"Shame" and Sex Addiction

Does obsessiveness about sex really belong in a manual of mental disorders?

Posted Dec 06, 2011

Michael Fassbender in "Shame" (Fox Searchlight)
Source: Michael Fassbender in "Shame" (Fox Searchlight)

Films about addiction are a staple of American cinema—think Drugstore Cowboy, Reefer Madness, Blow, and Leaving Las Vegas—and they often follow a predictable storyline about desperation, degradation, and tentative redemption.

But a film about sex addiction that takes the subject seriously, as the recently released Shame purports to do, faces a unique challenge. As A. O. Scott notes in his New York Times review of the film, "Watching someone else take a drink or snort a line will not cause intoxication in the viewer, but watching other people get naked and squirm around together is a sure-enough turn-on to be the basis of a lucrative industry. How can visual pleasure communicate existential misery?"

How indeed, when the film abounds with full-frontal nudity and graphic sex among unfailingly attractive actors, even as it coats the overall message by calling it "Shame"? One begins to suspect a ruse that draws rather heavily on titillation and moralism, but that reeks in the end of bad faith.

Consider the mystery surrounding the film's title, Shame. As Scott asks perceptively in his review, "Is 'Shame' the name of something Brandon [the protagonist] does feel, or of something the filmmakers think he should feel?" There's really no clear or definitive answer to that. One very short scene has Brandon gathering and trashing his porn in a frantic attempt to clean up his apartment; another has his sister accidentally walking in on him as he masturbates in his own shower. Awkward, certainly. But neither incident justifies the title. Nor, it must be said, does the sex that Brandon fantasizes about and just as often encounters with drop-dead gorgeous New Yorkers.

What the film does capture, despite its unfortunate title, is Brandon's intense emotional isolation, doubtless one aspect of his obsessive behavior. At a key moment he rejects his desperate and needy sister, a counterpart to him who shows up unexpected, disrupting his sharply organized routine. She also undermines his rather rigid determination to keep sex and love apart. But Brandon's explicit rejection of marriage and monogamy is neither so rare nor so irrational as to deserve opprobrium, much less a title such as Shame.

While it's clear that Brandon is single-minded, even obsessive, in his pursuit of sex, a trait he shares with many actual men and women, does that make him a sex addict in the strict sense of the term? Indeed, does obsessiveness about sex really belong in our increasingly medical (and medicalized) discourse about addiction?  When obsessive behavior causes suffering, isolation, and impairment, shouldn't it remain within the purview of psychology and psychotherapy? Both of them address and treat obsessive behavior of all stripes without presuming that the person in question has a mental disorder.

It seems necessary to ask these questions, especially now, because the American Psychiatric Association recently drew up a list of criteria for "a new sexual disorder diagnostic category," "Hypersexual Disorder," which its website indicates is likely to be added to the appendix to DSM-5, the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The first criterion for the proposed disorder is "Excessive time is consumed by sexual fantasies and urges, and by planning for and engaging in sexual behavior." Incidentally, this counters, as reverse pathology, the already-existing "Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder in Men," defined since DSM-IV as "persistently or recurrently deficient (or absent) sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity."

For the APA, it seems, men are pathological if they experience both too much and too little sexual desire; the norm of desire becomes fraught from the judgment of pathology at either end. But what counts for the APA as "excessive time" ruminating on fantasies remains anyone's guess. The phrase is disturbingly open-ended. Indeed, in its very open-endedness it encompasses a substantial number of people, many of whom might be startled, even offended, to find their "excessive" interest in sex considered a pathology, much less a sign of mental illness.

As for Shame (the movie) and how it's being received by our culture, my free local paper, the Chicago RedEye, said it all by unwittingly capturing the film's "have-it-both-ways" line on sex addiction: "Full Frontal Fassbender: Ready to talk sex addiction? The 'Shame' star lets it all hang out with RedEye."

The interview in question, "The Naked Truth," is tamer than you might think, but it features Fassbender and Shame-director Steve McQueen talking earnestly about sex addiction. They liken the ostracism that apparently afflicts addicts today to that endured by people coping with HIV and Aids in the 1980s, a stretch if ever there was one. But their earnestness seems artificial and overdone, too. The baffled interviewer, locating them in the assigned hotel room, reports that he actually walked in to find them dancing.

Maybe they were celebrating hitting a nerve in American culture, with its particular blend of voyeurism and moralism (especially over sex), but it's difficult to shake the impression that they've opted rather cynically to lard the film with far-more graphic sex than the story "demands," only to relabel the misadventure pathological in its protagonist. As Scott notes in the New York Times, "The movie ... presents Brandon for our titillation, our disapproval and perhaps our envy, but denies him access to our sympathy. I know, that's the point, that Mr. McQueen wants to show how the intensity of Brandon's need shuts him off from real intimacy, but this seems to be a foregone conclusion, the result of an elegant experiment that was rigged from the start."

The APA's move to create and approve "Hypersexual Disorder," however, is by no stretch of the imagination "an elegant experiment." And though its pathologization of "excessive" sex is being presented as more or less a foregone conclusion, how many Americans are truly reconciled to seeing "excessive time ... consumed by sexual fantasies and urges" become the defining symptom of a new mental disorder? Above all, should it matter that a majority of men and women in this country, as around the world, will recognize themselves in that description?  Follow me on Twitter: @christophlane