A Surrogate Partner's Perspective on "The Sessions"
By Andrew Heartman
I first had the opportunity to see "The
Sessions" at a screening for the disabled. I found the
movie itself to be very entertaining, both humorous and touching,
eliciting both laughter and tears at multiple times throughout
the movie. It was warmly and enthusiastically received by
the disabled community, because (I believe) it's a powerful
acknowledgment that disabled individuals are people too, that
they are sexual beings with sexual feelings and desires. As
obvious as it may seem to us, this is a concept that many
able-bodied people are uncomfortable with.
I do not, however, find it to be a realistic or accurate portrayal
of Surrogate Partner Therapy, at least how I understand it
and practice it, for three reasons.
1. Lack of involvement of the therapist. In the movie, the
involvement of the therapist is minimal. The client sees the
therapist one time, and only one phone conversation between
the surrogate and the therapist was shown, although at least
one more was implied. In reality, the client meets with the
therapist on an ongoing basis throughout the work with the
surrogate partner, the surrogate partner talks to the therapist
after every session, and the therapist plays an active role
in designing and supervising the treatment plan.
2. Pacing. I would describe the pacing of the sessions with
the surrogate partner in the movie as extremely accelerated.
The reality of Surrogate Partner Therapy would not be so exciting
on the big screen. It involves communication, a lot of sensate
focus, and a gradual desensitization of triggers of fear and
anxiety around intimacy. Especially with female clients, I
would never even consider it an option to have what was shown
in the movie: complete disrobing in the first session.
3. Focus. In the movie, there was a focus on intercourse,
to the exclusion of other forms of physical and emotional
intimacy. Important aspects of the work, including communication,
relaxation, the client's emotional concerns, helping the client
open to different forms of sensual expression—in the
movie these were portrayed as being largely unaddressed.
Obviously, there's a big difference between how SPT is portrayed
in the movie and the way I understand it. There are two reasons
why this difference is so big. First, Cheryl and I were trained
differently, by different organizations, and in a different
era. In the 70s and 80s, there were many different surrogate
partners practicing who had been trained in many different
ways, some who were even self-trained. Since that time, a
lot of effort has gone into refining and codifying the practice.
Second, although the movie is based on actual events, it is
ultimately the screenwriter’s interpretation and adaptation
rather than what actually happened. These two factors combine
to compound the difference. Related to the pacing of the work,
for example, Cheryl's pacing is faster than mine, and the
movie shows the pacing being even further accelerated.