October 7, 2012

Relationships & Sex on Screen: “Shame” (2011)

Relationships & Sex on Screen explores sex and relationships in Hollywood films and on TV. How does "Shame" examine problematic sexual behaviors?

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*Spoiler Alert*

While debate continues around diagnosing of problematic sexual behaviors, movies such as 2011’s “Shame” attempt to portray the apparent fact that some people have difficultly functioning due to, and are highly distressed by, their sexual behaviors. Setting aside what might or might not constitute an addiction, this entry of the Media Sex Review will focus on two main points: the main character’s problematic sexual behaviors, and his struggle to find safe emotional connection in his relationships.

Risky, Problematic, or Illegal Sexual Behaviors

Brandon seeks out sexual activities with strangers, both in bars and in sex clubs, a potential risk to his health and his life. There is no mention in the film of any attempts Brandon could make to decrease the probability of contracting a disease. At work, he spends a lot of time using his computer for consuming pornography rather than working, which eventually leads to a confrontation with his employer (Brandon’s supervisor decides it must have been an intern who had been using the work computer for sexual activity). Distressed that his computer had been taken by IT to be examined for viruses, Brandon is unable to function at work without masturbating. Finally, Brandon sexually assaults a woman he meets at a bar. While this action does not lead to his arrest in the film, he is beat up by the woman’s boyfriend soon afterward.

Safe, Emotional Connection

Suggested by the film’s title, and underlying many of his sexual behaviors, Brandon struggles with emotional connection with other people, specifically anyone who has the potential to matter to him in more than purely physical ways. He experiences his closest relationship – with his sister – as a burden, despite the film’s subtle suggestion that they both share a horrific sexual past. When some of his sexual behaviors are unwittingly exposed by his sister, he reacts with rage when the viewer might expect embarrassment. Anger is a common response to the feeling of shame, and in Brandon’s case it becomes aggressive and hostile.

Brandon remarks to another woman that his longest relationship with anyone lasted four months. Brandon claims outwardly that this philosophy of relationships is realistic because anything longer than a few months is boring. Underneath, however, the film’s director Steve McQueen suggests that something much deeper keeps Brandon from connecting with others: Brandon cannot stand mattering to anyone else. He cannot stand having others matter to him. He is isolated by this way of experiencing himself and others. Unable to be with others, he breaks down in the rain and sobs after a run. (Incidentally, this is also one of the few times in the movie he is portrayed as using something other than sex as a coping mechanism. While sex can be useful as a stress reliever, Brandon’s options for coping are usually limited to sexual activity or drug use.)

Fear and Shame in New York City

After an enjoyable date with a woman from work, Brandon begins to fear losing the relationship the moment he starts to feel close. Shame is an emotion that can be seen as a fear of loss in the context of a relationship. High degrees of self-critical emotion such as shame have also been found to predict hypersexual behavior. Brandon reacts to this newly heighted fear by purging his shame: literally throwing out his pornography collection. This action does not heal his underlying issue, however, as the amount of time he ambivalently spends using pornography is only a symptom of his underlying problem: he views himself as unworthy of others and experiences relationships as threatening. Once the potential for connection presents itself, he must disconnect before he gets hurt again.

Brandon meets up again with the woman, but uses cocaine first, perhaps to medicate his fear in that moment (he is not portrayed as addicted to drugs in the film). As they begin to embrace she notices him looking away, and tries to get him to look at her. In this pivotal moment in the film, Brandon gets too scared and physically moves away from her. She asks if she should leave, and all he can respond with is a despondent, “sure.” He is unable to express to her what is really going on for him: that more than anything he longs for connection with her, but the very thought of it is frightening. Almost immediately after she leaves, he calls a sex worker, for Brandon can only tolerate sex when it is safely disconnected from anyone and anything that matters. The film uses a married woman on the subway as a metaphor for this inability to connect, not suggesting that marriage would solve his problems, but to represent the connection that Brandon longs for but can never have. This connection is both the solution to and the source of Brandon’s fear. Like many people, he desires safe, emotional connection in addition to the pleasure and excitement of sex, but he is not able to connect the two.

Sex & Relationships on Screen

The goal of Relationships & Sex on Screen is not to promote any specific film or show, nor to review its merits as entertainment, but to examine fictional portrayals of relationships and sexuality, discussing both positive and negative aspects of the psychology of sex, as well as portrayals of sex therapists and mental health professionals. Future posts in this series will explore topics such as sex surrogacy in the upcoming film, “The Sessions.” For more information about psychology on television and in movies, check out the Facebook page of the Media Watch Committee, of Division 46: Society for Media Psychology & Technology, of the American Psychological Association.