I demand to know why I didn’t see John Hawkes’s penis this morning

Wednesday November 21st 2012

I went to see Sundance sensation (and plucky Oscar hopeful) The Sessions this morning, and despite my cynicism going in — it is a Fox Searchlight film after all — I was promptly won over by what is, for the most part, an authentically subversive take on unorthodox sexuality.

John Hawkes stars as poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, who spent most of his life paralysed from the neck down and confined to an iron lung. The basic set-up might scream Oscar bait, but both Hawkes and the filmmakers make some pretty bold choices in telling O’Brien’s story, not least their decision to focus primarily on his relationship with Cheryl Cohen Greene, the ‘sex surrogate’ who helped him lose his virginity at the age of thirty-nine. Given the MPAA’s notoriously prim attitude towards anything that deviates from their über-puritanical sexual ideal (which I believe requires a clergyman to be present at the moment of penetration) it takes guts to structure your movie around a series of scenes in which an immobilised man attempts to negotiate his penis into Helen Hunt.

Lesser films would fall at the first hurdle, discreetly cutting to an exterior shot during the spicier moments of Mark and Cheryl’s scenes together, or framing their encounters exclusively from the neck up. Instead, The Sessions is every bit as comfortable with its own sexuality as Cheryl encourages Mark to be with his, and there’s a refreshing matter-of-factness to the film that neatly mirrors Mark’s own newfound enthusiasm for fucking. It’s amazing how progressive a single post-coital scene in which Helen Hunt doesn’t IMMEDIATELY RUSH TO COVER HER BREASTS can seem when every other Hollywood movie is diligently following the rule of the promptly raised bed sheet. That moment, and several others like it, make a case for The Sessions joining Take This Waltz as a key component of 2012’s mini-movement to demystify Hollywood sex.

There’s just one thing.

In a movie wholly about the sexuality of John Hawkes’s character, that dedicates entire scenes to his struggles with inopportune erections, premature ejaculation and the myriad sexual anxieties he’s built up over nearly four decades of celibacy, we never once see his penis. Think about that for a second. Throughout the film, we’re repeatedly shown Helen Hunt’s various odds and ends, and yet her vagina is arguably beside the point in a film so decidedly about one man and his quest to discover the capabilities of his own body. Indeed, the camera seems desperate to venture down to Mark’s nether regions, constantly wandering just far enough to tease the pubes, but never further. In one supremely hypocritical moment, Cheryl poignantly holds a mirror to Mark’s body, inviting him to recognise and accept his physical form. It’s a bold, forthright rejection of society’s embarrassment about the human body… but, as ever, his cock is just out of shot.

Writer-director Ben Lewin last month blamed the MPAA for the film’s reluctance to depict male genitalia, telling the LA Times:

“I was pretty aware of [the MPAA’s] attitude toward erect penises — that we’d immediately be dumped into quasi-porno land. And there was no point in showing John’s penis if it wasn’t erect.”

‘There was no point’? What does that even mean? That you were so annoyed you couldn’t show an erect penis that you decided to go to great pains to ensure that not so much as a hint of a flaccid one would be visible either? I think we can all agree that the MPAA’s rules are silly and draconian, but that’s no reason to throw the penis out with the erection water, so to speak. And it’s certainly no reason to blame the members of a ratings board for your own squeamishness, or the reluctance of John Hawkes to go full frontal.

So Ben, if you’re reading this (you’re probably not), I’d like to ask why — aside from your grumpy, pass-the-buck ‘there was no point’ excuse — you went to such incredibly great lengths to ensure that The Sessions, a film about a penis if ever there was one, contains not a single fleeting glimpse of the male member. And if it’ll make you feel more comfortable, you can write the answer across Helen Hunt’s mons pubis and show me that.