"Disability," Anna Mollow and Richard McRuer write in the introduction to their edited collection Sex and Disability, "has the potential to transform sex" (32). The seventeen chapters of personal narrative, literary analysis, qualitative study, historical research, and cultural reflection that comprise this groundbreaking anthology explore that potential in compelling and often surprising ways. It seems more than a happy coincidence that in the same year as this notable book's appearance, the larger culture also began an unprecedented conversation about sex and disability sparked by the wide release and critical success of the movie The Sessions, based on poet Mark O'Brien's 1990 essay "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate." Reading the edited collection and film both together and against one another sheds new light on the question, not only of disabled people and sexuality, but indeed, of sex and disability themselves as categories.

Much has been written and said about The Sessions already, ranging from appreciation of its largely accurate portrayal of O'Brien's life and sexuality, to discomfort with its advocacy of sex surrogacy for disabled people, to the usual laurels cast on nondisabled actor John Hawkes's portrayal of a "severely" disabled character for which he (ironically) received a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival. In this review, I explore some of the ways in which The Sessions and Sex and Disability shed light on the question of how disability transforms sex, or vice versa.

In his chapter, "Sexual Culture for Disabled People," Tobin Siebers suggests that the emerging sexual identities of disabled people "represent disability not as a defect that needs to be overcome to have sex but as a complex embodiment that enhances sexual activities and pleasure" (47). In The Sessions, we see both sides of this coin: O'Brien's disability is aggressively represented as something that "needs to be overcome to have sex"—a depiction, it must be noted, that is drawn directly from O'Brien's essay—yet by the end of the film, his character has developed as both complexly embodied and sexually pleasurable. One way the film effects this transformation is through the aggressive foregrounding of heterosexual romantic relationships between O'Brien's character and the women in his life, relationships which his essay either barely hints at (Tracy, his attendant) or portrays quite differently (Cheryl, the sex surrogate), or which happened years after his essay was published (his life partner, Susan Fernbach).

In particular, by developing the character of Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt, into a reciprocated love interest rather than keeping the relationship as purely professional as it appears in O'Brien's essay, the film sets up a trajectory of heteronormative romance that (apparently) inevitably leads to the hero's meeting with Susan and achievement of the "normal" relationship which Hollywood has established as the only possible happy ending. Thus, O'Brien's reflection in his essay that "I wonder whether seeing Cheryl was worth it, not in terms of the money but in hopes raised and never fulfilled. I blame neither Cheryl nor myself for this feeling of letdown. Our culture values youth, health, and good looks, along with instant solutions" is displaced by a narrative in which seeing Cheryl was absolutely worth it, and in fact, enabled O'Brien to achieve—in the film's chronological universe—a near-instant solution through meeting Susan and being able to tell her: "I'm not a virgin."1 Gone is the larger cultural critique of normative expectations about bodies, health, and appearance. Of course, O'Brien and Fernbach's relationship was quite real and certainly cannot be written off to a Hollywood imposition. But the film's facile equation of O'Brien's sessions with Cheryl and his newfound ability to form a romantic relationship obscures other aspects of the complexity of disabled sexuality.

Happily, such complexities appear more richly in the pages of Sex and Disability. In Riva Lehrer's personal essay, "Golem Girl Gets Lucky," for example, she reflects powerfully on the impact of normative and gendered expectations of bodies: "All women know that the sidewalk is a catwalk. From before the first faint ringing of puberty, we are judged on the quality of our flesh. And my own entry into the pageant is a body that's more Z-shaped than S-curved" (234). Lehrer then describes the transformative importance of encountering other Z-shaped bodies as sexual partners and of disabled people redefining sexuality together, rather than in relationship to an always-already unattainable able-bodied sexuality. Lezlie Frye amplifies this celebration of disabled sexuality in her essay, "Fingered," describing a public encounter with intrusive onlookers curious about her hand: "They're gaping, these two with their excess extremities, and now I want them to notice, to see me; I demand it of them the way I have of so many lovers, to look at my body with its startling familiarity. … I let my hand hang taut and heavy before their gaze, erect, bent, unpredictable" (260). Frye's and Lehrer's essays stand out as two of the strongest in this impressive collection, combining lyrical portrayal of lived experience with cogent reflection upon its social and political meanings.

Another standout is Alison Kafer's critical reflection on the culture of devotees: people (primarily straight men) who are sexually attracted to amputees. Kafer has written on this topic before, but here she goes further and with more authority into her unsettling topic, teasing out the strands of apparent contradiction within a subculture where the disabled body is constructed at once as highly eroticized and desirable and deeply commodified and disgusting. In contrast to the ending of The Sessions, Kafer concludes that there are no easy answers about disability and sexuality: "Maybe at this point we are served more by a willingness to sit with the complexities than by an insistence on fixed positions or definite answers" (349).

Sex and Disability offers a range of such complexities, not only in the compelling personal accounts, but in scholarly essays such as David Serlin's historical analysis of the 1942 study "The Personality and Sexuality of the Physically Handicapped Woman"; Michelle Jarman's elucidation of the links between disability, race, and "sexual menace" in lynching discourse; and Rachel Groner's exploration of sexuality in autobiographical narratives by autistic people. Notable amongst these scholarly contributions is co-editor Anna Mollow's lucid chapter, "Is Sex Disability: Queer Theory and the Disability Drive," which brings a disability analysis to the field of queer anti-futurity and will be of particular interest to queer theorists and activists. The queer rejection of heteronormative futurity found in Mollow's essay, and the broader acknowledgement of a wide spectrum of crip sexual politics, discourses, and positions in the pages of Sex and Disability, offer an important counterpoint to the Hollywood version of disabled sex represented by The Sessions.


  1. Mark O'Brien. "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate." The Sun 174 (May, 1990). http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/174/on_seeing_a_sex_surrogate?page=1
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