The Sessions: A Guest SSL Review

This post was created by Barnaby, one of the co-directors of Science, Sex and the Ladies (the movie on which this blog is associated). He happen to see this movie and couldn't help himself from writing an SSL Review. I, of course, love when others get involved in critiquing depictions and discussions of female sexual response in the media, so I welcomed the guest post. Here it is. Enjoy.

Trisha usually does these reviews but she was out of town this week so I thought, what the hell, I’ll be the Dave Davies to her Terry Gross.  Anyway, I got free passes to the new movie The Sessions and decided to bring my friend Lindsay along.   The Sessions is a movie based on a true story about a man named Mark (John Hawkes)  who has been paralyzed from the neck down since childhood.  Mark has never had sex or any sexual contact with any person but he does have feeling in his whole body and can achieve an erection.  Through his work as a writer and poet, he is assigned a story by a local newspaper about sex and the disabled.  While researching the story, Mark decides that he should try to pursue his own sexual identity.  He hires a sexual surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), to enable him to begin to explore his sexuality.  As part of her sexual surrogacy, Cheryl performs a wide variety of sexual acts upon Mark, but more as a form of informative therapy than just straight prostitution.  The rest of the movie centers around their sessions (get it The Sessions) and their relationship.

As far as the movie itself is concerned, I think its fairly good.  Though he cannot move and is stuck in a prone position throughout the movie, John Hawkes gives a great performance as Mark.  He is in a pitiable position, but we don’t pity Mark; we root for him.  We want him to be able to enjoy sex.  Helen Hunt is also good as the surrogate, relaxed, professional but also conflicted about her growing feelings for Mark.  I also like the non typical way the movie resolves itself though I won’t spoil it here.  However there was one major problem with this movie.

I mean what the hell?  Why does that 60 year old man look like he has the hair of a teenage girl?  You’re a priest not a member of Hanson, I mean really, not ONE gray hair?

Now let’s talk about the sex, because there is a lot to talk about.  One of the central themes of the movie is that everyone, no matter what their disability, should be able to enjoy sex.  Mark is a Catholic and conflicted about having impure thoughts and participating in sinful acts.  To his great credit, Mark’s Priest (William H. Macy) basically tells him go for it, God will understand (I guess that is why the long hair, so that we see he is a sensitive, progressive priest, but sheesh!)  The movie is an interesting exploration of male sexuality.  Mark is very green when it comes to sex.  His parents didn’t discuss it with him and his religion made him avoid it.  It just isn’t a topic that came up a lot in his life.   He is starved for any type of sexual contact but, like most men, he sees intercourse as a passageway to manhood.  Again, this movie is mainly about Mark and his male sexuality but that sexuality is irrevocably linked to female sexuality and female orgasm, and this is where the movie becomes INTERESTING and definitely eligible for an SSL review.

Does this movie portray female sexual response in a realistic way?  I DON’T KNOW!  I say this because every time female sexuality is talked about in the movie the statements can be taken two ways.  Let’s get into the specifics.  Early in the movie, Mark is working on his article about sex and the disabled.  He interviews a woman in a wheelchair.  She talks about how she and her partner have sex.  She says that they can only have intercourse in a position that she calls lateral sideways reverse cowgirl and that even then he can’t get it in that far, but she gets just as excited maybe more so with just nipple stimulation.  Ok, ignoring the obvious limitations that she has being confined to a wheelchair, let’s break this down.  She says they can have intercourse but he can’t get it in that far, implying that if he could get it in further, sex would be better.  On the other hand she says that she gets just as excited from the nipple stimulation which suggests that intercourse is not the end all be all of sex.  This isn’t the only time that intercourse is diminished in its importance.  In another scene Mark is talking to one of his male helpers about intercourse.  The helper says that intercourse is overrated but then says that it is what makes doing it, doing it.  So on the one hand the movie portrays intercourse as just another sexual activity but it also glorifies intercourse as what makes sex, sex.  And it’s fair enough because this is a story from the perspective of a sexual novice and for most men and women the idea that intercourse is sex is widely accepted.  They never say that intercourse is orgasmic for women but they never deny it either.

In another scene, Mark interviews a man in a wheelchair, about oral sex.  He says that he smokes pot to kill his taste buds to help his endurance which is important during cunnilingus.  Where to begin on this one?
 I don’t want to get into the whole taste issue and what that has to do with endurance because that is a whole other article...but really, movie, really? Anyway,  on the plus side the man wants to perform cunnilingus and goes to lengths to enable himself to do so.  But then the word endurance is troublesome.  The statement is made by the man and the impression can be that it takes a long time for women to come during oral sex.  By him saying it, are the filmmakers implying that A.  he doesn’t know what he is doing and has a wrong view on oral sex. B. implying that women do take a long time to orgasm during oral sex because of how finicky the female orgasm is  C.  being true to reality because this movie is based on a true story. D. They didn’t think that hard about it because they just wanted a lighter moment to move the movie along.  I think the answer is E.  I’m probably reading way too much into this but when you start looking at how female orgasm is portrayed in movies your antenna gets ratcheted up to the nth degree.  

Most of this movie centers around Mark and Cheryl’s sexual therapy sessions.  If you ever wanted to see a lot of  Helen Hunt naked, this movie is for you. (This was my favorite part of the movie because it made my friend Lindsay cover her eyes and blush in shame every time it happened.  I mean even in the dark theater I could see redness in her face.  It’s always fun to see your friends in discomfort)  Mark has never had sexual contact, and well, if you’re 38 and have never masturbated or even touched your own penis, if someone else touches your penis, its probably not going to take much to get you off. Mark “prematurely ejaculates” at the slightest touch.  (I don’t want to press this point too much because I don’t know if this is what actually happened in real life, but the ejaculation happens at the slightest of touches - which could happen, but I have my doubts. The movie seems to be implying  that men orgasm easily at the slightest of touches and conversely women take a longer time.  As Charlie pointed out to me, men who haven’t had sexual contact until later in life tend to have more difficulty achieving orgasm but because its based on a true story that probably didn’t happen here.  However, I think this is why movies are so powerful in forming our opinions about sex.  We see Mark’s reaction to sex and we assume that all men in the same situation would have the same type of reaction)  So the first couple of sex sessions are ended before intercourse can happen.  

On their third session, Cheryl, decides to introduce Mark to female anatomy by sitting on Mark’s face.  She straddles his face and Mark who has a breathing problem begins to panic about suffocating, and she gets off.  Through all of these interactions Cheryl does not show any sexual pleasure, and to the movie’s credit, nor should she.  I like this scene because Mark doesn’t really seem to understand what is happening.  From his perspective sex is intercourse and performing oral sex just seems completely alien.  Its very understandable considering his sheltered upbringing.  However,  the movie lets us down a bit because we don’t see Cheryl’s reasoning behind sitting on his face.  She says she wants to introduce Mark to female genitalia but doesn’t go into any reasons why.  There is no talk of clitoral stimulation or that women orgasm during oral sex. She just sits on his face and expects him to know what to do.  This scene might have the right intentions but ultimately gives the impression that oral sex is a silly sexual side project that is something Mark should take or leave.  However, if Cheryl really is a sexual surrogate and the purpose of the sessions is to teach him about sex, then it is imperative that he learn about oral sex.  Not just because clitoral orgasms are the only real orgasms there are, but from a practical standpoint, it is the only tool  that Mark can control that can give sexual pleasure.  Mark can gain an erection but he can’t move. He can’t use his hand or even move in ways that a partner may find more pleasurable.  For him to have intercourse, he must have the woman straddle him and at that point he is basically a dildo stuck to a chair.  Throughout the movie we see Mark use his mouth to dial a telephone, to type on a typewriter, it is basically the only thing on his body he has complete control over.  I would think that as a sexual surrogate acting as a sexual therapist, Cheryl would recognize this fact and try to teach Mark that the most effective way that he could be a sexual partner would be to learn about performing good oral sex.  Again, because the movie is based on a true story, it was probably being true to what happened.  Cheryl constantly says that these sessions are all about what Mark wants to do, so if he seemed uncomfortable with the oral sex, so be it.

This leads to the most ambiguous aspect of the movie for me.  Right after the oral sex attempt,  Mark and Cheryl have intercourse for the first time.   During the previous session, Cheryl almost got the penis in, but Mark orgasmed before he could make penetration.  This time Mark does make it in but ejaculates almost immediately afterwards.  However, he is pleased with his progress;finally having had intercourse.  He asks Cheryl, “Did you come?”  A very funny line considering the quickness of his performance.  Cheryl says no, and Mark says that he wants her to come the next time they have sex.  Mark expected Cheryl to come when he did.  For Mark simultaneous orgasm was something that society lead him to believe always happened during sex, and again, it’s understandable considering his background.  Then comes the scene that made me do a double triple take.  Cheryl is talking on the phone with another one of Mark’s therapist when she says to paraphrase “Mark is expecting simultaneous orgasm after three sessions,”  and they both have a laugh about it. How is one to take this?  For me the statement is noncommittal, it doesn’t even confirm or deny that simultaneous orgasm is important for sexual activity.  The idea of simultaneous orgasm is a bad one for women.  When a man has an orgasm, it is obvious; intercourse provides the motion necessary for men to come.  Women are led to believe that orgasm is important for them to have during intercourse simultaneously with their man.  But the motions that make a man come and those that make a woman cum are often at odds with each other.  Women need direct stimulation of the clitoral/vulva area to  orgasm and intercourse is not a reliable way to achieve this.  It’s important for people to know that this is the case, but the movie never comes out and says this fact.  Is it because the filmmakers expect you to know that simultaneous orgasm is not important to have or that it is important to have it but takes a lot of work, or again are they not really considering the ramifications of the statement?   

Now for the most pivotal scene in the movie.  Mark and Cheryl are going to have intercourse for the second time, and Mark is expecting Cheryl to come.  Obviously, Cheryl has started to become emotionally attached to Mark (it’s obvious because this is what happens in movies.)  This is something that she didn’t want to have happened but never the less it has.  Cheryl gets on top of Mark and begins to ride him.  He lasts a little longer but then orgasms before Cheryl even seems affected by his penetration.  Then what has to be the most interesting part of the movie for me occurs.  You must know that the movie is narrated by Mark, so the words are from Marks point of view.  On the screen we see Cheryl continuing to ride on top of Mark.  They are shot from the side. Her left hand is in her hair. Her right hand is off screen by her vulva.  She is subtly rocking on top of Mark for a few moments and then falls forward with a reserved but obvious orgasm.  It is the first time she has shown any type of sexual pleasure.   While all this is going on, Mark is commenting on it.  To paraphrase he says that she held him inside of her and then with a slight blush she came.  So on the plus side, Cheryl is rocking on his flaccid penis, but her hand is in a position that could suggest that she was masturbating her clitoris.  On the other hand, it isn’t obvious that Cheryl was masturbating. Maybe her hand was just down there to hold his flaccid penis inside of her. Mark didn’t comment on her masturbating, but to be fair he couldn’t see what was going on down there.  There is also the aspect of her now having feelings for Mark, which plays into the idea that women can only enjoy sex if there is an emotional connection.  Are these mixed signals or are they outside the interest of the Filmmaker?   

The movie is from the standpoint of a definite novice to sex but the attitudes and opinions of the sexual surrogate are hard to read.  She should know all of these things and be clear about how sex works. The movie is more realistic than most movies out there.  It is based on a true story and if the surrogate had given Mark a more complete and thorough understanding of sex, it might have been untrue to the source material.  Besides it is from Mark’s point of view, and it’s not necessarily correct about sex, but it is what it is.  The question is a difficult one,  the movie isn’t exactly about sex but says interesting things about sex and because of this should it be more precise?  What if Mark was a woman, how would the sexual surrogate interact with her?   The movie talks about sexuality being an important part of people’s lives, and that they shouldn’t feel guilty about their sexual desires.  I agree with this strongly, but we also must be clear about what is realistic.  I think it’s worth a watch, but I don’t know how many vulva’s to give this movie as a rating.

I’ll leave you with this. At one point in the movie, one of Mark’s helpers is talking to a hotel employee about Mark’s sex session for the day. The man asks Mark’s helper, who is a woman, what Mark and Cheryl are working on that day.  She says, “They are working on Simultaneous Orgasm”  to which he replied, “What’s that?”  This was an obvious laugh line, and it did get a big reaction from the audience.  It’s a short scene, it’s only meant to get a laugh, but within this brief interaction we get an interesting insight on what we know vs. what we think we know.  The audience laughs at the clueless front desk clerk, a man who in a brief and sincere reaction, shows himself to be unconcerned and uninformed about the pleasure of any sexual partner he has ever had.  We the audience know better.  Of course simultaneous orgasm is the whole point of intercourse, right?  It’s what is natural.   If that’s not what he’s experiencing, he’s a selfish loser, right? He’s not aspiring to what he should be as a lover.  But to me, sitting in the theater, listening to people chuckle around me, it wasn’t that we were laughing because we knew better,  we were laughing because we didn’t want to stick out.  It was a nervous laugh.  We think we know so much about sex. We are adults. We’ve been around.   We enjoy the movie because we identify with Mark and appreciate his seeming naivete about sex.  It reminds us of when we were younger and were discovering these obvious facts about sex.  We want Mark to get where we are, fully aware and confident about our sex lives and the facts about sex.   But ,do we know what we know?   The hotel clerk is ridiculed for not knowing something so obvious, but is simultaneous orgasm an obvious fact about sex, or is it just a belief about what sex should be?  Maybe the clerk understands that expectations of simultaneous orgasm puts pressure on women to lie or delude themselves about a different type of vaginal orgasm, one that is more subtle, spiritual, hard to define.  Maybe the clerk understands that women orgasm clitorally and that clitoral orgasms don’t necessarily happen during intercourse.  Maybe the clerk understands that it’s hard enough for people to have orgasms ,and putting the extra pressure on people to do so at the same time is unfair.  But, still we laugh at the desk clerk.  Why are we laughing?

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