It’s impossible to have an honest conversation about sex addiction without talking about shame. It can serve as both the fundamental cause of the addiction and the driving force that continually fuels it. Causes of sex addiction such as trauma or attachment issues are the breeding ground for shame which becomes so unbearable that those suffering can seek distraction and refuge in compulsive sexual behaviours and after acting-out, these feelings of shame return and thus ignite the cycle again.
Shame, unlike guilt, is the belief that you are inherently bad and unworthy, rather than you have behaved badly and this massively impacts a person’s sense of identity. People are then forced to develop defence strategies to conceal their shame such as withdrawing and avoiding, or attacking themselves and others. What is interesting about these defence mechanisms is how much they differ between men and women and ultimately, it shows how toxic ideas of masculinity have contributed significantly to widespread sex addiction and continue to hinder the possibility of recovery. I was reminded recently of one of the most well-known, successful films about sex addiction – Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’ and decided to watch it again. The film serves as a perfect example of the negative impact of outdated modes of masculinity on managing shame and thus, sex addiction recovery.
A critique of shame, sex addiction and toxic masculinity in the film Shame
For those who don’t know the film, Shame follows Brandon Sullivan, a seemingly successful young man living in New York, but behind the scenes we witness his secret life of pornography addiction and sex workers until this routine is disrupted by an uninvited guest: his sister, Sissy. Sissy immediately appears to be the opposite of Brandon as she is emotional and vulnerable, often appearing child-like in her behaviour, whilst Brandon is the stable adult. Significantly, Sissy’s presence seems to invoke some past trauma that Brandon strives to forget and thus he pushes her away with increasing cruelty. After failing to commit to a meaningful relationship with his colleague and yet another argument with Sissy, Brandon embarks on a lengthy sex and alcohol binge, resulting in violence and deep feelings of shame. When he arrives home, having ignored Sissy’s voicemail messages, he discovers Sissy unconscious on his bathroom floor and although Sissy survives her suicide attempt, something in Brandon cracks as he collapses to the ground in front of the Hudson River, sobbing uncontrollably. The film closes with Brandon returning to normal life and the viewer has no way of knowing whether Brandon will ever achieve recovery.
Shame is the driving force behind Brandon’s sex addiction and the film highlights the different methods of managing shame, between Brandon and his sister. In many ways, Brandon and Sissy are binary opposites as Sissy’s behaviour is unpredictable, reckless and emotional whilst Brandon endeavours to appear in control and invulnerable. Moreover, the film shows how the masculine method of managing shame is often privileged and deemed more superior as Brandon is “the strong one”. He also regularly adopts a hyper-masculine reaction to shame exposure and reacts angrily towards himself and others. This is a common response when dealing with shame, especially for men, and so in addition to self-destructive behaviours, Brandon projects his difficult emotions on to his sister and makes her the shamed one in order to protect himself. But fundamentally, despite all his masculine efforts to dominate and control, the viewer and Sissy know that Brandon is just as broken as she is and is simply better at hiding it, thus preventing the possibility of recovery arguably even more so than his sister.
‘Shame’ functions as a critique of toxic masculinity as Brandon’s desperate attempts to comply with these enforced notions of masculinity keep him trapped in his shame and addiction. Furthermore, Sissy represents the necessary femininity and vulnerability he must accept and embrace in his life if he is to be liberated from self-loathing and have meaningful relationships. During Brandon and Sissy’s final argument which triggers his acting-out and her suicide attempt, Sissy tells Brandon that she is trying to help him but this idea is unfathomable to him as he cannot understand how she, an emotionally fragile woman, could think that he is the one who requires rescuing. He reacts angrily and calls her a parasite and a burden and orders her to leave which is his final rejection of femininity and vulnerability. Brandon’s emotional breakdown in the film’s finale represents his final admission that he needs to embrace these feminine attributes if he is to recover from his addiction. He comes to realise that he has sacrificed his identity to outdated modes of masculinity and that a new mode is required – one that is better equipped to deal with shame and thus, permitting men to seek help when needed and avoid falling into addiction in the first place.
Groupwork and sex addiction
Throughout my career, I have witnessed how toxic ideas of masculinity, shame and vulnerability have caused incredible pain in the lives of sex addicts. It is also why I find group work with male sex addicts so monumentally powerful as there is finally a space where men can be themselves, share and be vulnerable without fear of judgement and surrounded by people who understand and can empathise. In this sense, I can attest to the power of this new idea of masculinity which ‘Shame’ seems to call for in order for sex addiction recovery to be possible. In order to conquer shame and effectively address our problems, we need to normalise men being vulnerable and adapt our outdated definitions of masculinity to be healthier, more inclusive, and free of shame.