Helen Hunt and John Hawke ... a scene from The Sessions.
Cinema has not been kind to people with disabilities. In the early days film scripts resembled extended suicide notes bewailing the inevitability of death for the impaired. From the Elephant Man to Whose Life Is It Anyway, disability was a state worse than death, which made self-destruction a happy ending.
Then we started to see the blind, the deaf and the good-looking- suddenly- confined- to-wheelchairs in stirring tales of human triumph over adversity. But we never thought they might be horny. And we certainly NEVER saw them in the throes of flagrant delicto. Romance is for hotties who transform sex into an able-bodied, acrobatic, sometimes aerial, performance. In comparison we all come out notties.
Which is why it is so ground-breaking that suddenly our cinema screens are filled with complex characters who manage to combine disability AND a sex drive. Together at last! If you haven’t seen them yet, The Sessions and Intouchable are the Oscar-bait of the moment, both showcasing disabled protagonists who like sex.
The Sessions stars a brilliant John Hawkes who plays a real-life Boston poet, Mark O’Brien, crippled by polio as a child and who spends the rest of his life in an iron lung. At 38 he decides that disability has doomed his chances of romance and so enlists the services of Cheryl, (Helen Hunt) as a sex surrogate. Mark is interested in more than popping his cherry and it doesn’t take long before their sex, shown in awkward anatomical detail, drifts into desire. I won’t spoil the rest….
So we have a middle-aged woman with no plastic surgery getting naked with a disabled guy under unforgiving lighting all packaged in a clever and witty script. What’s not to like? It may be the closest we come to lefty- feminist porn.
I admit I laughed, I wept and my heart was thoroughly warmed, but I was left with some gnawing questions. What if Mark was a woman? Would she also feel the same right, the same need to demand sexual services? When disability rights activists talk about sexual democracy and the right of disabled people to access sex workers, do they mean women too? If so why do we usually see men?
To get some answers I decided to call Touching Base, a referral service that connects people with disabilities to sex workers. The representative, who prefers to remain anonymous, said that disabled women can also hire sex workers, male or female. But most don’t. 98% of people who use the service are men. The figures are similar to the UK where a 2005 survey by Disability Now found that one-fifth of men with a disability had used sexual services. For women the number was less than 1%.
Clearly this asymmetry is partly about what feminist Carole Pateman calls a ‘male sex right’. Men need sex to be men, we’re told. Their sexuality is hydraulic and if they can’t find release then they start to do all sorts of dastardly deeds like raping or sexually harassing women. That’s why sex work serves such a vital public function. Women, on the other hand, don’t need or even enjoy sex. And disabled women, more than anyone else, surely have no need for sex.
It’s not that there are no sex workers to cater for women with disabilities, it’s just that as a society we have systematically denied their sexuality. While forced steralisation is generally frowned upon these days (although still exists) women continue to undergo menstrual suppression and selective or coerced abortion. They are denied rights to parenting and are excluded from reproductive health care and sexual health screening. Why? Partly because of eugenic fears that disabled women are going to produce disabled children, partly because disabled offspring are seen as a burden on families and the state and partly because of widely held social views that they can’t be parents. These are all prejudices that women with disabilities confront and that men largely avoid.
Aside from the larger social issues, the representative from Touching Base told me about everyday difficulties. Like the time she was chatting to a guy at the pub, her crutches tucked under her chair and her body skilfully disguising the muscular atrophy that goes with her cerebral palsy. Everything was going swimmingly. He was flirty, she was charming. That is, until she picked up her crutches, went to the toilet and revealed her impairment. When she came back he had disappeared.
And then there’s the kinds of guys she is likely to attract, who tend to swing from disability fetishists to beneficent saviours. ‘I don’t want to be pitied’ she tells me. ‘I just want to be loved for who I am.’ Statistically women with disabilities are also more likely to be abused by either an intimate or a health care provider. A 2005 study reported an abuse rate of between 40-72%.
If we were to substitute Mark in The Sessions for say, Marlene, then the script would probably look a helluva lot different. Firstly, we’d have to accept that she too has a need for sexual intimacy. Then we’d have to accept that like men she may want to pay for these services. Unlike Mark, Marlene would have a few nefarious characters to fight off and, like any woman, we’d have to accept her choice to reproduce. And finally, depending on the condition, we may have to expand our definition of sex beyond vaginal penetration. Throw in some ear lobes, nipples and more imaginative positions. God knows we’d all benefit from seeing this.