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Michael Fassbender in 'Shame': Are You a Sex Addict?

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Michael Fassbender's revelatory performance in the new movie, Shame is earning him critical accolades, nominations, and awards. Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful, mild-mannered New York City businessman who happens to be a secret sex addict. Brandon's life is turned upside-down by the arrival of his unstable sister, Sissy (Carry Mulligan), sending him into an existential crisis with violent outcomes.

While many folks are interested in seeing the movie out of curiosity for Fassbender's, er, generous physical endowment (see George Clooney's "golf club" joke at the Golden Globes), they should know going in that the movie takes a very clinical, unflinching look at the highs and lows of the life of an addict.

Sexual addiction is a clinical term used to describe the behavior of a person who has an unusually strong sex drive or obsession with sex. The thought of sex dominates the sex addict's thinking, to the point that it interferes with work or engaging in healthy personal relationships. Sex addicts have distorted thinking, often rationalize and justify their behavior, and blame others for their problems. In fact, they generally deny they even have a problem, and make excuses for their actions.

Risk-taking is a big factor in sexual addiction. A person with a sex addiction engages in various forms of sexual activity, despite the potential for dangerous consequences. In addition to damaging the addict's relationships and interfering with his or her work and social life, a sexual addiction also puts them at risk for emotional and physical injury. If you've seen 'Shame', you know how spot-on Fassbender's performance is, and appreciate it for its unapologetic realism.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, these are the warning signs of sexual addiction:

  • Compulsive masturbation, to the point of physical damage
  • Multiple extra-marital affairs
  • Excessive multiple or anonymous sexual partners or one-night stands
  • Consistent use of pornography (several times a day)
  • Having unsafe sex with multiple partners
  • Compulsive phone or cybersex
  • Prostitution or the complusive use of prostitutes
  • Complusive exhibitionism
  • Obsessive dating through personal ads
  • Compulsive voyeurism and/or stalking
  • Sexual harassment
  • Molestation or rape

Just because you engage in one or two of them on occassion does not mean you are a sex addict. They must be pervasive and interfere with your normal functioning. Additionally, a sex addict gains little satisfaction from sexual activity and forms no emotional bond with sexual partners. They suffer from feelings of excruciating guilt and shame, but nevertheless feel a lack of control over their behavior despite negative consequences (financial, health, social, and emotional).

Sex addiction is difficult to treat, because the first and biggest hurdle the sex addict faces is admitting they have a problem. Usually it takes a negative event, such as a relationship or marriage break-up, job loss, arrest, or health crisis to get the addict to accept the problem, but not for everyone. After all, sex is pleasurable (like eating junk food or taking recreational drugs), and sex addicts tend to ignore negative consequences to continue their self-destructive behavior.

Increasingly, medication used to treat obsessive-complusive disorder, like Prozac, Zoloft, and Anafranil, are used to treat sexual addiction. These are antidepressants that have the side effect of decreasing a person's sex drive. Individual and marital counseling and support groups have also proven useful for some patients. Twelve-step programs modeled after those for alcohol addiction are available, but anecdotal evidence suggests these programs are not that effective, and may actually contribute to the problem, because they become "cruising spots" for sex addicts due to the continuous influx of new and vulnerable members.

If you think you may have a sexual addiction, you should talk openly and honestly to your doctor. Don't let your guilt and embarrassment prevent you from getting treatment. Remind yourself that the guilt and shame are complusive components of the disorder. Sex addiction is difficult to treat, but not impossible. It's better to seek help than let sex addiction ruin your life.

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