This Film Gets It Right
The new Lars von Trier film Nymphomaniac: Volume I is the confessional tale of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a traumatized, shame-filled, hypersexual woman. We first encounter her lying in an alley in a pool of her own blood. She is discovered there by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a kindly man who takes her in and nurtures her with hot tea, a warm bed, and an empathetic set of ears. To him, Joe conveys her lifelong history of sexual acting out. What a lot of the people who see this film will likely wonder is: How realistic is this movie? Do women like Joe really exist?
Well, after more than 20 years spent treating and writing about sex and intimacy issues, I can assure you that women like Joe definitely do exist, and the film is deadly accurate in its portrayal—not to mention interesting, well-acted, and artfully constructed. (Certainly, it is among von Trier’s best works.) In short, Nymphomaniac: Volume I provides a spot-on depiction of the types of adult female sexual behaviors that can manifest as a delayed response to the neglect, emotional abuse, and other forms of trauma that sometimes occur during childhood. As such, this movie is a perfect complement to the equally powerful and accurate 2011 film Shame, which portrayed adult male hypersexuality in response to childhood dysfunction.
Both Nymphomaniac: Volume I and Shame are dark, haunting, gritty, and quite sexually graphic, so they’re probably not for fainthearted viewers. But if you’re interested in vicariously experiencing the unhappy, secretive, shame-filled world of people who maladaptively rely on sexual activity to escape and dissociate from stress and emotional/psychological discomfort (including the pain of unresolved childhood trauma), you won’t get a better look than what these two films provide.
The Unpleasant Title
Before going any further, I need to state that I thoroughly dislike the title of Nymphomaniac: Volume I. For years, I’ve argued against the use of the term nymphomaniac. Frankly, it’s an antiquated and demeaning word used to denigrate sexual women. It is not a medical or psychiatric diagnosis, and it is certainly not helpful to anyone. Frankly, calling a hypersexual female a nymphomaniac is about as empathetic and insightful as calling an alcoholic a degenerate bum (which, sadly, was relatively common practice until only a few decades ago). That said, the use of this shaming term may have been an intentional plot-related choice by von Trier as opposed to just an eye-catching title. Certainly, the term is consistent with Joe’s shame-riddled self-image. In fact, she describes herself as a “bad person” almost immediately, and never once does she waver from this self-portrayal.
Interestingly, Joe’s overarching negative self-image is consistent with the self-appraisal of nearly all hypersexual people, especially those who are female and must deal not only with their sexual acting out and its consequences, but with the degrading labels—slut, whore, tramp, nymphomaniac, and the like—that western society attaches to such women, regardless of whether those women are having a lot of sex because they enjoy it, because they are getting paid for it, or because it gives them a temporary sense of control over early-life trauma. Simply put, our society discourages women from being sexually assertive for any reason, and when a woman steps beyond the bounds of what is socially acceptable she becomes fair game for whatever abuse others wish to heap upon her—this despite the fact that in men, hypersexual behavior is not only expected but applauded.
Examining Joe’s Actions
Many readers may now be wondering if, even though I despise the label nymphomaniac, I am about to judge and label Joe’s behavior, perhaps even to pathologize it. I am not. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, any person who is hypersexual, thoroughly happy about that fact, fulfilled by his or her behaviors, not hurting others, and not experiencing negative consequences should feel free to go forth and prosper without judgment from me or anyone else, regardless of gender. Seriously, get out there and have a great time. I’m happy for you. But that is not what’s presented in Nymphomaniac: Volume I, nor is it what I typically see in my therapeutic practice.
Of course, the fact that I don’t encounter many well-adjusted hypersexual men or women in my therapeutic work shouldn’t be much of a surprise. I mean, why would I? After all, people who have happy and fulfilling lives don’t typically seek psychotherapeutic help. Like most therapists, my clients are the people whose behaviors are troubling to them—causing them to feel shame and to experience negative consequences. In fact, I typically see men and women at their absolute nadir, when they’re beaten, bloodied, and defeated—just like Joe when Seligman spots her nearly unconscious in an abandoned alleyway. And once they are in my office these individuals share their debilitating histories with me, just as Joe relates hers to Seligman (though most therapy clients are not as immediately forthcoming as Joe is with Seligman).
Sadly, the story that Joe tells is one I could have written myself as an amalgam of my female clients. Her sexual behaviors started very early in life. Though it does not appear that she was sexually abused by either of her parents, she was definitely neglected and perhaps abused emotionally by her mother, causing her to bond with her father in dysfunctional ways. Over time, her sexual behavior has escalated—more partners (as many as ten per day), and more intense sexual activities. She spends nearly all of her free time pursuing sexual encounters, to the point where she has no other interests. Her response to any sort of emotional discomfort is sex. (When her father is dying in the hospital, she has sex with an attendant. Later, when her father dies, she becomes sexually aroused at his deathbed.) She consistently views men as objects to be used for sexual gratification, never seeing them as potential partners in emotional intimacy. She routinely ignores the consequences of her sexual acting out. (When she ruins one man’s marriage she feels nothing for him or his wife and kids, and she certainly doesn’t alter her behavior pattern.) Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, Joe seeks a sense of control and power through sex. (She “allows” or “forbids” certain activities, and at one point she tells Seligman about “privileges” granted to one of her regular sex partners.) In short, absolutely all of the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that Joe describes are common among women who are hypersexual in response to early life trauma.
I think my favorite part of the film occurs when Seligman describes to Joe the compartmentalized construction of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music. He tells her that Bach often wove multiple independent melodies together to form a disjointed yet somehow cohesive composition (a technique known as polyphony). Joe immediately grasps this concept, launching into descriptions of three separate lovers (corresponding to the three-part polyphonic music to which she and Seligman are listening). It is clear that for Joe each of these lovers is a completely separate entity, and that each meets a particular yet singular emotional requirement: the first gives nurture, the second provides animalistic sex, the third affirms her existence. I consistently see this type of compartmentalization among hypersexual individuals of both sexes. They simply “wall off” various aspects of their existence. In this way, their compartmentalized feelings and behaviors do not overwhelm them. Unfortunately, because these individuals are not able to successfully integrate their pasts and their present, their self-identity eventually erodes, resulting in confusion, fear, and overwhelming psychological pain.
Unsurprisingly to me, by the end of the film, Joe describes her entire life (not just her sex life) as “monotonous and pointless.” In fact, she compares her daily activities to the movements of a caged animal. Simply put, everything she does feels rote, repetitious, and meaningless. At one point she says to a sex partner, during coitus, “I can’t feel anything,” and it is clear that she is talking not just about physical numbness, but emotional numbness. I cannot even begin to tell you how many clients have related similar experiences to me in therapy sessions. Basically, these individuals have used sexual activity as a way to dissociate from stress, emotional discomfort, and the pain of underlying psychological issues like depression, anxiety, and unresolved childhood trauma, and over time they have simply lost the ability to feel anything at all, either good or bad. Just like Joe.
Is Joe Doomed?
There is no “cure” for a traumatic life history. That said, individuals can learn, by sharing their traumatic histories with supportive and empathetic others (such as a therapist and/or other trauma survivors in recovery) to bond in healthier, more life-affirming ways. In short, with effort and proper guidance trauma survivors like Joe can develop what is known as “earned security” of attachment. Usually, however, before this psychodynamic work (looking at how the past affects the present) takes place, these individuals must stop the escapist behaviors they’ve been using to avoid emotional discomfort. After all, the basis of recovering from trauma involves sharing about, feeling, and processing past traumas, and while an individual is actively numbing out via compulsive sexuality (or any other escapist activity, such as drug use) this work cannot be effectively done. As such, behavioral contracting coupled with cognitive behavioral therapy—teaching Joe to utilize healthier coping mechanisms when triggered to act out sexually—may be in order. Then, when her sexual behaviors are no longer controlling her life, the deeper therapeutic work of healing from past traumas can begin in earnest.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is senior vice president of clinical development with Elements Behavioral Health.