In back-to-back weeks two wide-release, A-list cast films examining the issue of sexual addiction were released. These are the first films directly addressing the issue since the critically acclaimed Shame hit theatres in 2011. Shame, as the few people who saw it will almost certainly remember, was a gritty depiction of an active sex addict at his absolute nadir. For the most part, the movie was difficult to watch, even for sex addicts. Many non-addicted viewers often walked away feeling both shocked and appalled by what they’d seen. Happily, the two recent films, Thanks for Sharing and Don Jon, are both lighthearted and significantly easier for the casual moviegoer to stomach.
My primary interest and concern with the new films, as a clinician who has actively treated sexual compulsivity for more than two decades, is their accuracy. Shame was a dead-on portrayal of active sex addiction. Do Thanks for Sharing and Don Jon measure up? With Thanks for Sharing the answer is an unqualified yes; with Don Jon, the answer is both yes and no.
It makes sense here to look at Don Jon first, even though it was the latter film in terms of release date. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jon, nicknamed “Don Jon” by his friends because of his prowess with the ladies. For Jon, however, a constant stream of disconnected, in-the-flesh sexual encounters is not enough. His real turn-on is porn, and he masturbates to it multiple times daily. Still, despite the fact that he prefers porn sex to real sex, he meets Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson, and falls for her.
As it turns out, Barbara has an inner-vision of the perfect male – formed after a lifetime of objectifying the leading men in sappy romantic movies – and she fully expects Jon to fit this pie-in-the-sky image. Since Jon has convinced himself that Barbara is “the one,” he bends to her will. He attends night school even though he has no interest in it, he meets her family, he introduces her to his family, and he basically does anything else she asks. Everything goes along smoothly until Barbara catches Jon masturbating to porn (only minutes after they’ve had sex). This does not fit her Prince Charming image. Jon lies and says it was a one-time thing, blaming it on a joke email sent by one of his friends. He insists that porn is gross, and promises he will never look at it again.
Jon, however, is a porn addict, so his behavior continues unabated. He lies about it to Barbara and even to his priest in confessional. Meanwhile, he tells himself and anyone else who will listen that all guys look at porn, so what he’s doing is perfectly normal, and that looking at porn is not a relationship betrayal so Barbara shouldn’t be mad at him for doing it. Eventually, of course, Barbara checks his browser history and discovers that not only is he still using porn, he’s using it obsessively. This is too much for her to take, and the relationship ends.
Up to this point, Don Jon is a relatively accurate portrayal of active porn addiction. From here on out, however, things go badly awry. Jon tells Esther, played by Julianne Moore, an attractive older woman he’s met in his night school class, about his breakup with Barbara and why it happened. Esther tells him that good sex is more than just getting off; it’s about making a two-way connection. She says that to really enjoy sex you have to look into the eyes of the other person and “be present” for them. Is that good advice? Yes, of course. But it’s hardly instruction that an active porn addict has much hope of absorbing and following. Even recovering porn addicts with many months or even years of sobriety find this sort of emotionally intimate physical connection difficult. Nevertheless, Jon looks deeply into Esther’s eyes and they “make love” in a very connected way. And thereafter Jon somehow manages to stay away from porn, as if all the internal issues driving his addictive behavior simply disappeared with a few well-placed words of wisdom from a loving older woman.
This, needless to say, is not the way that real-life porn addicts recover. Finding an empathic and caring sexual partner is not a cure for porn addiction. Lots of porn addicts have tried this, without success. Happily, a much more accurate portrayal of the pathway to sexual recovery is shown in Thanks for Sharing, a film about four recovering sex addicts working together to build better lives.
Mike, played by Tim Robbins, has fifteen years sober in both AA and his sexual recovery program. He is married, with a drug addicted adult son. Adam, played by Mark Ruffalo, has five years of sexual sobriety, and is finally ready for the next step, which for him is healthy dating. Neil, played by Josh Gad, is a court-ordered newcomer, attending meetings to meet his legal obligations rather to find sobriety. Dede, played by Pink, is also new to sexual recovery, attending “S meetings” at the suggestion of her NA sponsor because the only way she knows how to relate to men is sexually, and being sexual nearly always results in substance abuse relapse for her.
At no point does Thanks for Sharing gloss over the gritty realities of active sex addiction or sex addiction recovery. We consistently see the desperate need to “self-medicate” uncomfortable emotions – if not with sex, then with food, exercise, or mind-altering substances. We see the lasting effects that active sex addiction has on family members (spouses and kids alike). We see that active addicts (and even people in recovery) have a tendency to find and latch onto other highly damaged people. And, most importantly, we see that sex addicts do not find or maintain sobriety on their own.
This last point is perhaps the highlight of the film. At one point Dede finds herself standing outside a very inappropriate ex-boyfriend’s apartment. In a moment of clarity, she phones Neil for assistance. Neil walks her through the potential slip, helping her to see that if she rings her ex’s doorbell she will almost certainly be high before the day is over. And the call helps not only Dede, but Neil, who was himself on the verge of acting out. This sort of thing really does happen in recovery!
In sum, both new films have much to recommend, Thanks for Sharing more so than Don Jon, which falters at the end with its incredibly inaccurate depiction of recovery. In fact, Don Jon may well mislead viewers about the ways in which porn addiction can effectively be dealt with, and, as such, it may be counterproductive from a recovery standpoint. That said, both of these films are recommended for clinicians hoping to gain better insight into the nature of active sex and porn addiction. For therapists interested in what sexual recovery looks like, Thanks for Sharing is terrific and highly recommended whereas that aspect of Don Jon should be discarded. If you have a client that you think might be dealing with a compulsive sexual disorder, these films can be useful as an educational tool, but they should be recommended to such individuals with caution, as both movies contain scenes that could easily trigger a sex addicted client’s desire to act out. For such patients, bookending the film with phone calls to you (or a sponsor if they are already in recovery) is a good idea. If you run an addiction-focused group therapy, a collective viewing of Thanks for Sharing could provide both safety and fodder for interesting, in-depth discussion afterward.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction,and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters.