I’m big on spells. Not like the hubble bubble, toil and trouble witchcrafty palaver, but the idea of being in a trance after a terrific book or film. That lovely bubble of having just experienced something wonderful and not wanting the real world to prick it.
I recently read the Cuckoo’s Calling for example and thoroughly enjoyed it. And upon finishing it I had my standard anxiety about timing: just how long should I loll in the afterglow before moving onto the next book? Just how much lolling pays decent homage to quality art?
I saw Thanks For Sharing the other day. After seeing a string of truly wretched films (Prisoners, The Family, We’re The Millers) it was a lovely surprise to see a film that was simply clever. And because it was about sex and because I’m nearing the end of a two month stint where I’ve pretty much just read and written about sex, I wanted to loll a little in a film that handled the subject well.
Alas, the bubble got pricked before I even left the cinema. I’m currently in the US and an usher - who’d apparently heard my accent while I was buying my ticket - thought I was from England and wanted to corner me, remove his shirt and show me his Star Trek tattoos. This isn’t a euphemism for any kind of peccadillo: the usher - for reasons I still can’t explain - just wanted to show me his tatts. I stopped questioning the madness long ago.
So sure, the spell was quickly broken, but the film’s nuggets of gold have stuck nevertheless.
Once upon a time I was in a very, very brief liaison with a self-diagnosed sex addict. When her new lover divulged this same malady, Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow) remarked, “isn’t that something guys just say when you’re caught cheating?” Like Phoebe, I dare say on a few occasions “sex addiction” does simply function as a euphemism for dickhead.
Having read a great deal of the literature on the topic, the academic jury is out as to whether sex is addictive in the same brain chemistry way as drugs or alcohol, or whether the “addiction” - more about impulse control problems and a quest for escapism - is akin to overindulgence in any pleasurable activity. Like chocolate, say, or in my case maudlin music.
What I liked most about Thanks for Sharing is the very modern approach to the topic. Kind of like the much darker and even more tremendous Shame, we don’t actually ever know the why of the sex addictions presented. We know, for example, that Dede (singer Pink in her acting debut) was a sexually precocious child, and we know Neil (Josh Gad) is overweight and lonely, but the why of it all was dodged completely.
I love this.
Personally I hate the why. At least, I hate the preoccupation with it. I hate the idea that sexuality - be it orientation or position preference or that extra special penchant for pony play - is constantly analysed. That as a culture we need a reason why a person would, God forbid, seek out pleasures that are non-vanilla.
As an academic of course I like asking wh- questions. I just prefer the what. What does sex addiction reveal about our culture? About our relationship with sexuality? About our repressive sensibilities? To me, the why is boringly all about blame and pathology and demonisation.
Equally, I really like Thanks for Sharing‘s modern approach to definition. In casual conversations about sex addiction, quantity will invariably be mentioned. How much is too much? Some men - men I’ve known and men discussed in the literature - in fact aspire to the diagnosis, deeming it somehow as the ultimate sign of being a player. Laughable, sure, but indicative of a Tiger Woods-ian, pop understanding of it.
While I thought it was a tad twee when Adam (Mark Ruffalo) described his addiction as a disease, the film itself doesn’t push this line, and certainly never attempts a guess at how much sex constitutes a diagnosis. Rather, it simply - quietly - presents the idea that if sex interferes with your daily functioning - if your behaviour is interfering with your job or your relationship or if you’re getting in trouble with the law - then you have a problem.
This, in fact, is my go-to definition for gauging addiction in all seemingly sub-optimal behaviour.
In line with the modern approach of the film is the presentation of women in connection to men’s “bad” behaviour. While Phoebe walks around in her underwear looking both gorgeous and curiously unnecessary, she does a very unlikely thing for women in film and decides not to dote on her addict lover. While a subtle example, sure, but in a mediascape where women are perpetually painted as self-sacrificing caregivers, that Phoebe decides not to is unique. Not for a moment am I arguing that caring is a bad or unfeminist thing, but on screen and it’s notoriously a gendered burden. I like that the film shirks it.
Thanks for Sharing isn’t the best film I’ve seen all year, but it’s an original one and a rare example of 90 minutes of escaping into an indulgently clever narrativised take on my world views.
My new book - American Taboo: The Forbidden Words, Unspoken Rules, and Secret Morality of Popular Culture - is launching in Melbourne on November 12, 2013. Professor Rob Brooks and Joy FM’s Dean Beck will be saying entertaining things to justify your attendance. Please do come along!