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.