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Does Shame Portray Sex Addiction Accurately?

Dec 6 2011 | Comments 2


Please don’t read this post if reading about or seeing videos of sexual addiction triggers you.

I went to a screening of Shame yesterday, the NC-17 film with Michael Fassbender about the trials of a sex addict in New York. I’m going to talk about it here in terms of its portrayal of an addictive behavior—not from the point of view of filmmaking. There are countless reviews of the movie if you’re interested in how the critics feel about it. But I want to assess it in terms of the character’s mental state.

If you’re not sure what sexual addiction is, there’s a nice review of it at Psych Central. It’s also possible that Hypersexual Disorder may be included in the DSM 5 (incidentally, why are we ditching the Roman numerals for this DSM? Just curious). But sexual addiction has been the subject of 12-step groups for many years. It may be new to the psychiatric community’s bible, but it’s certainly not new to anyone who’s struggled with it.

Before I talk any further about the film, I want to caution, again, that what I’m going to talking about may trigger individuals with sexual compulsivity. And I’ll also be embedding videos. A similar caution should be provided at the beginning of the film. It is a super-triggery film. After I saw it, I was ready to go out and have self-destructive sex myself, but then I had to go to CVS, so I skipped it.


The film’s protagonist is a man named Brandon who is an unhappy sex addict. He indulges in all manner of sexual stimulation, from magazine porn and webcam sessions to prostitutes and anonymous hookups in an alleyway. He’s a compulsive masturbator and online porn hoarder. It’s what consumes much of his time, money and thought. We know this because it’s all we know. Brandon is hardly a character other than these facts; he’s simply a body acting out an addiction. Critics have complained about this, and fairly, I think; after all, it’s hard to care about your (anti)hero if all you know of him is this unappealing compulsivity. But in terms of a portrayal of an addict, it’s perfect. Brandon is utterly consumed by his addiction. If there isn’t anyone else in there, it’s because that’s how he wants it. The more in thrall he is to the compulsions, the less he has to confront his true self. That’s a hallmark of addiction, and while it might not make for a completely knowable character for a general audience, addicts will know exactly why Brandon is a null set.

The flashes of humanity in Brandon reveal why the addiction must consume him. He has a relationship with a sister who doesn’t understand boundaries. She’s raw, overly physical and needy. He feels trapped by her and protects himself from it by pulling away. He pushes his emotions about her down because they’re too troubling. There’s an erotic subtext to their relationship that’s uncomfortable and that makes Brandon defensive and angry. He hates himself for his cruelty to her, and wants to obliterate his hurt, his anger, his fragility. There is a veiled reference to a bad childhood. We don’t know what it was, but it must’ve been a doozy. He’s pushing that stuff down as well. All the sex is shimmer and distraction for someone who, if he let the emotions come out, would be undone by them. So he has to keep going.

All of that is superbly wrought and realistic. The other aspect of Brandon’s addiction that is very well-executed is the degree of hiding that goes along with being an addict. No one knows the “real” him, which during the addiction is the addict. At work, he’s rigid and uncomfortable; with prostitutes, he’s comfortable and easy. You can read it in his posture, his face. There’s the public self and the addict self. A small detail: In a meeting at work, he’s listening to a presentation and the speaker says, “I find you disgusting … ” It’s part of the speech, but Brandon hears it as though it’s directed toward him. This is also very realistic. When you’re engaging in secret behavior, and you’re a hidden person, you hear messages like that embedded all around because you’re terrified someone will find you out. Regarding the workplace, it seems like an ad agency, but it isn’t clear. This has also been mentioned by critics as a flaw. Again, though, it fits with the addiction. The work doesn’t matter to Brandon. It’s just his cover. The porn on his work computer is who he really is.

I found it interesting that Brandon chose the music of Glenn Gould to listen to. Another obsessive, but one who was far less successful at hiding his compulsions and quirks. What does it mean to Brandon to share space in this way with Gould?

Overall, the sense of Brandon being hidden—from himself, from everyone else—is finely rendered and is most important to the accuracy of the portrayal. The fact that he’s largely hidden from the viewer makes the film problematic, though. The one time when he’s on a date, it’s so lovely to see him talk and smile like a real human being. It brings fresh air into the movie. But there’s very little of that, perhaps to emphasize the isolation of the addiction. The question is: How fun is it to watch a dark, torturous addiction played out on-screen?

You should also know that the sex is extremely explicit and there’s full-frontal nudity. I guess I must be desensitized because it didn’t have much of an impact on me. In this culture, it’s hard for anything to be especially shocking. The one thing that did shock me was a very negative portrayal of gay sex, which was treated as though it was the lowest possible circle of hell one could descend to. I get the feeling the director, Steve McQueen, has some issues there.

I think all addicts can understand the strong desire to run away from yourself, to obliterate the pain. But it’s a brutal struggle, and I think with sex addiction, it can be particularly shameful—hence the film’s title. Despite some moments that overdramatize the shame fairly ridiculously, the way the addiction is represented will be familiar to anyone who’s ever engaged in that struggle.

Shame opens in Philadelphia on Friday, Dec. 9.

liz | 8:06 AM | Uncategorized, hypersexuality, michael fassbender, sexual addiction, shame, steve mcqueen

Carl Says:

This movie rocks! Finally an up front

Dec 7 11:42 AM

anonynous of course Says:

Breakthrough movie, tells the truth.

Yes, it does accurately portray sexual addiction. Frighteningly so, when compared to some men in my 12 step group I know. 3 of whom are straight, and then in their 30s or 40s while bingeing with paying for sex, went to get it for free in gay public venues (the kind of thing George Michael got busted for).

[If you think this is you, find a Certified Sex Addiction Therapy trained professional asap and get to a 12 step meeting, simple. 'Sex therapists' aren't trained in addiction and are likely to tell you to just jerk off to more playboy and everything will go away. True story. oh yeah, that doesn't work-for ANYONE. True story. (just try drinking scotch, that'll stop your 14 year heroin addiction)]

Here’s the kicker: in her last paragraph liz wrote “Despite some moments that overdramatize the shame fairly ridiculously… “. I can see that coming innocently from someone who does not suffer from sex addiction. I have seen the movie twice, with ‘normies’ and with other addicts in recovery—and for the addicts, it is all true. I’ve been there: this is how, in active addiction, and without a lot of help, an addict reacts when confronted with their crumbling life, their sexual failure, their being discovered—having their bubble of shame-resistant escape being popped. SPOILER ALERT: when the lead character takes a woman who threatens intimacy with him up to his luxury secret sex shack, he has to do a rail of coke and a shot of booze to make his move.

This is what it’s like, if we think she might ACTUALLY like us, and we know we should ACTUALLY be able to like her, but we know that the only thing that gets us off is when we’re in control, or the sex is crazy, objectified and distanced. The lead can’t get it up or gets it off too fast (left ambiguous) during the sex scene. This is a scene, where (not by mistake-McQueen is a trained artist, and when you go to art school, you learn composition well) – this is a scene where filling half the movie screen is a large, black, flat panel display, obviously used for porn and nothing but. Our suffering addict is trying to have sex with a woman beneath this flat panel, and the framing pushes the couple to the lower quarter of the screen. The whole time. Porn / addictive sexuality dominates his sex, and he can’t get it up. Or busts his nut tooo fast and its over.

In sex addiction recovery land, this is known as ‘being out of the room’ while having sex. Being in fantasy or euphoric recall (memories of addictive sex). For some it can constitute as a relapse, especially if one has left the room while having sex with their spouse. It’s part of the addiction and the accompanying, or underlying intimacy disorder. One can’t be present. Although your average Cosmo survey says 70% of women admit to fantasizing that their husband is in fact a movie star, this is a similar experience but on acid. It is a very familiar and totally necessary drug for the sex addict who can’t get the pleasure, escape and release sought through what is actually there. Only adrenaline charged sex works, something which retraumatizes. This happens to women to. Men, women, gay, straight, its the same process. And about the shame being rediculous?..

After a guy who a normie busts his nut prematurely, or he can’t stay hard at all, he is prone to isolation, not wanting to talk about it, pretending like it didnt happen. When someone who has avoided any relationship over 4 months long, in his entire adult life, is discovered to be a fraud, and his sex addiction bubble is popped in one fell swoop of failed intimacy, one can’t imagine how much SHAME is felt. And the key to addiction is that its all about feelings—shame being the core one we run from. Every treatment facility and 12 step group deals with that one emotion, shame, because it IS the feeling that is so powerful, it is designed to make us retract from the safety of our herd, our community, when we see that we aren’t living up to our group’s standards. It’s what rejection plays off. It’s the thing that has kids kill themselves when they’ve been bullied at school.

Fassbender’s character simply reacts like a shamed child after failing in bed; his development is arrested, like any active addict, and he has no ability to accept what happened, acknowledge the woman’s feelings, be civilised, be accepting of reality, let alone let some humor in or just try it again. All he knows is a long life of failure and shame, and its happened again, just when he had his hopes up, that maybe he could change. This is the stuff that has people go deeper into their addiction radically (as happens in the movie), and/or radically into despair. Like the addict gambler who puts the house up at the casino and loses, there is often no facing the family. There is a reason casinos drag bodies out of the parking lot regularly. It’s called shame.

By not being able to look into the woman’s eyes when she tries to console him after his failed sex act, Fassbender’s character reverts to what kids do — if I can’t see, it’s not happening. He shakes with shame after she leaves—its sinking in just how much he screwed up, no, IS a screw up. Thats the worst part of this addiction, or any: one of the 4 core belief systems of all addicts is that we are bad, unworthy people. And if you really knew us, you wouldn’t like us. When that rejection comes true… and it’s not anonymous, it’s a coworker(!) and you thought maybe this one time it would work out (in your massive denial, the proof being you had to do blow and drink to engage)… when that rejection comes, it is unbearable. It is like a meat cleaver to your psyche. It is actually as if you were being killed. And you are more alone then ever.

This is what addiction is, and sex addiction piggybacks on the most intimate thing two people can do with each other. That’s why it’s so difficult to be honest about; it’s hard to stop and hard to stay stopped but I’ve seen it plenty of times, and I’m one of the survivors and successes, but only for today.

This shit is real, and those emotional reactions—infantile ones, the most humiliating, embarrassing, ‘I can’t believe someone actually is doing that’ reactions—they are real. Having one’s safety removed (however unhealthy the security device is-sex, crack, political power, youth/health)) can result in those infantile reactions. It’s all about shame. Some get plastic surgery and hole up until they look plasticy… but smoother to avoid the shame of the media mirroring their ageing process back to them. Some shoot themselves after their face gets damaged in a car accident (Savannah). Some hang themselves rather than face another day of taunting at school. And sometimes people take it on others and themselves in addiction, and are still trying to put up the necessary front that they have it together.

After all, who would accept them if they were to display ridiculous emotional reactions? Over-dramatizations perhaps?

Dec 23 5:33 AM


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