The Movie Shame and the Myth of Sexually Compulsive Gratification

By George N. Collins, M.A., with Andrew Adleman, M.A., authors of Breaking the Cycle: Free Yourself from Sex Addiction, Porn Obsession, and Shame

At a recent gathering, I was speaking with a man about my job as a sex addiction counselor. He had a dubious look. He didn't quite understand the need for sex addiction counseling. In his imagination, being a sex addict must be like being part of a nonstop orgy of pleasure, satisfaction, and fun. As we talked, he began to think about it as being an alcoholic. Most of the big drinkers he knew were not all that happy. As a recovering sex addict myself, I explained that being a sex addict was not fun. In fact, it was filled with loneliness, dissatisfaction, and suffering. If you, like the man I recently spoke with, are not sure whether to believe that sex addiction is filled with suffering, then see the new movie Shame.

Directed by British director Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender (who has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award), Shame, as the title implies, accurately portrays just how difficult and painful it is to be run by one's sexually compulsive behaviors. Because I am a recovering sex addict and work primarily with sexually compulsive clients in my counseling practice, I have both experienced and heard probably more than you ever want to know about the shame associated with sexually compulsive behavior.

If you still hold the belief that sex addiction is not really an addiction or even a true behavioral disorder, then imagine an alcoholic having an ongoing binge of which they remember little or nothing, behave badly, and feel remorse and shame until they start again. Now substitute sex addict for alcoholic, and meaningless sexual encounters for drinking binge, and you will have a rough approximation of what it's like being addicted to sexually compulsive behaviors. You get on that treadmill to orgasm, and it's not satiation that you are left with but shame. Wanting to rid yourself of that feeling of shame, you are onto the next fantasy, the next porn experience, the next massage parlor rendezvous, the next meaningless encounter, all of which typically occurs without any real connection with another human being. There is no intimacy in sex addiction. There is no true satisfaction. But there is shame.

At this point, some readers may be thinking of public figures such as Tiger Woods or Anthony Weiner, and, if you're a man, imagining wonderful, wild, uninhibited sexual indulgences of parties and pleasures. If you're a woman, you might believe that men just like to look at naked women and have sex. You might believe that sex addiction is a myth. Although you and I were most likely not present when these or other celebrities were playing out their sexually compulsive behaviors, the only part of our fantasies about their fantasies that might be true is that they were, in fact, playing out fantasies.

When we are sexually objectifying and acting on that objectification, there is no real connection. There is no intimacy. There is no actual exchange of love because the person being "sexed" with is not so much a person as the object of a fantasy. The movie Shame shows the truth, the desperation of being caught in the need to have a sexual release any way possible, over and over, and trying to get away from an inner pain and longing that the sexually addicted individual can never escape.

Similar to the character that Michael Fassbender portrays in Shame, the hundreds of men I've seen in my sex addiction counseling practice are good people. The essential nature of almost each and every man, or woman, is intact. However (and this is, of course, a generalization), often due to some aberrant and sometimes horrendous childhood experiences or traumas, they need to cope with specific fears, such as the fear of getting close to another human being in an open, emotional, vulnerable, intimate way. So the person may create a story about how to interact in a way that seems safer to them. It is that story that they play out in sexually compulsive behaviors.

Michael Fassbender portrayed how a sex addict can be living out a story rather than the truth of who the person really is. In fact, just as he was playing a part in the movie, most sex addicts are playing a role in the story that they have made up about who they are and how to live their lives. The story runs their lives and leads them to a dark, hopeless place of trying to find satisfaction in what can ultimately never satisfy them. They go round and round on a treadmill of compulsion, never arriving at a place of true satisfaction, and never being without shame.

Carey Mulligan, who plays the sister of Michael Fassbender's character, is also playing out a story in which she, like her brother, is living with the broken capacity to bond with another human being, leading to isolation, loneliness, and estrangement. The sister is not a sex addict, yet she has her own self-destructive coping mechanisms to deal with what shaped her in childhood. Although the movie does not define what in their childhoods provided the background for an inability to connect, the movie accurately depicts the heartbreak of not being able to delight in an intimate connection with another being.

Just as the movie Shame was a script, men and women exhibiting sexually addictive behaviors also have a script that they go by to play out the stories of their lives. Unlike watching a movie, men and women in real life have the possibility of rewriting their scripts so that, rather than living out a myth and chasing ultimately unsatisfying fantasies, they can change their ways of thinking, their ways of feeling, and their ways of acting.

If you happen to be a sex addict, one way to change your behavior is to see yourself in terms of what I call "What's Always True." What's always true is your Essential Self. You are not the story that your mind tells you about needing to look at porn, needing to find a sex partner, or needing to have a sexual release. Yes, most of us need to be sexual in some way. However, those of us who are or have been sexually compulsive need to be aware of when we are chasing a fantasy that will only lead to unhappiness and more shame. If you find yourself on that treadmill moving toward sexually compulsive behavior, you can mentally step back and see that you are, in fact, in a story, and you can remind yourself of the truth about yourself. You can get in touch with your Essential Nature that is not sexually compulsive. You can remember "what's always true."

Next, if you have "what's always true" as the basis for who you truly are -- your Essential Self -- in a moment when you are pulled toward sexually compulsive behavior, you can ask the second and most important question: "What else can I do right now besides this damaging sexually compulsive behavior?" "What else?" could be the beginning of your recovery and relief from shame and pain. "What else?"

George N. Collins, M.A. treats sexual addiction at his counseling center, Compulsion Solutions, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the co-author, with Andrew Adleman, of Breaking the Cycle: Free Yourself from Sex Addiction, Porn Obsession, and Shame (New Harbinger, 2011). He is also the co-author, with his wife Paldrom Collins, of A Couple's Guide to Sexual Addiction: A Step-by-Step Plan to Rebuild Trust and Restore Intimacy.