Lessons from a Sexpert

Article excerpt

Byline: Lizzie Crocker

The real-life story behind 'The Sessions.'

Early on in The Sessions, Mark O'Brien, a polio-stricken writer determined to lose his virginity with the help of a sex therapist, confesses to his priest: "My penis speaks to me, Father." And Mark is ready to speak back. Adapted from the late poet-journalist's 1990 article, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," the movie, which opens on Oct. 16, manages to navigate the most daring and delicate of subjects without being mawkish or exploitative. Writer-director Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor, grounds the film in Mark's dry sense of humor, leaving little room to dwell on the more depressing aspects of his life.

Mark (John Hawkes) is a beguiling ladies' man who, despite being tethered to an iron lung for all but a few hours of the day, aches for romantic intimacy. His imagined sexual prowess seems offbeat not because he is a cripple, but because few films have addressed sexuality among the physically disabled as anything other than a social freak show.

It's no wonder The Sessions has been generating Oscar buzz since its debut at Sundance in January. Mark's meetings with his sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), are alternately illuminating and comedic. Within minutes of their first session, a stark-naked Cheryl climbs into bed with Mark, who shrieks when his stiff arm gets caught in his sleeve as she tries to undress him. She caresses his concave abdomen, places his decrepit hand on her bare breast and jokes that "if you touch one, you have to touch the other. That's the rule." In another scene, Cheryl sits on Mark's face so he can pleasure her with his mouth. Winded by these unfamiliar delights, he sputters and cranes his neck to reach his breathing tube.

The incident still makes the real-life Cheryl laugh. "I nearly smothered him! We both thought it was funny. It's important to have a sense of humor," she says. Cohen Greene was 42 and had been a surrogate partner for 13 years when she met 36-year-old O'Brien in 1986, after his sex therapist suggested he work with her. Like O'Brien, she grew up near Boston, was raised Catholic and labeled a sinner by her local priests after confessing to masturbating at age 10. In 1968 she fled the East Coast for Berkeley, where she was first introduced to surrogate-partner therapy while volunteering with the San Francisco Sex Information hotline. Her training stemmed from a program developed in 1970 by William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the forefathers of sex therapy and sex surrogacy, who established the "sensate focus" method of sensual touch with verbal feedback--the backbone of a surrogate partner's practice. "I had been interested in therapy for years and happened to be perfect for the job," says Cohen Greene, whose memoir, An Intimate Life, will be released Nov. 1.

Throughout the '60s and '70s, Masters and Johnson were as integral to the sexual revolution as the Pill. In 1964, the duo amassed a staff of medical professionals and behavioral clinicians at a research institute in St. Louis. Two years later, they published their landmark book, Human Sexual Response, which was based on results of a medical study and dismissed the Gallup-like questionnaires of reigning sexologist Alfred Kinsey as "mere sociology." Their fame peaked in the late '60s, when they were courted by the likes of Hugh Hefner. By the mid-'70s, however, Masters and Johnson's methodology was mired in controversy over promotion of sex surrogates in their second book, Human Sexual Inadequacy, which proposed "a therapeutic regimen to cure chronic sexual dysfunction and distressed marriages."

Surrogates never fully bounced back from the unraveling of Masters and Johnson's reputation and have since remained outcasts in the world of sex therapy. …