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Cory Silverberg

Sexual Surrogacy Comes to Sundance

By January 20, 2012

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A new film, The Surrogate, has it's first screening on Monday at the Sundance Film Festival. According to the description of the film in the festival program, it's based on the writings of Mark O'Brien. O'Brien was a journalist and poet who wrote frankly and vividly about his life, most of which was spent inside an iron lung. One of his most shared pieces of journalism was an article he wrote about seeing a sexual surrogate. That article used to be available for free online but unfortunately it seems to have disappeared. Apparently this film is about the relationship between Mark and the surrogate he hired, Cheryl Cohen Greene.

Given Hollywood's track record when it comes to representing disability on film it's hard to imagine a film could do justice to O'Brien, whose words could cut through so much bullshit while at times elevating potty talk to an art form (see for example his poem Letter to an Orange County Social Worker published in Mouth Magazine).

That the director, Ben Lewin, identifies himself as disabled, and in fact acquired his disability as a result of polio, may lead one to think the representations will be more complicated. Watching an interview with the director where he refers to O'Brien's "little journey to manhood" isn't a great sign, but it's not fair to pre-judge. It could be a tremendous dramatic feature, and having had friends who have worked as sexual surrogates, and plenty more who do other kinds of sex work**, there is no doubt that the relationships are complicated and rich.

If you're interested in seeing an actual representation of Mark's life and work before you see the fake one, I can't recommend enough the Academy Award winning documentary that Jessica Yu made with and about Mark, Breathing Lessons. And by some act of grace, the film is available for viewing online, for free!

SnagFilms.com - Watch Breathing Lessons

**I want to point out that most sexual surrogates would take exception to me connecting their work to sex work. Officially surrogates almost always distinguish what they do from sex work, and this is their right. I tend to see the distinctions as having varying degrees of legitimacy, and I see far more similarities than differences. But that is only one perspective.

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