A few years ago, the movie Shame hit theaters. A few people saw it, sex addicts and "normies" alike. Most non-sex addicts walked away somewhat shocked and maybe even appalled, not understanding how a smart, attractive, successful man could make such poor behavior choices. Sex addicts, however, mostly nodded their heads and said, "Yeah, that's a pretty realistic portrayal of life as an active sex addict." Now we have a new sex-addiction-themed film, Thanks for Sharing, which looks at the next step in the process -- sexual sobriety and health.
As this work is at the heart of my professional life, the question on my mind as I entered the theater was: Is Thanks for Sharing going to hit the nail on the head, so to speak, in the same way Shame did? Happily, the answer is a relatively solid yes. Certainly I have a few nits to pick, but they're really quite minor, and overall the film shows four very different yet very realistic sex addicts struggling to find their way while dealing with a very serious, little understood, and often harshly judged problem.
The movie opens with Adam (Mark Ruffalo). We seem him living his extremely regimented life -- a place for everything and everything in its place. We see him walking down a Manhattan sidewalk counting to three to clear his head of sexual thoughts. (As most recovering sex addicts know, the "three-second rule" is a commonly used and highly effective tool of sex addiction recovery.) Soon we learn that Adam has five years of sexual sobriety, and feels he might be ready for the next step in life as a recovering sex addict, which for him is finding and enjoying a healthy romantic/sexual relationship. That possibility soon arrives in the form of Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow).
The stories of Mike (Tim Robbins), Neil (Josh Gad), and Dede (Pink) are equally compelling. Mike is married, 15 years sober in both his sex program and his "beverage" recovery program. Mike's wife (Joely Richardson) has stuck with him through his addiction, but his adult son has struggled and is now an addict himself. Neil is an emergency room doctor addicted to frottage (rubbing up against women, usually on the subway) and up-skirting (using a hidden camera to film up women's skirts). Having been arrested for these behaviors, Neil is what we call an "invited guest," meaning he is court-ordered into a 12-step sexual recovery program. As is often the case in these situations, he starts out attending meetings only to meet his legal obligations, lacking both genuine motivation and commitment to change. Dede, who has just turned 30, is new to the process of sexual recovery, checking things out at the suggestion of her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor. Dede's problem is that she relates to men only by being sexual, and when she is sexual with inappropriate men, she is consistently drawn back into drug relapse -- hence the referral.
Strong Points of the Movie
For starters, Thanks for Sharing is much less dark and more accessible than "Shame." In other words, the general public is much more likely to see and enjoy this film, and that is a good thing. Certainly the film does have its gritty, cringe-inducing moments, which are absolutely necessary as a way to show the issues that sex addicts face daily, but those scenes are tempered with glimpses of recovery, progress, and even humor. If you're a recovering sex addict and you want to take a friend or family member to this film so they can understand a little about what your day-to-day struggle is like, you can do it without fear of them judging you afterward.
I particularly liked this film's depiction of cross- and co-occurring addictions (multiple addictions in the same person). For example, two of the four protagonists, Mike and Dede, are in more than one 12-step program. This is typical for addicts of all stripes. And Neil, even though he's not yet dealing with it, has an obvious eating disorder. There is one very sad/funny moment where he binges on doughnuts, gets disgusted with himself, and throws the last few away -- only to return to them a few minutes later. While not a "sex addiction" moment, per se, it nonetheless powerfully depicts the confusing push-pull addicts experience when they are trying to do the right thing while simultaneously struggling with the primitive need to self-medicate (with sex, food, drugs, alcohol and the like).
Thanks for Sharing also shows the ongoing struggle for sobriety faced by recovering addicts. I don't wish to give the plot away, but we see one rather horrific relapse, along with one person lying about sobriety days and several near relapses. We also see, very realistically, that long-term sobriety does not equate to perfection in one's personal life. Mike, the "elder statesman" of the group, provides the best example of this. In most areas of his life he is doing quite well. He is especially adept at helping other members of his 12-step programs. However, at 15-years sober he still has not made amends with his son (the ninth step in 12-step programs), as his unresolved character defects (ego, narcissism) won't allow it.
The movie also accurately shows how sex addicts tend to attract and glom onto other damaged people. In essence, their ability to differentiate a healthy relationship choice from a profoundly disturbing one is broken. This is most evident when one of Adam's old acting out partners, Becky (Emily Meade), appears. Again, I don't wish to give away the plot. Suffice it to say that when we see Becky in action, it's very clear how much progress Adam has made in his recovery.
The most gratifying element of the film is its excellent depiction of the need for social support in recovery. Addicts do not get sober or stay sober in isolation. Such is reality as I have experienced it, and as so many of my intimacy-disordered, sexually-addicted patients have experienced it. Thanks for Sharing hammers this point home almost relentlessly without getting too preachy. At one point Dede calls fellow newcomer Neil for help because she's standing outside her "dishrag" ex-boyfriend's house and is afraid she's going to ring the bell and go in. This call helps not only her, but Neil, who was also on the verge of acting out. This is the stuff of day-to-day recovery, as any addict with lasting sobriety can attest.
Happily, the film provides clear shots of two renowned books on sexual recovery, Patrick Carnes' foundational work, Out of the Shadows, and his recovery guidebook, A Gentle Path through the Twelve Steps. Both are excellent primers on sexual recovery, and required reading for all recovering sex addicts.
Nits to Pick
My sole gripe, and it's a very small gripe, is that the concept of "sexual sobriety" is not adequately explained. I worry that viewers potentially interested in sexual recovery for themselves will walk away thinking that being sexually sober means they can never have sex again, with themselves or anyone else. And in reality that is not the case. Sexual sobriety differs for every person, and it does not equate to an elimination of sexuality. Instead, sexual sobriety is about finding ways to be sexual that are life and relationship affirming. Yes, compulsive and problematic sexual behaviors must be eliminated, but the remainder of the wide-open sexual universe remains in play. Sexual recovery is not a death-knell for sex, just as recovery from compulsive eating does not involve starving oneself to death.
Thanks for Sharing is a meaningful and important film in three key ways. First, it is a well-written, well-acted, entertaining movie. Second, it is an accurate portrayal of the trials, tribulations, and joys of sex addiction recovery. Third, it is a film that can and hopefully will educate both active sex addicts and the general public about the nature (and recovery path) of a heretofore mostly misunderstood disease. Perhaps the most telling thought in this regard comes from an associate of mine -- a recovering sex addict with more than a decade of sobriety. He saw the movie with a non-addicted friend who has long questioned the existence of sex addiction, despite knowledge of my associate's troublesome sexual history. After the movie the non-addict friend said two things:
- I think I finally get it. Sex really can be an addiction.
- Is there a 12-step program for non-addicts? Because if there is, I'd really like to go.
This movie, along with Shame and hopefully Don Jon, which releases Sept. 27, are a great leap forward in our public understanding of the very real problem of sexual addiction. The fact that these are wide-release films with A-list casts is exciting. The fact that at least two of the three films (I'll let you know about Don Jon after I've seen it) are accurate in their depictions of active sex addiction and sexual recovery is a gift to sex addicts both in and out of recovery, because as understanding increases, shame and marginalization decrease and the path to recovery becomes illuminated.
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 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.