The Sessions is a movie about sexual surrogacy — a form of sexual therapy in which a psychotherapist, surrogate, and client work together as a team to support the client in overcoming emotional and functional sexual difficulties. The story is based on the experience between a young Cheryl Cohen Greene, an actual surrogate who still lives and practices in Berkeley, and one of her clients, Mark O’Brien, a Polio sufferer who was paralyzed except for some movement in his fingers, toes, face, and eyes. While it was a wonderful idea to tell the story of surrogacy and how it actually helped Mark, who eventually married a woman and who stayed in connection with Cheryl until he died, it was an unfortunately unrealistic depiction of their relationship.
Within Hollywood’s relationship lexicon – a lexicon that cannot imagine intimate sexual connection outside of the romantic trajectory where you meet, fall in love, and then must either marry or part ways forever – the idea that a man and a woman could “practice” sex, feel affection and connection, and not fall in love is impossible. Unfortunately, instead of showing the actual relationships that surrogates have with their clients – a relationship of non-judgmental acceptance, supportive care and affection where the client can explore, heal, and expand around their own sexuality – Hollywood had to make Cheryl and Mark start to fall in love and, as a result, have to end their relationship. This is not the true story of Cheryl and Mark and it is not at all representative of a surrogate-client relationship.
We feel this is an important distinction because, as with any experiential practices around sex, our cultural misunderstandings about sex and relationship can get in the way of accessing important tools for learning and growth. The truth of sex and relationships is that there are as many different ways to combine them as there are people who engage in them and, while we try to fit these connections neatly into the expected trajectory, they do not stay within these culturally expected boundaries. People have sex without intimacy, marriages without sex, and affairs even when they still love their partners. In our upcoming book for couples, we will be talking about how to have a real, honest relationship that accounts for the beautiful uniqueness of every human being and every relationship, a beautiful uniqueness that was impossible for Hollywood to depict in The Sessions.