—a Berkeley resident from a bygone era. “You can imagine her playing poker with people in a smoky room,” Lewin says.
“She’s doing the Lord’s work in the Devil’s playhouse,” says actor John Hawkes, who portrays Mark O’Brien in the film. “I consider myself someone who believes in the great value of sex beyond procreation, and her job is more than about sex.” The aptly titled film revolves around the sessions between Hunt and Hawkes, which were shot in chronological order. “The first surrogate scenes were moments that were captured for the first time,” he says. “You can see it in actor’s faces and bodies, which is an exciting way to work.”
For Hunt, the story went beyond work to how she thinks and talks about sex at home. “I don’t know if there were any specific judgments that I let go, but it certainly raised the bar on my wanting to be positive about sex,” she says. “I have a stepson who’s 15 and a daughter who’s eight, so I really want it to go well and we have to be like this character: We have to exude a positive feeling about sex when we deal with that at all in our family.”