According to Feona Attwood, author of MAINSTREAMING SEX: THE SEXUALIZATION OF WESTERN CULTURE, we live in a highly “liberalised sexual culture” where “hypersexualized imagery” and “porn chic” becomes “a taken-for-granted mode of representation”. Sex addiction is a subject not regularly represented on screen but, in a three year period, Steve McQueen’s British independent drama SHAME (2011), romantic comedy THANKS FOR SHARING (Steven Blumberg 2012) and Lars von Trier’s art film NYMPHOMANIAC (2013) all presented sex addiction in differing ways. The fact that these three films have been made show we live in a highly sexualised and increasingly pornofied culture.
SHAME excerpts the life of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), an attractive New York businessman whose life is dictated his by sex addiction. Brandon is an introvert with a cold and dry personality, that we never warm to. While it is never stated in the film, Brandon’s addiction is established in his constant drive for physical satisfaction from masturbating to having intimate relations with female sex workers and men in clubs. Concentrating on the morality of the subject, the film details the emotional impact of the addiction on Brandon, his failure and humiliation. It is a bleak account that offers no resolution; Brandon never admits to his sex addiction or indicates whether there is a desire to help himself.
In NYMPHOMANIAC, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recites her life of lust, desire and sex to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) and how it has led to her current situation. Joe is an unusual, unemotional character who goes to great lengths to find sexual satisfaction. These lengths are shown in explicit sex scenes of simulated sex on screen, bondage and homosexual encounters. The subject of sex addiction is explicitly stated throughout the film but the intention is to be provocative, to shock rather than be taken as representative of sex addiction. It raises the question put forward by Laurence O’Toole in his book PORNOCOPIA: PORN, SEX, TECHNOLOGY AND DESIRE of “how far art can go before it slips beneath the pulp liaisons and into pure sleaze”.
THANKS FOR SHARING is a light-hearted romantic comedy about a support group for sex addicts and tracks various members of the group including Adam (Mark Ruffalo) and other characters as they attempt to manage their addiction. It attempts to present the “problem” of sex addiction to mainstream audiences and shows characters trying to combat their addiction but focusing on what happens after the addict admits they have a problem. The film does touch lightly on the sexualised and pornofied society that we live in as Adam is subjected to sexual billboard adverts as he walks along the street but it does not show the emotional impact or the morality that SHAME shows.
The three films all bring the issue of sex addition to light through their differing representations. Collectively, they highlight sex addiction as an issue in society that isn’t being voiced enough and reflect what O’Toole refers to as “culture’s on-going search for the truth of sex”.