Shame, Sex-Positivity and The Sensationalizing of Sex Addiction (Rachel Kramer Bussel on “Shame”)

The new film Shame, starring an often-nude Michael Fassbinder as Brandon, with Carey Mulligan as his sister, Cissy, directed by Steve McQueen, is drawing lots of buzz and discussion about whether sex addiction actually exists.

Fassbinder plays a man for whom sex, often with sex workers and strangers, is an escape from the horrors of his childhood; horrors which are never fully detailed, but left to the viewer’s imagination. Fassbinder is seen strolling languidly around his apartment in the buff, having sex facing a window, viewable by the Manhattan masses, compulsively masturbating in his office’s bathroom, and generally looking for the next woman, women, or, in one scene, man, to get off with.

The film is intense and disturbing, the sex scenes far from erotic, deliberately so. I don’t know if I’ve ever watched a movie where there was such a stark contrast between what we are supposed to think sex is like — namely, that it’s sexy — and the clear terror that it actually was for Brandon; because it surely is not an actual escape. Even on a date with a coworker, he’s not good at making casual conversation; she asks what he thinks of marriage and he wonders why anyone would want to be tied down their whole life.

While the film never tells us what childhood demons Brandon and his sister are actually fighting, they don’t need to. Clearly, he has issues, and is working through them — or at least, thinks he is — via mostly anonymous sex….

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