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Hollywood tackles sex and disability

A story about a polio sufferer losing his virginity is frank and uplifting. Sarah Morrison reports that it is also part of a trend

It's long been said in Hollywood that portraying someone with a disability fast-tracks you to Oscar glory. Yet show them having sex, and film executives squirm. But A-listers such as Helen Hunt and Marion Cotillard – in films funded by some of the world's biggest studios – are debunking the myth that disabled people can't have sex on screen, heralding a new cinematic sexual revolution.

The award-winning The Sessions, which opens in the UK on 18 January, is one of the first Hollywood films to explore the subject of a disabled person losing his virginity. The film follows the real-life story of the American poet Mark O'Brien – a polio survivor who uses an iron lung. At 38 years old he sought the help of a sex surrogate, someone who helps people with sexual problems explore their bodies, played by Helen Hunt.

The film, which won the Special Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance festival this year, is written and directed by a polio survivor, Ben Lewin, but is based on the late O'Brien's account of his own story. "I was taken by the frankness and explicitness of it – which is rarely associated with discussions of sex," Lewin said. "When I was a kid, we didn't talk about sex and disability. I get the impression people are more open-minded now. There is an interesting disability-chic movement, and a number of movies looking at similar themes."

One of these was this year's Untouchable, which tells the story of a quadriplegic and his carer, who encourages him to pursue love. And Rust & Bone, which won the top prize at the London Film Festival, stars Cotillard as a double amputee who embarks on a sexual relationship.

But nothing has been as explicit as The Sessions. Hunt approached Lewin for the role after reading the script, according to the director, and immediately saw that the "film went beyond sex": it is funny, awkward, and very naked. "I didn't want this movie to end up in cripple corner," said Lewin. "The motivation was to speak to everyone's fear of sex. We wanted to make a really entertaining, story that wouldn't just be of interest to a man with an iron lung."

Julie McNamara, co-founder of London's Disability Film Festival, thinks representation of disabled people's sexuality has long been "ghettoised" in films. "The UK is leading when it comes to disability representation in films, but it is the worst when it comes to representing sexuality on screen. A disabled person is either fetishised or made to be monstrous," she said.

And, yet, The Sessions et al seem to be something audiences want. In 2008, the British Film Institute and UK Film Council commissioned a survey of British attitudes to cinema: 40 per cent of respondents said there were too few films featuring disabled people. Lisa Egan, a disability rights activist, has criticised the fact that the Oscar-nominated John Hawkes plays O'Brien, rather than a disabled actor: "We need to show disability and impairment as normal, because we learn so much about other people by what we see on screen."

But, for others, Lewin has given a platform to an unmentioned issue – the role that sex surrogates can play in some disabled people's lives. Jemma, 35, who works with around eight disabled clients each month, said there is a "stigma" surrounding disabled people's sexual needs: "Disabled clients can find relationships more difficult; their lives are often controlled more by other people, so they might have little privacy to organise their sex lives. But everyone needs intimacy and touch."

Lewin said the most common reaction to the film has been surprise. "They may have thought a movie with a main character who is horizontal would be depressing," he said. "But they get the opposite – an uplifting movie, with human insight. That's the most radical part of the whole thing."

A sensitive issue

Whether it is Peter Sellers playing Dr Strangelove, a disfigured former Nazi, or John Hurt in The Elephant Man, depictions of disabled people have often jarred. Dustin Hoffman's The Rain Man is criticised for reinforcing autism stereotypes, while the role of a blind man in Scent of a Woman was taken by the sighted Al Pacino. Daniel Day-Lewis picked up an Oscar for playing Christy Brown in My Left Foot. Untouchable and Rust & Bone are this year's attempts at sensitive portrayals, while The Sessions is the frankest film yet in its depiction of sex and disability.