Sex and the surrogate

Tully Zygier
Mark O'Brien was a poet-journalist from California. He spent most of his life in an iron lung that he needed to breathe. He had achieved many things in his life. But one thing was missing. And this was sex. O'Brien died in 1999. The story of his life has now been made into a film. The film called The Sessions will play at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August. The filmmaker Ben Lewin will talk about the film at a free event. Everyone is welcome to attend.
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Tully Zygier on 31/07/2012
Actors Helen Hunt and John Hawkes from the movie "The Sessions". They are lying in bed.
HelenHuntandJohnHawkes in film The Sessions

Hunt and Hawkes in "The Sessions".

Telling your priest about your sexual needs is difficult enough in the confessional. How much more challenging is it to ask him to help you find a sexual partner?

This is precisely what Mark O'Brien did. The poet-journalist from Berkeley, California was articulate and opinionated. He had achieved many things in his life with the support of a wonderful circle of family and friends. But something was missing and it took his priest to help him realise that this was sex.

O'Brien spent most of his life in an iron lung. He died in 1999 at the age of 49. At the time of his death he was one of about 100 people in the United States who had contracted polio and still used an iron lung to breathe. It was assumed the curvature of his spine which resulted from childhood polio would restrict him from ever having sexual intercourse. But he wanted to prove otherwise.

The Sessions

O'Brien is now the subject of an award-winning film by expatriate Australian filmmaker Ben Lewin. The Sessions will screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August.

The film documents O'Brien's relationship with a professional sex surrogate.

It took out two awards at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, the prestigious festival for independent filmmakers. The main actors, John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H Macy have been tipped for Oscar success in 2013.

The film is based on an article O'Brien wrote On Seeing a Sex Surrogate and a subsequent book, How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man's Quest for Independence.

In his writing he challenged the perceptions of people with a disability.

He wrote, The two mythologies about disabled people break down to one: we can't do anything, or two: we can do everything. But the truth is, we're just human.

Discussions with Lewin

Filmmaker Lewin, himself a person who has had polio, and his producer wife Judi Levine will be in Melbourne for the launch of  The Sessions.

Lewin will discuss his work at a free event in Melbourne. It will be followed by a Q&A with film critic Julie Rigg from ABC Radio National's Movietime. The audience will also get a chance to ask Lewin questions. Excerpts of his work will be shown on the night.

The lecture starts at 6.30pm and will be held on Wednesday 8 August. It is at the accessible venue Federation Hall, which is part of the Victorian College of the Arts. It is recommended to RSVP to guarantee a seat. Contact Lucy Sinclair (03) 9666 4584 or

The Sessions is playing from 2 to 19 August.

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