Addicted to Sex
Stories of sexual temptation have been around since the one about Eve offering Adam the apple. Most people keep their sexual appetites in check, while others stumble off the virtuous path and even veer into addiction. The lost soul might be a Don Juan seducing señoritas, Californication’s Hank Moody cruising around L.A. with a cigarette dangling from his mouth or just the average Joe watching internet porn on company time.
In Reefer Madness (1936) a kid goes insane after smoking pot. The Lost Weekend (1945) chronicles a character’s marathon booze binge. Lately Hollywood is focusing on another breed of lost souls: people driven by excessive libido to engage in frequent sex that is often inappropriate or harmful. Hank (David Duchovny), the afflicted hero of Showtime’s Californication, is trying to write a novel and reestablish bonds with his former girlfriend and his daughter, but most of his energy goes into sexual encounters. His ex crassly states, “You’re out there sticking your dick in anything that moves.” Hank, who is not without self-knowledge, admits to a friend, “I’m disgusted with my life and myself.”
Hank’s disgust, however, is not all that apparent. As he jumps gamely from bed to bed, he comes across not as an addict but as a guy enjoying all the women he can. His female counterpoint, raunchy, foul-mouthed, sex-crazed talent agent Sue Collini (Kathleen Turner), talks big—“Sue Collini always gets the weenie”—but seems desperate and pathetic. Collini may represent the harsher realities of addiction, but the character, as an object of ridicule, comes queasily close to Hollywood’s standard scorn of the sexually aggressive female.
In the space of just one episode of Californication, Hank Moody (David Duchovny)—engaging in the risky behavior said to be typical of sex addicts—has sex with a married woman whose husband attacks him with a baseball bat; jeopardizes his shared custody arrangement when his preadolescent daughter finds a naked woman in his bed; and couples with an underage sadist who repeatedly punches him in the face. Hank endures these antics with a devil-may-care look that seems both amused and sad. It’s easy to think of Duchovny’s portrayal of sex-obsessed Hank as autobiographically inspired method acting. Anyone who reads tabloids knows that the actor, who found fame as agent Fox Mulder on the TV show The X Files, has been treated for sex addiction and that his hypersexuality broke up his marriage with actress Téa Leoni. The actor’s purported obsession with sex puts him in league with some other legendarily troubled Hollywood womanizers, from swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn to sitcom star Charlie Sheen, who supposedly told his wife she was in the “top 1,000” of women he has bedded. The 1950s heartthrob David Niven described his own constant need for sex as “like being tied to a mad parrot.”
In an especially irreverent scene in Californication, Hank (David Duchovny) has a dream in which he is orally pleasured by a nun. “Sweet baby Jesus,” he says, “Hank is going to hell.” The character’s drink-and-sex binges may indeed lead him down the path to perdition, if literature provides any guide. Don Juan, the womanizing scoundrel of Spanish folk legend, gets his comeuppance for seducing a woman and killing her father in a duel, when the man’s statue drags him into the fiery abyss. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard laments having associated too closely with Don Juan’s story, calling it (as the seduced woman calls Don Juan) the “murderer of my happiness” and claiming it drove him “out of the calm night of the cloister.”
Hank can only hope his fate mirrors that of some more fortunate ladies’ men. James Bond hasn’t aged a bit in his 50 years of jumping in and out of the beds of beautiful women on the big screen. As Hank tries to rise above L.A.’s hedonistic temptations and type out a novel on his old Selectric, he might recall the 18th-century Italian adventurer Casanova, who lived to enjoy a ripe old age writing his memoirs.
Don Juan, perhaps the world’s most famous womanizer, first came on the scene in 1630, in Spanish writer Tirso de Molina’s play The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest. The libertine who devotes his life to seducing women has been portrayed in a Mozart opera (Don Giovanni), an epic poem by Byron, an orchestral piece by Richard Strauss, plays by Molière and George Bernard Shaw, and films starring Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp as the debonair title character. Don Juanism has become shorthand for the desire, in men, to have sex with many different women.
The risk-taking affliction that we now call sexual addiction was, of course, around long before the fictional Don Juan seduced a girl of noble birth and incurred the wrath of her father. First century A.D. physician Rufus of Ephesus wrote of treatments for what he called satyriasis that included bloodletting and cold baths. But hypersexuality has never been a male prerogative. The historian Pliny the Elder reports that Messalina (A.D. c. 20–48), the wife of Roman emperor Claudius, once arranged a 24-hour sex competition with a prostitute to see who could have the most partners—Messalina won handily with 25 couplings.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender), the hooked-on-sex antihero of Shame, seems to relax only once during the film: when he and an attractive coworker have dinner. They chat, endure a bumbling waiter and end the evening with chaste good-night pecks. Otherwise, Brandon looks anguished and haunted as he trolls the internet, hangs out in bars and engages prostitutes. New York is a melancholic, hard-edged backdrop for his relentless quest for sex. The city has not looked grimier since the crime-ridden days of the 1970s; even a rendition of “New York, New York,” that ever-hopeful anthem, sounds like a dirge.
We never know what makes Brandon so unhappy. When his needy sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), enters the film, it becomes clear that the two have endured some sort of family trauma. As Sissy says, “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” It would be too easy to assume that Brandon’s sexual addiction is an attempt to ease pain and suffering. Or that casual, anonymous sex protects him from the emotional dangers of connecting with anyone. All the viewer knows for sure is that witnessing this character losing himself to his addiction is a powerful and painful experience.
Getting busted for downloading pornography at work, as Brandon does in the movie Shame, may ring true with the 25 percent of office workers said to view porn on the clock. Reliable statistics on pornography-viewing habits are elusive, but the offerings may account for about 30 percent of all internet traffic and engage at least 100 million viewers, most of them men, a year. The largest dedicated website, Xvideos, gets 4.4 billion views a month. Proponents of internet porn point out that it’s easily accessible, disease-free and private, blithely ignoring the brutal realities underlying the worldwide exploitation of women and children involved in its production. Some experts are concerned that porn consumption might foster sexual addiction, detract from meaningful relationships (as we see in Shame’s Brandon), encourage misogyny and possibly even lead to sex crimes.
The number of women who view internet porn has climbed in recent years. But generally women seem to prefer romance and erotic novels, even the most explicit of which stress emotion and true love, to straight pornography. The romance novel as an industry is as profitable as that of internet porn. Do the two balance each other, or do they evince an unbridgeable divide?