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. While some have referred to a scene where he goes to a gay sex club and gets a blowjob as his “bisexual” moment, the look on his face as it’s happening is, to my mind, anything but sexual. It’s almost torturous, and McQueen plays up Fassbinder’s horror/compulsion throughout the film. We rarely see him laugh or smile, and while he isn’t sinister, exactly, and clearly feels fraught over what he’s doing — one scene that’s basically a “throwing out porn” episode entails him tossing endless sex toys, including a Hitachi Magic Wand, XXX videos and magazines splayed open to their most pornographic images, into a giant garbage bag, along with his laptop — he continues to seek solace, if that’s what it is, in sex.
Shame is haunting, but when you break down the cues of what Brandon’s sex addiction is composed of, it’s hard to tell where his sex addiction starts and yours or my interest in sex begins. Is hiring a sex worker a sign of sex addiction? Watching porn? Participating in interactive porn? Masturbating often? Preferring sex over interaction with family members? Some would argue that when it’s interfering with someone’s work or home life, when it’s superseding all other areas, that’s when it becomes an addiction. Since we don’t see Brandon being anything other than a sex addict, we don’t get the benefit of knowing what his life was like before it took this dark turn, which makes the film all the sadder.
McQueen is quoted in The Miami Herald calling Shame a “responsible” movie and elaborating, “We are focusing on a man who is not promiscuous. He is a sex addict, and that is a big difference. Sex engulfs his life. He’s like an alcoholic who can’t leave the house without a bottle of whiskey. And that kind of addiction destroys people’s lives.” I agree with that assessment, but I’m not sure there’s a hard and fast rule for what is one person’s idea of “promiscuous” versus another’s “addiction,” at least, by the numbers. Surely the motivation and way of achieving it is paramount, all the more so when it comes to sex, which most often is going to involve another person.
I’m pretty sure one of my exes was a sex addict, in part because he was in other recovery programs, and some of his behavior that I discovered after the fact seemed to jibe with that. But at the same time, he was successful in his field. The problem with framing, well, the “problem” as one solely of addiction, is that it then doesn’t have room to encompass people who may want to change their sexual decision-making, but don’t consider themselves sex addicts. Anna David tells of being diagnosed as a “sexual anorexic” at The Fix, a diagnosis she didn’t necessarily agree with, but felt must fit her if a doctor was telling her she had it.
The danger of how to handle the issue with a sex-positive outlook is made clear by Newsweek’s sensationalistic story by Chris Lee, who writes, “And though watching porn isn’t the same as seeking out real live sex, experts say the former can be a kind of gateway drug to the latter,” and approvingly quotes XXXChurch founder Craig Gross, while managing to mix gay hookup app Grindr and affair facilitation site Ashley Madison casually into his argument that sex addiction is an epidemic. If it is, does that mean that everyone having casual sex or affairs is part of it? If so, that would be a pretty big epidemic indeed!
Here are some of the questions you’ll find in the Sexual Addiction Screening Test I found within the first page of Google results for “sex addiction:”
Do you ever feel bad about your sexual behavior?
Are any of your sexual activities against the law?
Do you hide some of your sexual behaviors from others?
Have you used the Internet to make romantic or erotic connections with people online?
Have you subscribed to or regularly purchased or rented sexually explicit materials (magazines, videos, books or online pornography)?
Have you spent considerable time and money on strip clubs, adult bookstores and movie houses?
Have you regularly purchased romantic novels or sexually explicit magazines?
Have you maintained multiple romantic or sexual relationships at the same time?
Have you regularly engaged in sadomasochistic behaviors?
And, my favorite of all: “Do you feel that your sexual behavior is not normal?” If anyone has always been able to answer that last question with “no,” congratulations to you, but I’d be the vast majority of readers of this or any website would at some point have questioned whether they’re “normal;” it’s part of growing up and coming into our own. I don’t think I need to point out the conservative values built into many of these questions. Almost all of them are leading and disturbing and subjective, without further knowledge a person’s life. That does not mean sex addiction doesn’t exist, but that diagnosing it requires questioning one’s sexual values and priorities, as well as our culture’s. Of course Brandon’s real-life counterparts need some kind of help, but whose help, and how, are just as important questions to ask as what sex addiction is and who has it.