The Virginity Project took itself to the flicks this week to see ‘The Sessions’. Rarely have I felt an audience so rapt in their attention as the story on the screen unfolded. And yet…it all felt so very familiar. Here is the reason why. The Sessions is a film about a severely disabled man who wants to lose his virginity. Without the working arms and legs that you and I possess, he makes the brave decision to enlist the help of a sexual surrogate. When I started interviewing people for my book, one thing I never anticipated was the sheer volume of people I would encounter who had not lost their virginity, for all sorts of different reasons. But one in particular, ‘Ash’, much like the central character of ‘The Sessions’, had no choice because his physical disabilities prevented him from doing so. Eventually, after a lot of soul searching, he employed the help of a sympathetic sex worker. This story and its result became a corner stone of my book. When it later became a play, this was the story that bought the house down.
What part of our able bodied brains believes that because a person with severe physical disabilities faces such enormous daily challenges already, that thoughts of sex disappear out of sight and therefore out of mind? Not only that, but take a minute to think about how it would feel to get to wherever you’ve got to in life without ever having felt the touch of someone who loves you. And not because they are related to you i.e. your parents or a paid carer but just because someone likes you enough to want to make you feel good….
‘That kiss was the most intimate moment I’d had in my life up to that point.’
This was my interviewee’s voice when he first encountered the sex worker who would help him shed his virginity. He wasn’t an innocent 15 year old. He was a man in his 30’s who had never been kissed before.
The Sessions is a great film for so many reasons. I particularly loved the moment when one of Mark’s many (exquisitely played) carers wheels him up the hill to his first appointment with ‘the therapist’. Mark is nervous. ‘What do you think of intercourse?’ he queries his carer. ‘Overrated’ he snaps back. ‘There are so many different ways to achieve the same result’.
Very true. We are so fixated by the concept of penetration – your average porn flick has much to answer for – when most sentient people know that there are 150 different ways to achieve intense pleasure, none of which involve penetrative sex. In this sexualized world we live in, its so easy to believe that our lives are not complete unless we are swinging from the rafters every night whilst jack rabbiting our partners.
Still…try telling that to a person who’s never even kissed another human being before. The Virginity Project doesn’t like to get too slushy and sentimental but we felt moved by this film. So did everyone else in the Coronet the other night. It took us back to what really matters: truth, genuine intimacy, pleasure. It highlights the work of sensitive people who devote their lives to making other people’s dreams come true in the most generous way possible. It’s such a human film. Don’t miss it.
Today’s storyteller has an impediment of his own. As an aside, I’d like to add that this man’s ‘can do’ attitude to life, under the most trying of circumstances, is inspirational. I like this guy a lot.
‘I grew up in a very religious house. And I went to very religious schools. When I started secondary school, someone asked about sex ed and was told that you would have to do ‘Leaving Cert biology’ to get that. At no point did we get any kind of sex ed prior to that. I did biology (for honest reasons!) and the talk could be boiled down to: ‘Sex happens between married couples. If I find out anyone in this class is sexually active, I will personally ensure they are expelled.’ That was the entire talk. Nothing about safety, nothing about pregnancy. If you have sex you will be punished. That was my sex ed.
Making matters worse, when I was fifteen, I developed psoriasis, a very unpleasant, genetic but noncontagious skin disorder, which didn’t help my growing interest in girls and desire to look cool. I learned how to hide it, by growing my hair long and wearing long sleeves/pants all the time. I kept trying with different girls, but was incredibly self-conscious and would often find myself unable to talk to them about anything more than ‘nice weather, innit?’
When I reached college, having finally freed myself from the shackles of small town living, I decided that was a whole load of crap and resolved to get cool clothes, meet some interesting people and try sex for myself. It was a bit of a shock to learn that I still had no clue about talking to women. In hindsight, I can see several situations that I could have possibly turned into something more. Maybe. But I kept trying, trying to break out of the repressive programming of 19 years. And then I had a minor freak-out in a club. Under the strobe lighting, the psoriasis on my scalp and upper body stuck out like day-glo dandruff. And this happened every time I went to a club. I still had the bars and events and college. While studying for my masters, I moved into a house and found myself sharing with 7 girls (all with boyfriends). It was an education and I learned a great deal about women. But always, at the back of my mind, I kept remembering how bad the psoriasis could get.
Ultimately, I finished college without ever having a girlfriend. This is despite my friends, frequent trips out and the numerous societies I took part in. The psoriasis was a constant burden. I learned to cover up a lot of my problems in college.
After college, I was in search of work, and found myself in a few strange places, including Africa and Russia. The jobs and language barrier made it quite difficult to find people my own age. I made some good friends, don’t get me wrong, but have you ever tried to get home from the pub at 3 in the morning when you can’t communicate with the taxi driver?
I eventually found employment back home, in the city I went to college. I knew the streets, I knew all the names, the doormen, I knew the bands, I was set. My job was hard and time consuming, but worthwhile. I ventured out several weekends a month, to different gigs or bars. I got a job with a music magazine, and would often get in for free. I started kick-boxing, along with volunteering at a soup kitchen twice a week. I was spending my days working, my nights hanging out with my new friends, and my weekends getting into gigs for free. It was great.
I was and still – and am generally happy with my lot in life. Yes, I would sometimes wonder what it was like to hold someone in my arms as they slept, but I would just remind myself of the numerous good things in my life and just say it will happen when it happens. I kept myself out there and did things I enjoyed and believed in. I have few difficulties socially, and can talk to most people, but when I try for something more, I either fall flat on my face or miss the cues to act.
After an absolutely hellish week at work, including seven months of work getting completely wiped, I returned to my flat ready for a nice long weekend of sleeping, listening to music and watching TV. Instead, my flat mates had a few friends over and I got talking to a girl, who I’m going to call Jess.
She was pretty, she was funny, she had similar hobbies to mine. After a few hours of listening to increasingly bad music, she looked me right in the eye and said: ‘This is getting a bit much. I bet your room is a lot quieter.’
As I led her up the stairs, all I could hear was the theme to Chariots of Fire. She stopped in the bathroom to do whatever arcane magicks women do to prepare, so I classied up my room a bit. The door opened, and a beautiful lady in just a bra and shorts entered my room. We haven’t even kissed yet. She begins to open my shirt, then paused. ‘What… the fuck? She stepped back, vomited on my bed, and asked ‘What the hell is wrong with you?!’
She pulled her top back on and walked out. After everything, after getting my life sorted, after getting someone who wanted to be with me because she liked me, and this was how it ended. I didn’t leave my room for the weekend. I didn’t eat, I just slept and watched porn and slept and watched porn. She was the last girl I approached. I haven’t tried since then, about 6 months.
I only ever told one friend of mine about that night. He recommended I see an escort, and gave me a list of his ‘go-to’ girls. Talking about escorts and prostitution opens up a whole other can of worms, I’m not the biggest fan of it, but I’m not going to condemn the ladies involved, and I can understand why some (not all) people go. He then told me to try the ‘pump and dump.’ Take a guess what that is. If someone, man or woman, wants a string of one night stands, I got no problem with that. As long as whatever happens is between consenting adults who use protection, then you can do whatever.
Trying to bring me around to his way of thinking, he told me about the ‘unholy abomination’ he woke up beside earlier that week. I’m sure there are plenty out there, men and women, who can tell similar stories. Go out, get drunk, go home with someone, cold light of day it’s a Hammer Horror. I don’t want that. I don’t want to be someone’s funny sex story, and I don’t want to have one myself. I’m not looking for true love, or waiting until marriage. I just want someone I care about, and who in turn cares about me. I want to bake cakes for someone. I want to hold someone in my arms until they fall asleep. I want to be with someone who wants to be there, not because they have an obligation or for money.
So that’s me. A 26-year-old genetic abomination who never kissed a girl.
Born in Wales'