Within a month of each other this fall, two films exploring the habits and repercussions of pornography and sexual addition were released in theaters. Both have received some critical acclaim. The first, "Thanks for Sharing," shows recovering sex addicts attempting to navigate a world where everything has sex appeal. The second, "Don Jon," is the story of a man who loves pornography — but his new girlfriend doesn't.
"These movies offer quite a bit of insight into the craziness that goes along with addiction, and just the insanity of the behavior and the impaired thinking,” said Andrew Pipanne, who has written about his recovery in “Sitting in a Rowboat Throwing Marbles at a Battleship,” in an interview. “So I think it's helping people become aware of the fact that sexual addiction is a real thing."
According to Fight The New Drug, a California-based site dedicated to education about and recovery from pornography addiction, pornography use is widespread. A study by Top Ten Reviews from 2006 estimated that 80 percent of boys age 15-17 regularly view hard-core pornography. With numbers like that, pornography addiction is no longer a subject that the mainstream media can ignore.
Out of the dark
Bringing a complicated and unsavory issue to large audiences on the big screen is a challenge. The reality and usefulness of these cinematic portrayals is a subject of debate among experts who deal regularly with real challenges of pornography addiction.
"From really being a dirty, dark secret, now you've got A-list actors in two major motion pictures," said Craig Perra, a recovering pornography addict who is now a life coach and motivational speaker for Feed The Right Wolf, a website dedicated to getting help for pornography addicts. "It's absolutely amazing bringing attention to this issue, which is plaguing men, women, couples all over the planet."
Perra said his clients connect with characters in the films, and appreciate the comedic tone of the stories.
"I think it is a positive depiction because when people come to me, they are alone," Perra said. "They are shocked — they're embarrassed. I've had clients who've seen the trailer say, ‘Oh my gosh, that's me.’ And that is creating a community and a community of people who are recognizing that they're not alone. So I am supportive of the lighthearted nature and how it's being addressed. You have to laugh at yourself."
Although the tone is light, the issues in sex addiction are very real.
Speaking about “Thanks For Sharing” — which is rated R for sexual content and language — certified New York City sex addiction therapist Brad Salzman said, "I think there are plenty of scenes in that movie that could be right out of the lives of my real-life clients. I think it accurately depicts the different stages that addicts in recovery go through, meaning there are times when they feel completely desperate, like they have things under control, there are times where people sort of get surprised and wind up relapsing when they've been sober for a long time."
The writer, director and star of "Don Jon," Joseph Gordon-Levitt, told the Washington Times that he is often shocked by the sexualized content that is available everywhere you go. He specifically mentions Carl's Jr. ads, which sell hamburgers using bikini-clad models.
"It is shocking. But that’s a real ad, and there are plenty more like it," Gordon-Levitt said. "It’s been a big part of our culture for as long as you can find history. That people, especially women, are often pigeonholed and reduced to things. That’s kind of the crux of what the movie is about: how some people treat people more like things than people."
To Salzman, the movie “Don Jon” helps to reinforce the message that sexual addiction is a real psychological disorder — whether or not mainstream therapists agree.
Not the whole story
But not everyone believes that “Don Jon” strikes the right balance. Hollywood films that explore pornography addiction frequently show sexually explicit content.
Jessica Mockett, who is in the process of filing a documentary about sex and pornography addicts, said she laughed at Gordon-Levitt’s treatment of pornography. “He made some comments about how he wanted to bring awareness to sex addiction,” she said. Then, as if addressing Gordon-Levitt, “yet you are showing vast amounts of pornography in your film. Anyone struggling with pornography is going to be massively triggered by the imagery in your film."
Mockett stumbled across the subject of her documentary when she began to talk with friends and co-workers about the problems of pornography. “I quickly found that as I was talking about it in this open, nonjudgmental forum, people would respond and tell me a little bit about what they were going through," Mockett said. " I quickly found that I did know people who had or were struggling with pornography addiction.”
“And as soon as you educate yourself, you realize how many people around you are struggling with this addiction," Mockett said. Her film, tentatively titled “The Heart of the Matter,” aims to explain the nature and recovery of pornography addiction.
Todd Blaquiere, Marketing Director at Fight the New Drug, criticizes the false parallelism in “Don Jon” of comparing pornography addiction to other habits. For example, obsessing over love of romance and romantic movies is likened to pornography, as Don Jon compares his new girlfriend’s love of romance to his relationship with pornography.
"It comes down to the neurology of it," Blaquiere said. "If you look at what recent studies on how pornography affects the dopamine system, pornography becomes addictive because it actually hijacks your dopamine system. It brings you back. You know the substance is harmful and you don't want to be a part of it, but you keep coming back. It also increases in severity over time. My wife likes romantic movies but she doesn't seem to want to watch 50 of them a day, so I don't see any escalation there. This is not the same thing: it doesn't affect the brain the same way."
Sex addiction is real
The over-sexualization of entertainment and media in general rarely presents the audience with the truth about addiction. But these latest films did get a couple things right. Characters may not always be labeled “addict” in fictionalized portrayals of pornography and sex addiction, and that is also a reflection of their real-world counterparts.
“A lot of people have this assumption that when somebody actually becomes addicted, all these red flares go off and all these signs pop up saying this guy is now addicted, he's now crossed the line and he's addicted,” Pipanne said. “Addicts assume that, at some point I will know that I'm addicted. And it's the same thing with the people that surround the addict, that at some point, we'll realize he's addicted, but now he's just on a course towards danger.”
Signs of addiction are present in the films, if not specifically called out.
"There's a part in the movie where she comes back to his place, they're intimate, she's sleeping and he goes into another room where there's a computer and starts looking at pornography," Pipanne said. "And that, I think, is a realistic portrayal of a sex addict, where the relationship with the real person is right there and yet he still goes back to the pornography.”
Perra said there is no profile of a typical addict. Anyone can be affected.
“I've got guys who run big companies but are sneaking off into their office to watch pornography,” Perra said. “Going down into the basement with a laptop in their $10 million building that they own.”
Characters in movies who suffer from sex addiction find themselves in dream relationships with perfect women and suddenly rid themselves of the pornography in their lives.
“That is completely false,” Mockett said. “No one can cure someone of their pornography addiction but themselves. Putting the responsibility on the women as the fix for their problems is one of the biggest myths out there.”
Pipanne agreed that finding a perfect relationship would not solve any addict’s problems.
“That's sort of a theme in our culture, that true love conquers all, and unfortunately, with addiction, it's not as simple as that,” Pipanne said. He knows. Pipanne was 5 years old when a teenage neighbor introduced him to pornography, and, later, molested him. It resulted in years of struggling with intimacy and addiction.
Ultimately, Pipanne and the other experts said, the films are dealing with sensitive issues that have complicated causes, effects and long roads to recovery.
"Shame thrives in secrecy," said Salzman, "and there's a tremendous amount of shame about sexual addiction and sexually compulsive behaviors. It’s even more so than for other addictions. If someone's an alcoholic or a drug addict, it's not something that people usually brag about. When it comes to sex addiction, there's a tremendous amount of shame around that. So when a movie like this comes out, it kind of brings sexual addiction into the mainstream and into our conversation."
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