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Michael Fassbender in a post-coital, shame-implying scene from the movie "Shame"
Michael Fassbender in a post-coital, shame-implying scene from the movie "Shame"

Russell Smith: On Culture

Shame on us: The invention of sex addiction Add to ...

More media ink has been spilled on Shame than on any other movie this year: Its director, Steve McQueen, is profiled in every print organ in Christendom, actor Michael Fassbender is hailed as the next great Hollywood star, and his co-star, Carey Mulligan, is asked lasciviously by every interviewer what it felt like to take her clothes off for the camera.

This is a little bit odd, as it’s not a blockbuster-style movie. It’s slow-moving, awkward and largely silent. The dialogue is improvised. There are no weapons or computer graphics. The ending is inconclusive and unsatisfying. It’s an art movie.

So why is it the subject of animated dinner-party conversation across the middle classes?

Shame is about a young guy who has lots of compulsive sex with strangers, doesn’t seem to enjoy it and is incapable of emotional relationships. There is a hint toward the end that his unhappy behaviour stems from a dark childhood. The other major characters are also amorally promiscuous. So it has been mostly described as a movie about sex addiction.

Sex addiction is a fairly new and suddenly popular topic. It’s perfect daytime-TV talk-show material – addiction generally is a hot property in entertainment terms, with dozens of reality shows about it and new treatment centres advertising unique specialties in the most august of publications. Frequent celebrity deaths from drug overdoses helps the preoccupation.

Addiction, you might say, is the new addiction of the culture.

Sex addiction is a particularly troubling threat in the most sexually permissive culture in history, where sex is not only openly and legally for sale but suggested in ubiquitous imagery (particularly by the movies) and graphically represented for free on every electronic screen you own – literally with you, at your fingertips, everywhere you go.

It’s an astounding thought, really, to realize that we carry portals to pornography physically with us at home and work and on the bus every day. It’s not surprising that we’re afraid of the as-yet-undocumented effects of long-term exposure.

The invention of sex addiction reflects the culture’s deep-rooted fear that too much sex without commitment is bad for you.

Interestingly, there’s no proof of that. In fact, sex addiction isn’t even an accepted disease among most psychiatric and psychological organizations in the world. The American Psychiatric Association no longer includes it as a pathology in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. This is largely because there is no consensus even among researchers of exactly what an addiction is – there are as many definitions of addiction as there are treatment centres.

There are quite a few scientists who still hold that the disease model of addiction applies only to the use of psychoactive substances that cause increasing tolerance and then uncomfortable withdrawal. Sex does not qualify. Psychiatrists do use the term “hypersexuality” to describe compulsive promiscuity, but it’s considered a symptom of a variety of psychological disturbances, not a disease in itself.

Sex addiction is a popular concept, not a scientific one.

The movie Shame is pretty open about its moral stance – the title alone sums it up. The sex that keeps the largely eventless film rollicking along brings its protagonist nothing but misery. It brings us, the viewers, a lot of beautifully photographed convulsing bodies, a lot of stockings and nipples and hair in candle-lit restaurants and dark clubs and gorgeous glass-walled hotel rooms overlooking water. It’s as much about the empty rewards of luxury and privilege as it is about sex, and it would all look pretty inviting if the character weren’t so obviously hating it.

American cinema has a long history of creating cautionary tales about titillating subjects – starting with Reefer Madness in 1936 and Child Bride in 1938. Educational films about the dangers of premarital sex or lesbianism filled drive-ins with teenagers until the 1960s. Shame is too sophisticated and generally beautiful to be considered one of these, but it’s interesting that it uses the beauty of nudity itself to delve into the dangers of pornography. In this way, Shame is weirdly about itself; its shame is one the excited viewer is forced to share. And its theme is the next big fear.

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