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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.

Copyright © 2010–2017 Andrew Heartman

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