Posted at 01:25 on 20 Jun 2014 by Pandora Blake
While I was on the plane on the way to the Feminist Porn Awards I watched The Sessions, a film based on the true story of a paralysed man who seeks the services of a sexual surrogate. A few of my sex worker friends were looking forward to this film when it came out, hoping that it might be a positive representation of sex work - something that is all too rare in film, where sensationalism and objectification are very much the norm.
Compared to the usual treatments, then, The Sessions is a good start. It's not about how sex work is super harmful; it's about the positive benefit one sex worker had on one individual. But don't expect miracles. This is still pretty mainstream.
Here's a plot summary. Warning: spoilers!
In Berkeley, California in 1988, Mark O'Brien is a poet who is forced to live in an iron lung due to complications from polio. Due to his condition, he has never had sex. After unsuccessfully proposing to his caretaker Amanda, and sensing he may be near death, he decides he wants to lose his virginity. After consulting his priest, Father Brendan, he gets in touch with Cheryl Cohen-Greene, a professional sex surrogate. She tells him they will have no more than six sessions together. They begin their sessions, but soon it is clear that they are developing romantic feelings for each other. Cheryl's husband, who loves her deeply, fights to suppress his jealousy, at first withholding a love poem that Mark has sent by mail to Cheryl, which she eventually finds. After several attempts, Mark and Cheryl are able to have mutually satisfying sex, but decide to cut the sessions short on account of their burgeoning feelings. (wiki)
The story is told from the perspective of a Catholic virgin who has been taught that sex is sinful. That viewpoint is centred and normalised, and sex positivity - the idea that "sex is fun and pleasure is good for you" (ta, Dossie Easton) is presented as a radical concept that needs to be handled with care.
The characters' expectations about sex - what it means, what consequences it will have, and so on - are pretty basic. The Sessions encounters the idea that sex can be separated from commitment and romantic love, and yet the central storyline is about the flaw in that idea, about sex somehow provoking love. Apparently a story about someone learning to have casual sex in a healthy way without any drama wouldn't make for an interesting film. I don't know - I'd watch it.
The sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt, has a story arc that will be familiar to everyone who has ever seen a film about sex work ever. Cheryl's narrative is - surprise surprise! - about professional and personal boundaries, because what other sex work story is there? You can't have a story about sex work that isn't about the sex worker getting confused and emotional about a client. After all, it's not like they're meant to be an experienced professional or anything.
I am so sick of narratives that are meant to be sex work positive and yet include the following apparently mandatory plot elements:
- falling in love with a client
- fighting with the boyfriend/husband who is meant to be this awesome partner and yet who fundamentally fails to be supportive or understanding when it actually matters.
Think about Moulin Rouge. The Secret Diary of a Callgirl. And - oh hai - yes, Pretty Woman. It wouldn't be a sex work story without at scene where the sex worker falls in love, has a "personal rather than professional" encounter with a client, says something she shouldn't, or otherwise breaks her own clearly stated rules.
Is it me, or are all these stories little more than client wish fulfilment?
I don't know about you, but I have never fallen in love with a client. In my experience it is not a hazard of sex work. And yet in The Sessions here it is, happening again. Is the idea of a sex worker who is control of their own emotional shit really that threatening?
The dominant narrative seems to be that sex and intimacy are these forces of nature that no-one can resist; that they stimulate raging hormones and seething emotions which no human can resist. Sex is dangerous! There's no such thing as "casual" sex - in Hollywood, if you fuck have to fall in love, them's the rules. Even self-described sex "workers" aren't immune to the all-consuming emotional miasma thrown up by every sexual encounter. Everyone knows that sex can't be "work" - love is inevitable, and it will make you cry and fuck up your nice simple life. Sex in films can't ever just be sex - it always has to be emotionally complicated.
The weird thing about this treatment in the film is that at first, Cheryl is almost too aloof - cool, inscrutable, almost medically brisk. In the real-life essay by Mark O'Brien which inspired this film, On seeing a sex surrogate, Cheryl is described as charming and reassuring - but in the film, she didn't seem to have any of that warmth which would put her client at ease. Was Hunt directed to perform emotional disengagement in such an over the top way because that's what people imagine sex worker "professionalism" looks like? Is it so hard to believe that someone could be relaxed and affectionate and still in control of their emotional boundaries? The result of this exaggerated detachment is that when Cheryl does become emotionally attached to Mark, it makes it seem like it's because she was repressing her feelings. As if professional boundaries were somehow inherently undesirable, doomed or flawed. Total disengagement or total vulnerability: that's your choice, folks. It's so all or nothing.
For once, can we please have a sex worker on film who is capable of maintaining their boundaries and not getting hurt? Romance might be emotionally risky, Hollywood, but sex work is just a job.
I haven't even mentioned the whole question of disability and sex work. In the usual conversations about sex work disabled clients are trotted out as one of the few "acceptable" edge cases where sex work is "morally justifiable". The discussion about sex work and disability is only ever about clients with disabilities, never sex workers; which is strange when you consider how useful an option sex work is for people whose health prevent them from commuting to work, or committing to a 9-5 job. The relative respectability, and accessibility, of different forms of labour is something we need to think seriously about if we want to talk about sex work and disability.
To some extent, I found myself forgiving The Sessions for these flaws. It is, after all, inspired by a true story, and it's undeniably moving. As a depiction of a person with a severe physical disability I thought it was thoughtful and sensitive. The film treats Mark as a rounded individual with agency, intelligence, strengths and vulnerabilities. Regardless of what kind of body you have, I think many of us can empathise with his sexual anxieties, his guilt and body shame.
A story about a service provider becoming interested in Mark's case is not, in itself, unbelievable. With his emotional openness, the courage with which he goes after what he wants, his dark sense of humour, his sexual and romantic hunger, Mark is a compelling personality. It's not beyond belief that a compassionate person, working with him regularly, might become emotionally invested.
What I found frustrating was the idea that a trained, experienced, professional sex surrogate would say "I love you" to an emotionally vulnerable client. That she would say it after deliberately bringing herself to orgasm - at the client's request - as if that orgasm was somehow so special it exploded all her boundaries. In my admittedly limited experience, many clients want to give pleasure back to their service provider - it's hardly ground to throw professionalism out of the window. Mark encouraged Cheryl to get herself off and she, wanting him to feel satisfied, obliged. I found it incredibly unrealistic that this would be portrayed as such a mind-blowing, affecting event that she would tell him she loved him.
Even if the timing had nothing to do with it, and Cheryl was just experiencing an emotional quirk, surely it's the height of unprofessionalism to tell an emotionally vulnerable client you love them; to say it to someone who has never been loved and desperately wants it, someone who would be very easily hurt. I just can't get behind this portrayal of a sex worker who would either be that uncontrolled with her own feelings, or that cavalier with someone else's.
According to the article by the real Mark O'Brien, in real life Cheryl and Mark did not develop feelings for each other. He didn't send her a love poem. She didn't tell him she loved him. Her husband didn't get jealous. She didn't get so distracted by her feels that she forgot to collect her fee. Mark writes that they stopped the sessions because they had achieved everything he was looking for, not because they had "burgeoning feelings" for each other.
In real life, the sessions happened without drama. Cheryl was completely professional, and he respected her professionalism. No boundaries were broken. No-one cried. No-one fell in love. Everything was fine. And it's still an interesting story.
Why, when it's translated to film, does the story have to be distorted like this? Sex work narratives in film and TV are full of sex workers behaving unprofessionally - falling in love, breaking their own rules, saying things they shouldn't, hurting themselves and others. Just once, I would like to see a film about sex work in which everyone respects each other's boundaries, and no-one gets hurt.