The 10 Films That Reveal the Most About Female Sex Addiction
But are these movies really about female sex addicts—or just women who look like addicts because they're sexually promiscuous, kinky, obsessive or having too damn much fun?
Female sexuality has been suspect since the beginning of time. Claims of “hysterical” behavior (in need of correction) were made long before Freud analyzed Anna’s neuroses. Whether hysteria was a polite way of alluding to sexual ecstasy or other mental states is still hotly debated. And whether it’s Freud or Masters and Johnson, sexual pleasure, especially in regard to women, has been a source of much study. In recent years, more attention has been paid to the diagnosis and treatment of sexual addiction. Unfortunately this hasn’t cleared up the social confusion about what constitutes healthy sexuality and what is addictive and unhealthy.
While movies highlighting sexual exploration, experimentation and various degrees of perversion and pain are common, relatively few address sex addiction directly. And even fewer address female sexual addiction. However, many films do show women whose sexuality is “dangerous”—either to themselves or to others. Sirens and vixens, doomed nymphos, whores with a heart of gold, sadistic home-wreckers, mad (and masochistic) housewives are all time-honored female characters that predate the age of addiction. Yet they share something of the “suspect” quality that is central to the sex addiction diagnosis: injurious, compulsive behavior, seemingly unquenchable sexual appetite, inappropriate sexual comments and overtures, and an inability to stop or moderate in the face of serious negative consequences.
The following 10 films feature a range of women with exemplary “suspect” sexuality. Some are straightforward sex addicts. Others may look like addicts because they are promiscuous, kinky, obsessive or just having too damn much fun. And trying to label them often tells you more about the label than about the actual woman.
1. Nymphomaniac (2013)
Released this year to controversy, derision and little acclaim, this four-hour Lars von Trier epic is everything you ever wanted to know (and more) about female sex addiction. The few ecstasies and many agonies of the condition are self-narrated by world-class nympho Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg). A fisherman named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) saves her from a possibly life-threatening beating, takes her home to recover and becomes the audience to her twisting, turning tale of a life martyred to sex. She runs the gamut—pleasure, pain, compulsion, conquest, violation, novelty and danger. Seligman serves the therapist function of listening, questioning, but never judging.
The film was pilloried for its many graphic depictions of sex. Although some critics called it pornographic, the sex is cold and hard and very sad to watch—mirroring Joe’s inner state. As she seeks greater and greater stimulation, she loses more and more of her capacity to feel. Nymphomaniac is a workout. But it has no competition when it comes to expressing the desolate emptiness at the center of sex addiction. And the seemingly healing relationship between Joe and Seligman takes a surprise predatory turn at the end.
2. 9 1/2 Weeks (1986)
In this 1986 cult classic directed by Adriane Lynne, John (Mickey Rourke), a wealthy businessman, seduces the newly divorced Elizabeth (Kim Basinger). The two embark on an affair lasting 9 ½ weeks. They engage in all manner of kinky sex, including blindfolds, whips and other toys. However, John calls the shots, while Elizabeth is only along for the ride.
Elizabeth is torn between her growing dependence on the thrills of the extreme sex and her growing frustration at John’s refusal to let her know him. The degree to which Elizabeth subjugates her will to John’s despite her misgivings, acting against her own safety and sanity—and doing some bizarre if entertaining things in public—is the telltale mark of addiction. In true addict fashion, the film ends as she bottoms out—and frees herself from her John problem by a sheer act of will. She staggers emotionally into an unknown future. One day at a time.
3. Fatal Attraction (1987)
Director Lynne followed up 9 ½ Weeks with this 1987 classic of horror-movie sexism. The Catholic Church couldn’t have scripted a bloodier warning against adultery than this gem.
After a one-night stand with Alex (Glenn Close, in a star turn), Dan (Michael Douglas) wakes up refreshed, chipper and ready to return to his idyllic life with his cute wife and daughter. But crazy old Alex has other ideas. Her obsession with him starts with a morning-after wrist-cutting and escalates to stalking, emotional blackmailing, bunny boiling, child kidnapping, knife fights in kitchens and drowning in bathtubs. The climax comes when Dan’s wife shoots Alex, restoring peace to their blessed suburban household.
Alex’s pathologies reach cartoon-like proportions, but if she were to seek treatment rather than revenge, she would likely be diagnosed as a love addict. It is a common misperception that men get addicted to sex, while women get addicted to love, although love addiction is certainly more socially acceptable than sex addiction when it surfaces in a woman. Poor Alex has such a bad case that she never hits bottom.
The lesson? Beware of single women in their mid-30s—they’re all desperate for babies, male attention and sex in elevators.
4. Intimacy (2001)
Directed by Patrice Chereau, Intimacy opens with Jay (Mark Rylance), a down-and-out bartender who has recently left a longtime loveless marriage. Into his depressing life comes Claire (Kerry Fox). The two have anonymous sex and begin meeting every week, with Claire insisting that they remain strangers (she is married with kids). But what begins as an intense celebration of erotic pleasure—they have awesome sex—becomes more complicated as Jay realizes his emotional connection to Claire.
The casual sexual encounter as the jumping-off point for drama and conflict is a recurring theme in film (and life). Intimacy gives the convention a twist: While both Claire and Jay enjoy the lack of intimacy involved in their initial contact, in this case it is the man who wants more than meaningless sex and the woman who is withholding (even refusing to disclose her name).
Is Claire’s behavior a sign of addiction? She inadvertently drives Jay crazy with frustration, but only by remaining strangers in sex (and protecting her marriage) can she experience the elusive intimacy of pure sexual pleasure.
5. Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)
This Richard Brooks film was one of Hollywood’s first post-Sexual Revolution trips down the dark side of female sexual freedom. Theresa (Diane Keaton) teaches deaf children by day and cruises bars by night. Having rejecting her good-Catholic-girl upbringing with a vengeance, she loses herself in a bad-girl binge of sex and drugs that she equates with being a liberated woman. Her initial cravings give rise to the classic pattern of addictive behavior as she is propelled into new thrills and greater risks.
Theresa does do some old-fashioned dating—with a hustler (a nubile Richard Gere). He turns her on to kinky sex, including knife play. Gere is sweet on her, so she dumps him—running from love into the arms of her Mr. Goodbar, a sexually confused Vietnam vet who turns the knife on her for real.
Is Theresa a sex addict? You betcha. Right before she meets her killer she begins to see the light—it was all just an acute case of Women’s Lib—and make new resolutions. Too late! While it’s easy to dismiss as yet another warning against female promiscuity, Looking for Mr. Goodbar did a social service by reminding single girls of how creepy the swinging singles scene was getting in the late ’70s.
6. Secretary (2002)
If submission to the domination, discipline and will of a man are indicative of female sexual addiction, then this 2002 erotic romance directed by Steven Shainberg has it all, including pony play!
A neurotically sensitive but self-harming young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) takes a job as a secretary to a boss (James Spader) who flies into a rage at her typos and other errors. Yet at the same time, he warns her that she will be fired if the intentional self-harming doesn’t stop. As he incorporates increasingly explicit BDSM activities into her job description (for example, typing a letter and then bringing it to him on all fours like a dog), she strives to meet every test and falls head over heels, so to speak. But the inevitable sex-in-the-office encounter ends with him firing her. He reveals that he is ashamed of his kinkiness and afraid of his love for her—two symptoms of sex addiction.
If he is a sex addict, what does that make her? Sex addict? Love addict? Codependent? Is the secretary becoming empowered or being exploited by her boss? This film was groundbreaking in its high-spirited exploration of these questions. The marriage scene at the end put to bed (as it were) the final challenge: Can two pervs have a happily ever after? Let’s hope so.
7. Damage (1992)
Director Louis Malle’s film is about a secret affair between Stephen (Jeremy Irons), a British cabinet minister, and Anna (Juliette Binoche), his son’s fiancée. The two meet at a party—she introduces herself merely as a friend of his son Martyn’s—and are immediately attracted to each other. Soon they are fucking, and as Stephen’s son introduces Anna into the domestic security that Stephen enjoys with his wife, the two embark on a passionate affair even as Anna and Stephen’s son announce their marriage plans. As their risk taking mounts, Stephen’s obsession with Anna escalates to stalking, spying and finally to a tragedy that destroys everything about him but the obsession.
If addiction is defined as being unable to quit a behavior despite its seriously negative consequences, then Stephen ranks high on the scale. But what about Anna? A scene in the film reveals her psychology: As a young woman, she witnessed her brother’s suicide after he confessed to having uncontrollable incestuous feelings toward her. Then she has an affair with her brother’s best friend. Next she tells Stephen that once she marries his son, they can continue their affair.
Anna likely scores a dual diagnosis: a sex addict drawn to incestuous scenarios and driven by early trauma. In the end, she’s the one who is married with kids, although you get the feeling that incest and addiction are the real winners.
8. Thanks for Sharing (2012)
Released at the peak of sex addiction awareness, Thanks for Sharing is the first film to address it in a literal, almost clinical, way, complete with a 12-step-ish support group. Predictably, it is a buddy film because sex addiction in men can be played for laughs (assaults, rapes, murders and other risks are for women). Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins and Josh Gad meet in the support group, where they share their ongoing struggles with addiction, such as picking up prostitutes and harassing women at work.
The cast of characters grows, along with the special complications involved in recovering from a sex addiction (is masturbating part of sobriety?) or being the romantic partner of a sex addict. Gwyneth Paltrow plays the love interest. Ruffalo falls for her, but having had a previous addict boyfriend, she eventually breaks it off with him. Plus, his sex addiction issues are starting to move her to tell him obnoxious things like “I am a very sexual person.”
The film features a scene-stealing Alecia Moore as the sole female sex addict, a tough girl who realizes that she only relates to men through sex and forms a friendship with fellow-addict Josh Gad that gets them both back on the recovery track. Whether the film is a compelling portrayal of sexual addiction and recovery is debatable, but it is realistic almost to the point of schematic—and by the end the feel-good vibes are Richter-scale size.
9. The Piano Teacher (2001)
German director Michael Haneke’s film centers on Emily Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), a 40-something classical piano professor at a fancy Vienna music conservatory. She lives with her domineering mother and spends her downtime avoiding Mom by indulging in her sexual perversions, including voyeurism, video stores, sexual self-mutilation and assorted BDSM fantasies. She is arrogant, miserable and friendless. For all her sexual escapades, she may be a virgin. Diagnosis: sex addiction. Prognosis: poor.
Although Erika disdains her students, she makes an exception for Walter (Benoit Magimel), an angelic-looking, slightly cocky young pianist with great promise and blond hair. Initially infatuated with his new teacher, Walter takes her refusal to be touched physically or emotionally as a challenge that his smooth romancing can overcome.
After much frustration, his efforts pay off—sort of. Having gamely pursued Erika into the women’s bathroom in the conservatory, he confronts her and she surrenders. However, it is the ultimate bait-and-switch. For her part, she yearns to realize her rigid masochistic sexual fantasies; for him, the fulfillment of romantic love. Once he learns of Erika’s true desires, Walter is repulsed, enraged and ultimately sadistic. He expresses his rage by beating and raping her, even as he hangs onto the hope that she will abandon her masochistic fantasies once she experiences real pain and abuse.
When finally Walter has had enough, Erika resorts to threats of self-harm, ultimately stabbing herself in front of him and staggering away once faced with his indifference. Unlike almost every other depiction of sexual addiction that extends to bloody violence and highly unbelievable plotlines, The Piano Teacher offers harrowingly honest insight into the powerlessness of even loving feelings to often survive, let alone conquer, addiction’s destructiveness.
10. Belle de Jour (1967)
This French film by director Louis Bunuel has long had men and women of all ages worshiping Catherine Deneuve as the goddess she is. Deneuve portrays Severine, newly married to an adoring, dashing doctor whom she loves but refuses to have sex with. The reason is mysterious, but so is everything else in this masterpiece of surrealism. Severine is obsessed with her father and with fantasies of bondage, riding crops and other horsey paraphernalia.
A chance meeting (fucking) with a family friend (father figure) leads to a high-end brothel, where she is soon spending her days working, satisfying her hunger for brutal sexual humiliation and total domination. This, in turn, leads to surprising improvements in her and her husband’s sex life, which is as tender and bourgeois as her fantasies are rebellious and cruel.
The film may predate the diagnosis of sex addiction, but Severine certainly qualifies—not because she is a prostitute, or because bondage turns her on, but because she acts out of compulsion. But the drive is less psychological than aesthetic, and the entire film has the quality of fantasy. At the end of the film, her husband has been blinded after being shot by a jealous gangster (!) who met Severine at the brothel, she is taking care of him, and the scene has an uncanny sense of peace (no Fatal Attraction shrieking here).
Rachael Brownell is a memoirist and technical writer with a background in sass and a penchant for books about cowgirls. Best-selling author of Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore, Brownell lives in Washington state with her three daughters and her unrealized dreams of being a blues singer. This is her first piece for Substance.com.
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