March 12, 2012


abre los ojos

Shame is a movie that if you haven't seen by now, you won't, but for damn sure don't attempt to watch it on a flight to Chicago.  What you've probably heard is that it is a bleak but honest movie about sex addiction and maybe about incest, full of nudity and uncircumcised penis dangling deliciously between some toned Irish Catholic's legs as he urinates.  Sound like something you want to see?  Hold that thought.

How do you feel after three hours on the Pornotron?  You're able to focus on the math homework afterwards, ok, but at the very instant a blast of semen hits you in the neck your first thought is, "Jesus, I need to kill myself."

That thought-- that instant-- is what the sex addict feels all the time.  The question is not why does he feel that-- shame is what you're supposed to feel after anything that involves Craigslist.  The question is why it doesn't make him stop.


If you want to understand a behavioral disorder, watch the behavior.

One common explanation sex addicts offer is that it is the novelty that they crave, and when enough people with pathology agree on something you can pretty much guarantee that that agreement is part of the pathology, i.e. an unconscious defense.  Sorry artists, broken people aren't given greater insight as a consolation prize.  The novelty is in fact trivial: yes, different partners, but the same kinds of sex, with the same kinds of people, in the same places, in the same ways, bolstered by the same kinds of porn.   Repetition compulsion masquerading as novelty seeking.  "You don't understand," says the analogous alcoholic, "I'm always looking for new drinks."

The important point is that in sex addiction the addict is not satisfied by the sex he just had because he is self-consciously aware that something unidentified is missing, and that lack leaves the orgasmer with an abundance of disgust and shame.  Just went from being a made up disease to a typical Friday night.  Right ladies?

This is something the movie does depict very accurately: after Brandon has some sex, he then immediately has some other kind of sex.  This isn't an overactive sex drive, it is trying to get the sex right.   That's the dialectic.  After he has a quickie with a hottie, he goes home and masturbates.  He climaxed with her, he was done, but it didn't take.  It is easier to get it right with masturbation, not because the hand knows better than the vagina/mouth/butt/breast but because there are always micro-corrections to the fantasy happening in real time-- so the movie you're shooting in your head has a woman fellating a guy, but then she gives a certain look, and then you make her repeat a half-second of that scene using a different look, then you reverse time by two seconds and make her phone her husband; then that disappears and they're outside on the deck, and it's not her but another woman, now it's a whole other scenario with a different cast, and an instant later back to her again; and impossibly seeing the scene from all possible sides, distances, perspectives-- nudging it this way and that to suit that instant's arousal.  In effect, you are not watching a movie but improvising from a melody, or, in more psychoanalytic terms, playing with yourself.


There's a possible incest subtext between Brandon and his sister Sissy.

fassbender and mulligan shame.jpgIf you can't see it, it's in the back: they're watching cartoons.

But if you are looking for a hard link between incest and his sex addiction you are wasting your time, there's no answer because it isn't the point of the movie.

Take the unexplained backstory as a placeholder: X happened to these characters in the past, and now they're here; where X= incest, child abuse, murder, cannibalism, school shooting, war... 

So the movie inadvertently makes an important point about your life: yes, that does sound  terrible, but now what?


I'm going to offer an interpretation.  It won't matter whether this interpretation is correct-- none of this actually happened, after all.  The point is to ask why no one else thought of this interpretation that, once you read it, will seem to you an obvious one.  Here we go.

The key to understanding Brandon's problem is not just to look at the sex he pursues, but also his attempt at having a normal relationship. That's behavior, too, right?

For the first half of the movie he's rubbing his penis against anything sufficiently (com)pliant, and then he's disgusted with his life and decides he needs to become a normal person.  This is your American Psycho/Matrix moment: he knows he's whacked, and he knows what normal looks like-- he can fake it-- but he can't feel it inside. What to do?  Patrick Bateman created an alternate universe and then gets confused which one is real-- he becomes psychotic.  Brandon tries to create a fake world where he acts like a normal person and substitute it for the real one where he is not:  This would be The Baudrillard Matrix.  This is why he walks around as one who is in a dream.

shame elevators.jpg
See that guy?  What he's looking at isn't an elevator door or a floor or a wall, he may as well be seeing cascading green characters.  Everything he sees is sex.  In the staggered brick pattern of the wall he sees a 69; the rounded elevator button reminds him of a clitoris; a footstep behind him is a woman sneaking out of her husband's bed.  These are instantaneous and millisecond association flashes that happen all the time.

So with that seeing of a world within a world, Brandon decides to try a normal relationship-- go on a date, connect, love.  Of course he runs the date like it's a movie scene, does things he assumes normal people do in normal relationships: he asks out a nice girl named Marianne, takes her out to a nice dinner, orders wine, talk about where she's from, etc.

However-- and this is of such importance that no one else has even dared to mention it-- the woman he chose to go on a date with is black.  From his job.

SHAME_date.jpgSlow down, multicultural lemmings, this isn't some dumb TV commercial with a blacks/asians/whites all inexplicably smiling about a shared taste in fast food.  This guy is a porn addict: all day, every day, constantly, he micro-scrutinizes every aspect of sexuality to find just the thing that will get him off, and he chose to find love with a black woman. 

"Well, she seemed nice, so he asked her out."   So run it the other way: Brandon picks up one night stands in bars, ok, but it's not Mos Eisley, those are nice bars, which means the women he meets there are probably nice, ordinary people.  People he could fall in love with if he chose to.  So Brandon could have attempted a relationship with the hot blonde he picked up in Act I that he instead used for a quickie-- that was a decision he made.

shame blonde bar.jpg

Right?   She looks nice enough.  The law does not require <<hot blondes>> to only be used as sex objects, in most states you are still permitted to love them into their old age.  And she was already attracted to him and he to her-- 80% of the way there.  So?

Nope, he chose a black woman from Brooklyn.  Don't you want to know why?  Was this someone he's had his eye on for a while?  Someone whose personality he knows fits with his?  Shared values, common goals, etc, etc?  Again, no, he knew nothing about her.  He does a cold approach in the break room.

What's interesting for our culture is that in all the discussion about this film and the nuances of sex addiction, no film critic has wondered about the significance of Marianne's race, maybe because they think its normal and probably because they don't want to be thought of as someone who notices race.

So while everyone pats themselves on the back for their non-judgmental acceptance of the nature of Brandon's addiction-- "it's not immorality, it's a disease"-- they overlook what might be of pivotal significance.  "You're a racist!" protests the horrifically bad therapist you should throw your shoe at.  "There's nothing wrong with interracial dating!"   I happen to agree, but how do you know Brandon does?  Why don't you put down your Mont Blanc and yellow legal pad and ask him?

What drives Brandon is his sexual addiction. So why would we assume Matrix Brandon's pursuit of a girlfriend comes from a different power source than his pursuit of other women?  Everything he sees is porn: what is the pornographic significance of black women to white men?  Did he pick her because he's MORE sexually attracted to black women, or because he was NOT attracted to black women?  Because he thought they were "better" than white chicks?  Or because he considered them inferior?

Without understanding that-- without understanding what he sees as a "normal" relationship-- without believing that there is critical information in everything other than his sex addiction--  you inevitably make the wrong interpretation about his sex addiction.  For example, the date is awkward but she still goes home with him-- and, surprise, he's impotent.  Here's where you're supposed to think, "oh, sex addicts have difficulty with intimacy."  WRONG. Maybe he didn't try intimacy and fail. Maybe he did everything he could, upfront, to sabotage his chance for a real relationship.  He chose her because he "knew" it would fail, and when it wasn't failing he hit the failsafe: impotence.

I don't mean interracial relationships fail in general, I mean that there is a good chance this character would have diminished expectations for the relationship he was attempting relative to other women, which is why he attempted it.   Just to be sure, he tells her on the first date he doesn't think there's a point to marriage.  Glad we got that out of the way, gives a gal a sense of possibilities.   That's him trying to be normal?  No.  That's him trying to fail.

Of course this is a movie and of course Brandon didn't pick her, the director picked her.  But if you follow this interpretation, then it may be that he picks women he won't get along with to reinforce his belief that he isn't normal-- so that he can just throw himself into his sex addiction.  He doesn't want to change.

If this is true, it brings us to a very important conclusion: he was using her.   No, he wasn't going to use her for sex, but he wasn't going to really love her either.  He was using her for his identity.  Read this again and understand: when he uses the whores and the quickies to get off he feels SHAME, but when he uses a very nice girl with a legitimate interest in him for his pathetic charade at normality, he feels NOTHING for her.   "We're not bad people," his sister Sissy says to him at one point, "we just come from a bad place."  God would disagree, but fortunately for you he is dead.


I certainly don't begrudge anyone looking to lay some pipe or a woman looking for a pipelayer, but again, I am neither a film critic nor a therapist, I do not assume normality for you, I let you decide that for yourself.  I may secretly believe that harlots and gays go to H-E-double toothpicks, but I do not think harlots and gays can't be happy until then.

However, if you tell me you are unhappy, if you tell me you are all mixed up about the life you are leading, then expect a critique of the life you are leading, not just the pathology you are projecting it all onto.  "I'm a sex addict!" says the guy who can't get it up with black chicks.    You picked your life.  You may not think you picked it, you may think you were forced into it and inescapably tied to it, but I saw Badlands and I know that every moment is a choice, right up to and including blowing your brains out. So not sleeping with that hill giant is a choice you chose not to make.  Saying, "I had no choice," is itself a choice.  Your choices may be stupid, but they're still choices.   And as all choices in life are ultimately binary, you really have no one else to blame for them but yourself.  Flipping a coin should win you happiness 50% of the time.  If you're running less than that.................. consider getting a coin.  Unless you're one of those double-bind mofos, then the key advice here is to Costanza the situation and do the opposite of every natural impulse you have.  NB: same goes for stock trading. 

I get that sex addiction looks like fun taken to excess, but a real addict doesn't think any of it is fun, he thinks it's all terrible. So that's where we start: why are you doing terrible things?

"I can't help it, sex is an innate evolutionary drive that I just have set to turbo!"  Funny, that.  The popular lie nowadays is evolutionary biology, so that a pursuit of beauty is somehow hard wired, evolutionary, but curiously no one can explain why it's hard wired towards 36-24-32 and not the 36-37-38  lassies in the Yoruba tribe.  (They like it from behind.)  Oh, maybe natural selection is rendering American white humans more sexually perfect, a process accelerated by their below replacement level fertility.  Or maybe not.  Beauty is a social construction.  I'm all in, but it is a construction nevertheless.  The reason I think women are hot today is that they are today, not that they are hot.  I watch pornos from the seventies and I think to myself, "well, it would be better than bestiality, I guess."   Everyone from the cast of Shampoo to the special guest stars on The Love Boat make me want to be a promisekeeper, meanwhile Wilt Chamberlain had sex with 10000 of these gorgons.  Get it?  It's a calendar problem, not an aesthetics problem.  So when you say you're addicted to "sex" or porn, you're actually addicted to the work product of a Madison Avenue brainstorm run by guys whose names are initials. "Quick, call J.T., the rubes'll eat this up!"  Still feel ashamed?  Yeah, you should.  I do.


The problem with sex addiction, unlike the other addictions, it is always framed as harm to you.  No one uses the actual consequences as a reason to stop.  Be careful: yes, you get to feel "shame", but the real problem with sex addiction isn't that it destroys your life but that it destroys everyone else's life.  No wife has ever questioned her self-worth, let alone killed herself, because she found a vodka bottle in the back of a toilet.   Try and "admit you have a problem"-- this problem-- to your daughter, and see how fast she gets a neck tattoo.  And the risk of sex addiction isn't that you contract a disease, the risk is that you spread the disease.  How can you stand there and pretend that any of your hundreds of partners are more likely to be infected than you?

Brandon is toxic death, he just cleans up well.  Hookers have the savvy to resist him-- after sex, he asks a pro, "can I get you anything?  A drink?" and she just smirks and dismisses him.  But what defense does Marianne have?  Imagine he married Marianne: why did he do this?  He wants a normal life with a wife, super, but he's not willing to give up his reckless sexual pursuits.  Is that fair?  The analogy to Patrick Bateman is worse than you think: Bateman only imagined he was killing people.  Brandon simply doesn't care if he's killing anyone. 

The incomprehensible thing about Brandon's pathology is that there doesn't need to be anything wrong with him for him to be addicted. He might have a history of childhood abuse, of course, but he may just as well have not. 

Brandon has a very specific problem, and it is not sex: freedom. 

In order to get sexual satisfaction from anything, that thing has to be unattainable, or at the very least it must come with rules.  You can get release and pleasure from the attainable, but not satisfaction.  There has to be a limit, a line, which defines a transgression which then allows you to bump up against it-- and be satisfied.  In America, almost anything you can imagine is sexually permitted even as limits to "appropriate sexuality" are everywhere.  The awareness of the ubiquity of Photoshop on models serves this same frustrating purpose: this super hot woman that I take for granted that I get to see almost naked for no good reason isn't actually her-- the real her is hidden beneath Photoshop. She is still a mystery.  So the Photoshop enhancement only temporarily heightens the sexual interest-- which is why it is paired with products to buy now;  the real satisfaction has to be attained elsewhere-- the Photoshopped model triggers a desire to look for satisfaction elsewhere-- e.g. the products, alternatively other women, porn, etc.  Similarly, while porn actresses are hotter than ever, three hours in all you want is amateurs.  Nasty.

Brandon knows he can get any kind of sex any time he wants, so it always fails.  Not sometimes.  Always.  Watch the movie.  But he keeps trying, in the same ways, over and over.   He also tries to simulate the perfect sexual experience, copy what looks like works. He walks by a couple having sex in a hotel window, so he then rents a room in that same hotel and has sex with a prostitute in the window in the exact same manner.  Does it take?  Of course not-- it was too easy.  When you sign a contract with narcissism there's a clause you should pay attention to: if it's easy, it doesn't count. 

If you are a product of your behavior, start wearing a watch again to discover who you actually are.  If the sex addict gets a watch, hell, gets a calendar, what he will discover is that he has practiced no other skill more diligently than pursuing empty sex that he knows is unsatisfying to him.  That's what he's spent the most time on, that's what he knows how to do the best. Better than driving, better than speaking, better than Xbox-- he has that mindset down to a reflex.  So why would you expect he'd use any other technique for any other life problems that come up?  If all you are is an expert hammerer, everything gets hammered.

The solution to your problem-- and of course only 0.3% of you are true sex addicts, so I am now talking to those who feel a little ashamed at how much porn they use or about the ringwraiths they've bedded-- is not to refrain-- you can't resist your desires forever. You must practice a new skill, you must become the kind of person who wouldn't turn to porn when they are: lonely; horny; boredy.  If you practice a new skill enough times, it will become second first nature, and you will be a different person. Please note that it is that last part, not the giving up of porn, that makes the change difficult.  Giving up porn is easy squeezy.  Becoming the kind of person who doesn't need to use porn on Thursdays at 11:30p because that's when you have a few hours free is hard.

I'm supposed to say porn is bad for you and you shouldn't start, but too late.  And masturbating without porn is probably good practice for your brain, which is odd to say but in today's world anything that requires more than 15 minutes of focused concentration is technically Olympic training.

But the practical thing people do wrong with porn is put it in the Matrix: pretend to themselves it's bad, pretend it's not something they do, yet spend tons of time on it.  So it drags on for hours.  Accept it and lock it down to a specific length of time.  You won't feel nearly as ashamed.

Wait, were we talking about Brandon not wanting intimacy?


There is a single remarkable insight in Shame, unfortunately buried in the midst of all the penis and vagina.  The movie is called Shame, but there is a crucial instance of guilt: when his sister attempts suicide.  (She survives.)

For a man who didn't notice he was dating a black woman, he is remarkably attentive in other ways; he walks onto a subway platform where police have blocked off a scene and magically  he knows his sister has slit her wrists back in his apartment.

How did he know?  Because he feels guilty, and guilt is omniscient.  You know it's guilt because no one else would blame him for what she did, and yet he knows with total certainty that it was his fault, even though it wasn't.  Yet he knows it was.

What he is actually feeling guilty about isn't that he wasn't there for his sister-- that's too easy to get out of-- but that his commitment to his own life made him not be there for his sister.  Anyone who has ever lost someone to suicide knows this feeling, and everyone else does not.  The guilt, re-framed relentlessly, over the rest of your life: if I hadn't been so into my work; if I hadn't been so wrapped up in tennis; if I hadn't been cheating on my wife; if I hadn't been so religious; if I hadn't watched TV every night and instead devoted that time to him; if I X, if I hadn't Y.

The truth is there is no real answer there, because when you hit the bottom of that devotional cycle you wind back up the other way: maybe if I had given him more space, if I had given him more time alone, if I hadn't forced him to spend so much time with the family, if I had worked longer hours to teach him that life is work, or X... 

The only thing I've ever found that works, in the absence of a God who can forgive you, is to understand your guilt as not coming from the failing but generated by you as self-punishment, so that you can go on with the rest of your life.  Have you suffered enough today?  Then go have a Reuben, they're tasty. You've earned it. 

The guilt always stays with you.  Always.  It never goes away. Never.  I'm of course not saying you deserve it, but I know it is your inevitable tormentor.  So either you reach some kind of stalemate with it or it beats you down.  That stalemate is sublimation.

In Brandon's case it is that guilt which motivates him to try and change his life, so when he sees the married woman from Act I again on the subway he doesn't get up to flirt with her.  He lets her go, he has decided to be the kind of person who sublimates his sex drive to devote more attention to his whacky sister,.  To being a better person. 

That's one interpretation, anyway, but I am telling you now, it is the only one that will save you.