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MOVIES ABOUT SEX ADDICTION ARE ALSO "A THING"

Like many other potentially addictive activities, sex between consenting adults creates a very positive feedback loop. It’s really the most powerful feedback loop we have. And it’s one of the oldest too. Over two billion years ago simple forms of bacteria started exchanging genes through intercourse as a way to gain a competitive survival advantage over those more “square” bacteria that did it the old fashion way through mitosis. And everything just went downhill from there, culminating in what we now know as divorce court. And for the purposes of this Blog Post: Sex Addiction.

Yes, sex addiction may be "a thing" in the sense that it's a recognized and diagnosed disorder. But is it truly harmful to the same catastrophic extent as alcohol and drug addiction? Yeah, sometimes. Especially to marriages and relationships. Deadly? Not usually. But maybe sometimes when deadly sexually-transmitted pathogens are involved. Still, the consequences can be negative and life-altering. But not all clinicians and the general public agree on the extent of the potential damage. Because when it comes to sex addiction, people’s understanding is heavily biased by their views on morality, religion, and free will. Sex as a “problem” really boils down to perspective.

 

Movies and other narrative media help provide that perspective.

But so does nature. If we were to look at sex addiction from the perspective of the “selfish gene”—a term the biologist and public intellectual Richard Dawkins coined in his eponymous book—we would be forced to conclude that sex addiction is DNA’s version of reproductive Blitzkrieg. Our ancestors who had the proclivity to engage in a lot of sex (who defines “a lot?”) tended to create more offspring. And this made their selfish genes extremely happy because they accomplished what natural selection required of them: replication. So in a strictly Darwinian sense, sex “addicts” enjoyed a reproductive advantage over those who were “normal.” Viewed from this isolated perspective, we might also conclude that sex addiction is a major reason life flourished on the planet to begin with.

That said, a reproductive advantage is different from a survival advantage. The subject of survival advantage in humans has more to do with social evolution, i.e. how humans interact with each other and either cooperate or try to kill one another. In this context, while sex addiction might confer a reproductive advantage, it could also exert a negative survival advantage. The sex addict hunter-gatherer who seduced or raped a man’s “mate” faced the risk of jealous retribution by the individual or the clan. The fling that just got him killed can be seen as an evolutionary Hail Mary in the game of life. If the defilement resulted in a successful pregnancy, that game ended in a tie.

The very notion of sex as an “addiction” seems to be a very recent phenomenon. When I was in high school in suburban Virginia in the late ‘70s, all my guy friends would have met the clinical definition of a “sex addict,” but we were just called “horny teenagers.” Instead of Pornhub, we had these things called “magazines” like Playboy. The only term we knew related to aberrant sexual behavior was “pervert”. Perverts were the guys who wore trench coats and exposed themselves to little girls at the park, or hung out in downtown D.C. at triple X “peep show” parlors. Quaint term, right? One day, a friend and I decided it would be fun to drop acid and check them out. There was a lot more than “peeping” going on, so my friend and I bailed before having a really bad trip.

In the same way that the average college age male thinks about sex two gazillion times an hour, human beings have been obsessed with the topic itself since time immemorial. It may have even been a central driver in humans’ adoption of language itself. Sure, being able to communicate helped our ancestors successfully hunt in groups and forge the earliest non-aggression pacts, but it also enabled people to engage in an important human bonding ritual: gossip. And gossip is a perfect way for people to covertly discuss who’s sleeping with whom, who’s cheated on whom, and which potential mate has the most promising genes. Gossip is humanity’s way of fostering inter-group reproductive success, anticipating jealousies, predicting sexual rivalries, and mitigating potentially violent retribution.

But talking about sex, and who was doing it with whom, was just the tip of the narrative iceberg. Humans have also always been fascinated by how other people do it. Both the act itself, and the human stories surrounding it. The Sanskrit classic Kama Sutra was written in 400 BCE and features incredibly graphic descriptions of various positions for sexual intercourse. After reading the book, I had the privilege of touring the erotic temple sculptures in Khajuraho, India, and was amazed to see how limber the Hindu “kama” practitioners were back in the day. Unless you’re a gymnast, do not try these positions at home. Oh what the hell; try them at home.

Sex Addiction is a Thing
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Might want to warm up before getting hot and bothered...

EROTIC TEMPLE CARVINGS OF KHAJURAHO

But Kama was more than just the mechanics of intercourse. It was also a fascinating exploration of how passion and eroticism are an essential part of an emotionally fulfilling life. This is a surprisingly “modern” and candid way of looking at a very basic human function, divorced from the damper of shame that Christianity would impose upon it five centuries later. 

Speaking about modern, we cannot forget the wonderful narrative contributions to the topic of sex made by the ancient Greeks. The poet-playwright Sophocles made incest the climax of his classic Oedipus in the 5th century BCE. In 411 BC, Aristophanes' comedy Lysistrata recounts how the wives and mistresses of Greek soldiers all went on a sex strike to try to end the Peloponnesian War between the Greek city states. It’s arguably the world’s first crack at Feminist Literature. The Greek poets Straton of Sardis, Sappho of Lesbos, and Archilochus wrote erotic poems, some filled with “obscene” and erotic imagery that would have even made the Hindis blush. The Romans didn’t disappoint either. The highly erotic poems of an anonymous writer in the first century CE were culled together to produce the Priapeia, named after the penis god Priapus. Priapism is now a medical term for a painful erection that just won’t go away. It’s to the sex addict what owning a liquor store is to the alcoholic.

After Christianity killed everybody’s buzz, writing about sex went underground. Few people could read or write during the Middle Ages anyway, so a lot of the writing about sex was done by priests who delighted in chronicling women’s infidelities in divorce cases in church logs. The infidelity was always the women’s fault, of course. They were invariably portrayed as lustful, conniving, and duplicitous. These traits were eventually rendered incarnate in the form of “witches” who could then be burned at the stake for the “crime” of being “lustful.” They were arguably some of history’s first convicted “sex addicts.” This sad double-standard based form of misogyny fermented over time to reinforce harmful female stereotypes that still live today. 

The stereotype of the “lustful maiden” was the highlight of Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century classic The Canterbury Tales. There’s nothing quite as riveting as reading about naughty sex in Middle English.  Highlighting the sexy parts was the only way our college professor could get us to actually read it. Chapters like The Miller’s Tale and The Wife of Bath feature hush-hush body parts, prostitution, and—sadly—lustful, objectified women.

Stories involving sex and passion gradually eked out of the shadows of the Dark Ages thanks to various liberalizing forces like the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and more open-minded English monarchs. By then there were printing presses, so more people could read. But most people couldn’t afford to buy books. So they turned to cheap erotica in the form of pamphlets sold in seedy back alleys. “Kitchen prose and gutter rhyme” as my favorite flute-wielding rockstar Jethro Tull called it. Those pamphlets were precursors to the “Penny Press,” and eventually led to magazines and newspapers. They were also the world’s first mass-produced pornography. Isn’t it funny how the mass adoption of a new medium owes much of its success to sex? Just look at what porn did for the Internet.

Clearly our fascination with sex has fueled literature and the arts for centuries. But the idea of sex as an addiction is relatively new. Sexual deviancy was a thing, thanks to weirdos like the Marquis de Sade and Roman Emperors like Caligula. But addiction? Not really. The roots of society’s discontent with overactive libidos stems less from intercourse and more from masturbation. Jerking off has been driving civil societies crazy for centuries. Not by actually doing it, but the thought of others doing it. 

Victorian England was totally obsessed with masturbation, probably because its Wealth of Empire afforded it so much free time on its hands. The country plowed massive resources into public service campaigns to overcome the destabilizing power of so-called self-abuse. Way more resources, in fact, than were ever devoted to real public health problems like, say, disease. For a simple habit that takes place in private and hurts no one, you’d think the English were fighting World War III. Such was the plague of self-abuse.
 

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Don't you dare rub one out in England, lads!

19th CENTURY ANTI-MASTURBATION CONTRAPTIONS

Even though there is nothing in the monotheistic “sacred texts” to indicate otherwise, generations of church leaders from virtually all faiths have railed against the foul practice of rubbing one out. For reasons that remain a mystery, masturbation was seen as A Great Evil. So the habit of masturbation (and addiction to thereof) must have been the handwork of the Great Satan. Anti-jerk-off contraptions that resembled Inquisition-era torture devices were no joke to the poor horny teenagers who were forced to wear them, often under penalty of further torture with professional grade torture devices. Those who did despoil themselves faced severe consequences. Guys were given a good talking to; girls were burned at the stake.

But back to intercourse. Yes, adultery can be seen as having a destabilizing impact on individuals and society. Broken families, divorce, domestic violence, etc. But sex outside of marriage? Less so. So it’s no surprise that it’s this kind of sex that gets everybody all excited, and the Church up in arms. For as long as I can remember, Western society expected everybody to be virgins on their wedding nights. In some parts of Islam, if you aren’t, you’re in deep shit (but only if you’re a girl). Even today, people in the U.S. Bible Belt take abstinence pledges. Hymens are subject to inspection in Sub-Saharan Africa. Normal people have just gone on with their lives in practice. But the “problem” of sex out of wedlock, and the public’s fascination with it, will never go away in theory. 

 

And that’s where movies come in! 

Hollywood has known how to mine the vast commercial gold mine that is sex for over a century. Sex may even be an important reason movies exist at all. The first moving pictures were seen on kinetoscopes, these clunky devices invented by Frenchman Louis Le Prince. People had to look through a peephole to see a short film made out of a sequence of pictures on a carousel. This is likely where the early XXX term “peepshow” came from because many of the early kinetoscope shows featured pornography. Just another example of how a new technology evolved because of people’s demand for sexual content. 

From the minute Hollywood became Hollywood, sex was known to be a powerful selling point. Executives knew that graphic nudity and on-screen sex would get them in hot water, so they pushed the envelope as much as possible through suggestive imagery, tantalizing movie posters, and dialogue littered with graphic double-entendres. Eventually they broke the envelope, and in the early ‘20s Hollywood went on trial in the court of popular opinion after a few lurid real-life scandals broke, one involving murder, another a Coke bottle. 

With no First Amendment Right of Free Speech afforded to films, and faced with censorship laws in multiple states, the studio heads all agreed to clean up their acts and adopt The Hays Code in the early 1930s. Sex was censored by an uptight prude named Will H. Hays who (you guessed it!) was a highly religious Presbyterian elder in his free time. Hollywood adapted, of course, and gradually films started to push the envelope all over again. The studios just had to get a lot more ingenious in the way they went about it. And this forced ingenuity led to some of the greatest films ever made in Hollywood, with frothy eroticism bubbling just beneath the surface. 

RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs

In the mid-‘50s there was the gradual rise of the “B-Movie” circuit—films produced with independent non-studio financing. Less beholden to the Hays Code, and with sexual norms gradually softening after World War II, producers began to take calculated risks with more salacious content. Drive-In movie posters featured Amazonian priestess nymphomaniacs and freshly defiled scantily-clad women in torn clothing. Foreign independent films like Last Tango in Paris in the ‘70s helped further inure the public to in-your-face eroticism. Then Deep Throat came out in 1972 and blew apart any lingering public notion of “decency.”  

In the ‘80s Hollywood quickly capitalized with a string of sex-centered comedies like Porky’s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Risky Business—to name but a few. It was boobs-a-plenty, and an occasional full frontal. Basic Instinct and Blue Velvet pushed the envelope on the vulvar side of things, while Bad Lieutenant and Monty Python’s Life of Brian made inroads on the penile. All this, combined with the success of Hustler Magazine and the explosive growth of the porn industry, led to moral outrage, of course. A minority of prudes branded themselves a “majority,” cozied up with Ronald Reagan, and achieved absolutely nothing. As we look back on it all now it seems so quaint—what with the son of the movement’s lead architect Jerry Falwell now revealed to be such a major perv. 

It was only a matter of time before “aberrant” (usually European) sex got screen time alongside “normal” red-blooded American sex. Films like Belle De Jour and Night Porter broke hallowed ground in their depiction of S&M in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Adrian Lynn gave us 9 ½ Weeks in the ‘80s, and then filmmakers went on to explore all kinds of sex-related kinkiness in films like Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and the unnecessary remake of Vladimir Nabokov’s pedophilic classic Lolita. Kinky sex (but fun kinky, not gross kinky) went mainstream in the early 2000s with Secretary, and the sexual deviancy sub-genre saw its most morally acceptable commercial expression in the S&M popcorn-movie classic 50 Shades of Grey

In short, the topic of sex (both in theory and in actual practice) has been explored ad nauseam by the film industry. Unless you’re an uptight Mormon housewife on Prozac, sex in movies wasn’t a serious problem. Movies could have even featured way more sex were it not for the need to accommodate these distracting elements like “characters” and “plot.” In fact, if you look at the amount of nudity in films twenty years ago, you’ll notice how much tamer movies are now. We hardly ever get a good sorority house shower scene anymore. Penises seem to be out of the question. Why did this happen? Who or what took the mojo out of America’s greatest cultural export?

 

Simple answer: China. 

 

When I worked at Universal in the late ‘90s I developed one of the first-ever co-productions with the state-controlled monopoly China Film. The first thing the officials made perfectly clear to me about the project was that sex of any kind would not be tolerated. I remember making a joke about how sex couldn’t be all that problematic in a nation of 1.6 billion. Nobody laughed. As the Chinese film market grew exponentially in the years that followed, Hollywood realized that eroticism in movies would lead to censorship in other countries and a huge forfeiture of potential revenue. Today big studio movies are only green-lit if they can make it past the Chinese censors.

 

So thank you China. You killed the sorority house shower scene.

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Officially women don't shower naked in groups in China...

CHINA BANS SEXY MOVIES

To be fair, however, despite China, Hollywood had already become a marketing-driven product. The marketing “pitch” was everything, less so the story, and often at the studios we wouldn’t even bother to read the script. Character and story were an afterthought. Sex was still a big selling point, but a PG-13 rating could mean 50% more at the box-office and a huge upside in merchandising. Marvel superheroes are tailored-made for this income stream. Movies with a lot of sex, not so much. When did you ever see a Last Tango in Paris play-set, or a 9 ½ Weeks lunchbox? As great as sex was, it has nearly stopped being a selling point in movies. Except when it’s weird, like in 50 Shades of Grey. Which, to no surprise, was not released in China.

It’s no surprise that Hollywood came to see movies about sex addiction as commercial Kryptonite. When projects about sex addicts were pitched to us at the studios, we always asked, “Why would we make a movie about people becoming addicted to sex when we’re having enough trouble making films with sex? Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. Oh look, here’s a sex addict pleasuring himself in a dark alley right before he commits suicide! Theaters want to encourage people to buy popcorn, not throw it up.

 

But thanks to some very persistent and creative producers, films about sex addiction eventually got their day in court. But keep in mind there are very few. And the majority weren’t marketed as movies about sex addiction at all. Even into the late 20th century, the term itself was still in its infancy from a clinical perspective. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the term was even used in the marketing of a film. But once it had, the problem went so mainstream that four movies about it were released back to back.

First came Shame, starring Michael Fassbender, a 2011 film, directed by Steve McQueen. Next came Thanks for Sharing, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Ruffalo, the first studio film to specifically say “this is a movie about sex addicts” in its marketing materials. (In my opinion, this was a false flag operation. The film is really about recovery from addiction in general, which is why we will discuss it in our next Blog Post next week.)

Get a preview by watching RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs recent interview with the movie's Oscar-nominated writer/director Stuart Blumberg (below)

Hot on the heels of that film’s relative success in 2012, audiences were then treated to 2013’s DON JOHN starring the ever-vibrant Scarlett Johansson, and then Danish infant terrible Lars Von Trier’s NYMPHOMANIAC with Stellan Skarsgård. The less said about that film the better. Von Triers is an acquired taste. 

Also included in this pantheon of sex-related films are A DIRTY SHAME, directed by my pal John Waters, starring Johnny Knoxville - who we recently interviewed for our RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs YouTube series RECOVERY ON FILM.

Watch it here.


This film will be the subject of our next Blog Post in May.

And lastly BOY ERASED directed by Joel Edgerton starring Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Lucas Hedges - which will be the subject of our upcoming Blog Post in June.

So stay tuned for more sex addiction in movies coming soon!

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