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Sex addiction shame and sympathy


Shame (R). Director: Steve McQueen. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan. 101 minutes

Films about addiction tend to follow a formula, albeit one that chimes with reality. When we meet the addicted character they are generally 'functional', their addiction hidden in the margins of a more civilised lifestyle. The film tracks their 'downward spiral' as the addiction takes an ever larger place in their life and feeds other destructive behaviours.

At some point the character hits rock bottom, before a tragedy — or near tragedy — affecting themselves or a loved one, provides an emotional and psychological shock that has the potential to break the pattern of addiction — a Pyrrhic victory.

The best of such films — and Shame is among them — achieve this in a way that is not merely voyeuristic, but which offers insight into the nuances of the character's emotional and psychological makeup, and their humanity. As a story about addiction, Shame follows the formula. What makes it distinctive is that the addiction in question is not a drug or other substance, but sex.

The film is not reticent about its full frontal consideration of this subject. Within the opening minutes we see Brandon (Fassbender) walk naked across his apartment, the camera placed unabashedly at waist height. Biologically speaking, Brandon's genitals are at the centre of his addiction, and therefore presumably at the forefront of his addicted mind.

His addiction finds several expressions. These range from the excessive use of pornography (including on his work computer), to one-night stands with women seduced in bars, to more deviant behaviours such as paid cyber sex via webcam. There are graphic scenes, yet the most powerfully erotic captures merely an exchange of lewd glances between Brandon and a stranger on a train.

The sex Brandon uses to fulfill the demands of his addiction is divorced from intimacy. As a matter of fact he finds himself physically unable to engage in sex with the one partner with whom romantic involvement seems like a possibility. Immediately afterwards, he engages the services of a prostitute to satisfy his craving. Evidently his impotence was of an emotional rather than physical nature.

He fears intimacy, perhaps only partly due to the personal shame of his addiction. It is offered to him by his sister, Sissy (Mulligan), yet he responds to her with rage and contempt. She, like Brandon, bears wounds from an unnamed past trauma: 'We're not bad, we just come from a bad place,' she reminds him. 'Damage' is another trope of the addiction story, with addiction the sinister salve.

Director McQueen's background is as a visual artist, and as with his previous film Hunger, the themes of Shame are expressed both frankly and artfully (although a scene where Brandon stares into the camera with an anguished expression, while he has sex with two prostitutes, is uncharacteristically on-the-nose). It also offers hope, though no promise, of salvation. Addiction is never easily shaken.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, addiction



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Existing comments

'"Damage" is another trope of the addiction story, with addiction the sinister salve.' That is a thoughtful, apt and delicate description stemming from a good insight; thank you. Social workers and theorists have long contended that as well as the physiological pay-off of a high, a win, or an orgasm, addiction is a means of medicating and/or mediating past traumas and hurts. As Tim writes, in this instance, sexual addiction could mask an inability to acheve or sustain emotional and spiritual intimacy. New research on the brain from the University of Cambridge, published in Science magazine, 3 February 2012, examined the brains of both addicted siblings and non-addicted siblings and found substantial differences in how their brains are wired - compared to the brains of members of the general population. In other words, some individuals are empirically verifiable as being naturally more susceptible to becoming addicted. While the research reveals abnormalities in brain systems that are 'implicated in self-control in both stimulant-dependent individuals and their biological siblings' - relating specifically to chronic drug abuse - the fact that some human beings are wired differently to the general population may also apply to addiction in broader terms including gambling and sex addiction. In all fields of addiction, a medical perspective/model of treatment, rather than a moralistic framework, would seem to be the more enlightened, just and rewarding approach.

Barry G | 09 February 2012  

Barry, haven't there also been neurological studies and theories recently regarding the plasticity of the brain? That its physiology can be partly shaped by the will? Is it possible that the different wiring identified in the study you cite is affect as well as cause? I think there would be many who would attest that reform of an addition has been the result of a decision (or a whole lot of continuing decisions), likely assisted by ordinary people around them, rather than of medication or brain surgery. I agree we should never abandon the difficult goal of being charitable in our judgements of people, and we should help them with medical solutions if appropriate, but let's not relegate moral agency behind our imperfect current scientific knowledge. (As an aside, I’m sure there are books about this, but I wonder, when science claims to identify objective reality and order – is this 'nature over nurture' - and could its findings be described as endorsing 'natural law'? Or are there exceptions to every law, and does science seek these too? Then how does this affect the authority of science as the source of virtually everything worth knowing?)

David Moloney | 09 February 2012  

Reading both Barry and David's comments, it seems some commentators are unable to see things on a spiritual level and merely regard the human body as a machine that either works or doesn't work properly - so as to somehow decide whether the person is responsible (ie guilty). You can keep reading your books and quote scientists, but perhaps maybe talk to an addict and see what they think.

AURELIUS | 10 February 2012  

Aurelius, the point of my comments was not guilt, but change. I’m sorry they appeared academic and remote – very many of us have been or are personally affected by addiction, directly or through someone close to us. My belief is that personal accountability, with the help of God, and the engagement and love of those around us (not excluding professionals and ultimately scientists), is our hope.

David Moloney | 10 February 2012  

Yes, we can change, but doing it willingly by forcing behaviourial changes is counterproductive. As an existential psychologist, Victor Frankl disagreed with the “machine model”, as it undermines the human quality of humans. According to Frankl's LOGOTHERAPY - 'anticipatory anxiety' is the fear of a given outcome which makes that outcome more likely.

AURELIUS | 10 February 2012  

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