Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories  May 1990 | issue 174

On Seeing A Sex Surrogate

by Mark O'Brien
MARK O’BRIEN was a poet and journalist who lived in Berkeley, California. After contracting polio at the age of six, he spent most of his life in an iron lung. The 2012 film The Sessions was adapted from his essay “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” about having sex for the first time at the age of thirty-six. He is also the subject of the 1996 Academy Award–winning documentary Breathing Lessons. O’Brien’s autobiography, How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence, was co-written with Gillian Kendall. His work has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle and Whole Earth Review. He died in July 1999 from post-polio syndrome.

In 1983, I wrote an article about sex and disabled people. In interviewing sexually active men and women, I felt removed, as though I were an anthropologist interviewing headhunters while endeavoring to maintain the value-neutral stance of a social scientist. Being disabled myself, but also being a virgin, I envied these people ferociously. It took me years to discover that what separated me from them was fear — fear of others, fear of making decisions, fear of my own sexuality, and a surpassing dread of my parents. Even though I no longer lived with them, I continued to live with a sense of their unrelenting presence, and their disapproval of sexuality in general, mine in particular. In my imagination, they seemed to have an uncanny ability to know what I was thinking, and were eager to punish me for any malfeasance.

Whenever I had sexual feelings or thoughts, I felt accused and guilty. No one in my family had ever discussed sex around me. The attitude I absorbed was not so much that polite people never thought about sex, but that no one did. I didn’t know anyone outside my family, so this code affected me strongly, convincing me that people should emulate the wholesome asexuality of Barbie and Ken, that we should behave as though we had no “down there’s” down there.

As a man in my thirties, I still felt embarrassed by my sexuality. It seemed to be utterly without purpose in my life, except to mortify me when I became aroused during bed baths. I would not talk to my attendants about the orgasms I had then, or the profound shame I felt. I imagined they, too, hated me for becoming so excited.

I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be held, caressed, and valued. But my self-hatred and fear were too intense.

I doubted I deserved to be loved. My frustrated sexual feelings seemed to be just another curse inflicted upon me by a cruel God.

I had fallen in love with several people, female and male, and waited for them to ask me out or seduce me. Most of the disabled people I knew in Berkeley were sexually active, including disabled people as deformed as I. But nothing ever happened. Nothing was working for me in the passive way that I wanted it to, the way it works in the movies.

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