Disability and Sex
People with disabilities can have sex if they want to, but society makes it hard (not a euphemism).
The Sessions – it’s a film
So I went to see The Sessions (Yay no annoying M&Ms advert). It’s a film about a man called Mark O’Brien who has a disability caused by Polio. The disability means he is unable to move his body “my muscles don’t work that well.” Although he can feel things and he can get a hard-on (more about this later). He also needs a breathing machine to live. He is 38 and has never had any kind of sexual experience with someone. He seeks advice about from a priest and from a sex therapist after which he decides to see a sex surrogate so that he can have sex.
A sex surrogate is someone in between a sex worker and a sex therapist. A sex therapist does not have sex with clients, a sex worker does – a sex surrogate offers therapy and actual sex. I won’t spoil the film but they meet up a few times and have sex which is really enjoyable for them both.
I loved it. It’s a great story, it’s funny and there’s some hot sex in it. Ticks. All. My. Boxes. But because I’m a sex educator and have to turn everything into some kind of learning experience I thought I’d write about what I learnt from it and what messages of the film are.
People with disabilities can be sexual
I know this sounds pretty obvious, or does it? Someone with a disability can have sex, sexual expression, thoughts and feelings. These sexual experiences may include sex with someone else or solo sex. People with disabilities are often seen as having a lots of wants and needs which are related to their disability rather than those related to them being a person. Sex, lust, love, friendship, hugs, expression, creativity, needing to be listened to and supported are all big time needs.
Sex can be difficult for everyone
In the film the problems around having sexy time were less to do with the physical issues of what Mark could and couldn’t do – more to do with Mark’s values and emotions coming into conflict with having sex and being close to someone.
Having great sex is not just about knowing where the clitoris is or what the penis does (though this helps – they are both in your pants), it’s also about how we feel about us & sex. Often this is about what we were taught (or not taught) from an early age. This could be spoken or unspoken, can come from people close to us, not so close to us, from religion, culture or media. They can be very big and can become our values – our beliefs about ourselves. They tell us what is expected of us, how we think we are seen and how we should behave.
So for Mark it wasn’t hard to have sex because he couldn’t move his body, it was difficult because of stuff his mum had taught him about him and sex and also what he had learnt from religion. In the film these values change a bit, he learns a bit more about himself and becomes more confident. When he does this he starts to enjoy sex and love more.
Focus on what you can enjoy
There was a very positive attitude to sex from the surrogate (Cheryl) who focused on what kind of touch Mark could enjoy. We all have limits on what we can and can’t do in sex and life, but we can still enjoy what we can and want to do.
Eg imagine being in a relationship with someone where the kind of sex you both want doesn’t match, or you don’t want sex as much as each other. Maybe a compromise could be reached but sometimes it’s best to try and make what you both want to do as good as it possibly can be.
There was a lot of talking about sex in the film. Talking (and praying) about how it was making Mark feel anxious. Talking and listening to other people’s experiences of sex,including those with disabilities. Talking about what kind of touch Mark would like and what kind of sex other people enjoy too. Talking about how difficult it was to enjoy sex. Talking about how great the sex was (and the nice feelings that came with it).
Talking is important. Maybe sometimes it’s good to STFU and try to relax and breathe. But talking establishes what we like, what we might expect and how we’re feeling.
Words can be well hot
Mark is a poet. He wrote a poem in the film that was very powerful, erotic and loving. I’m always going on about what we can do with our bodies, but sometimes words can be very sexy.
Sex isn’t just doing ‘it’
Mark wanted to have intercourse, to lose his virginity. Putting his penis inside someone meant a lot to him, but it wasn’t necessarily the best bit of sex (something one of his carers agreed with). I think that’s true for a lot of people, entry sex might feel important but that doesn’t mean it’s the best sex. Also first time sex may not be the best.
There was a lot of sex that wasn’t about intercourse or entry sex. Kissing, stroking, masturbation etc. But also pleasure in different environments, lying outside on grass on a warm day, the erotic charge of a motel room.
So, if you’re old enough (it’s a 15 in the UK) go see it! If you do, or have, let me know what you think below.
Shout out to Meg Barker who wrote this excellent excellent piece about it too http://rewritingtherules.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/what-can-we-all-learn-about-sex-from-the-sessions/
© Justin Hancock, 2015