Explicit Language Warning!
Yeah, that’s my second warning in as many weeks, isn’t it? Of course, you only know that if you’re still here after last week, right? Are you still here? I promise, this time out, not to say anything that will offend the sensibilities of my left-wing readers. Oh, except this observation: Miley Cyrus is a lot prettier when she’s trying to look like Michele Bachman than she is the rest of the time these days. There. That’s done. You’re safe now. On with the show. Which may offend the sensibilities of everyone not offended last week.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an actor I admire a lot, ever since I first saw him play David Collins in Dan Curtis’s 1991 primetime remake of Dark Shadows. He’s one of the most talented performers of his generation, taking on roles that are sometimes provocative, sometimes downright bizarre, but, even when he’s doing a comedy like 3rd Rock from the Sun or a blockbuster like The Dark Knight Rises, never pedestrian.
Recently, he broadened his career horizons by making his debut as a writer-director with Don Jon, a film in which he also starred. This film is laugh-out-loud funny, insightful and daring. I recommend it wholeheartedly… but… It may make you uncomfortable. It is very, very explicit. The opening line, narrated by Gordon-Levitt as Don Jon, contains the f-word and describes the state of his genitalia. It gets more explicit from there. So be warned. It made a lot of viewers in the theater where I saw it uncomfortable, even as they enjoyed it.
And now I’m going to make some of you uncomfortable; but don’t worry. If you survived reading Peace Lord of the Red Planet, you’ve been through the worst I’ve done so far, and I don’t intend to equal that height of discomfort for my readers again… today. (If you haven’t read Peace Lord of the Red Planet, well, it made some readers uncomfortable. But don’t take my word for it. The eBook can be on your device and making you squirm in a matter of seconds.)
The story is very, very much about masturbation, which serves as a metaphor for immaturity and loneliness, ultimately. You get this from the trailer, and from the opening minutes of the movie as well. Jon, who narrates this story heavily in a wonderfully over-the-top Jersey accent, tells us there are a few things which are important to him in his life: His family, his church, his ride, his pad, his boys, his girls and his porn. He lets us know very quickly that he brings himself to climax in front of his laptop at least twice daily, and his personal best is ten orgasms in a 24-hour period. Jon masturbates even after his (frequent) sexual encounters with women, because he can only “lose himself” and make “all the bullshit [go] away” via masturbation.
It’s refreshing to hear a very confident, very macho character speak so openly about this subject, for, as Jon himself admits, most people believe (or pretend to believe) that such activities are only for losers, not for a guy who can (and does) go to a club and lure a girl into his bed in a matter of minutes. I think it’s brave (and very much in keeping with his choices of films thus far) of Gordon-Levitt to tackle the subject in such a big way. This film should do a lot of good for people when it comes to being more open and honest, and to feeling less anxiety and guilt about sexuality.
Jon takes a whole lotta flack about his habits from a controlling girlfriend (brought to amazing life by Scarlett Johansson), who raises the spectre of mental illness when she learns of his needs. And, to be fair to her, Jon does seem to have some issues that he needs to deal with. His obsession with the cleanliness of his apartment suggests that he might have OCD. At times, watching him was like watching a working class Adrian Monk. He also carries around a good helping of road rage, carrying on a continuous monologue about the relative competence of other drivers. (I found this endearing. I do the same thing. I draw the line, however, out of getting out and vandalizing the cars of rude drivers. Jon does not, at least when he’s especially stressed out.)
All of this raises the question… is something wrong with Jon? Or is his girlfriend just a controlling, prudish bitch?
A well-meaning friend who’s clearly not out to control him tells him that he really won’t be complete until he loses himself in another person, and she loses herself in him. The suggestion being that, once he finds real love, he’ll abandon his solo sexual pursuits, or at least scale them way back, and be grown up.
I won’t reveal where all of this goes. The setup (which is pretty much all revealed in the trailers) is enough for this discussion. The line which caught me (and perhaps raised red flags) is the one about the need to lose yourself in someone else. I’ve written about this business of losing yourself before, and I think most of my readers know that it’s a concept that disturbs me. It gives me pause how easily we (“we” being 21st Century Americans) flirt with the concept of losing or submerging our egos. I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Gordon-Levitt over his choice of words, especially since I doubt he really meant to imply that people should lose or submerge their individual identities. But I think that we (same we) are so inundated by the themes and buzzwords of collectivism that we sometimes use them without thinking. So I guess that makes me a bit of a gadfly. If someone mouths collectivists words, I don’t generally let them go unchallenged. (Unless that someone is an idiot and I think only idiots will give his words any consideration.
I think the state Jon is trying to achieve through solo sex, and later through sex with a partner, is not the loss of self. It’s better described by the other phrase he uses early on: “All the bullshit goes away.” Life, for all of us, is filled with bullshit. People fill our days with stories of petty arguments, people put us down in an attempt to make themselves look bigger, people try to control us or take what’s ours… Bullshit. And it digs at us and tears at us and makes us feel small. We all want a way to make it go away. For Jon, that way is masturbation. When he’s doing it, he feels completely divorced from the ugliness of reality, completely… himself. Himself without all the bullshit.
If you can reach this state, alone, or (amazingly) with another person, you’re very, very lucky. I don’t think most people learn to do it in any case. Our sex lives and our minds in general are too influenced by the bullshit of everyday life. So, while Jon’s state of being in the beginning of the film does reflect the fact that he needs to mature and move on, I think it’s important to note that he does have an advantage over an awful lot of his friends in the film, and an awful lot of people in real life: he at least has an inkling what it feels like to put aside all the influences, all the control that others try to assert over him, all the evil and all the badness… all the bullshit… and be happy. His friends, and a lot of people I’ve known in my time, especially men, also aren’t getting the happiness and intimacy they should from sex with partners, but they’re not even aware of it. They’re just happy they’re scoring.
So I think it’s important to point out that the message here is not that this man is bad broke. It’s that, like most of us, he has some growing to do.
As usual with my blogs, I did a fair bit of research preparing for this one. While I don’t believe the word “addiction” was ever applied to Jon in the film, I’m well aware that a lot of viewers will say, “This guy is a sex addict.” So I wanted to know where psychologists weigh in on the subject of sex addiction. (My non-expert view is that I don’t really believe there is such a thing, or at least, if there is, it’s not what the majority of Americans assume it to be.)
I came across a few articles that talk about the subject, each coming at it from a different angle. This one, from AskMen, is pretty much total fluff. But it might be dangerous fluff. The author has no stated credentials, but calls himself a “health advisor.” He claims, in passive voice, that studies show masturbation to be linked to liver damage and hormonal imbalance. He says defensively “I’m just citing the studies.” But, um, he’s not. He never cites a study by name, and I could find no such studies. I’m concerned that a person who’s so reckless with the facts is claiming to advise people, and that some people may be listening. I also, BTW, found the exact language he uses in his article to talk about the adverse effects of masturbation used (without attribution) on a site offering patent medicine which claims to lower your sex drive in order to cure your sexual addiction. Yeah, I bet people are lining up for that one.
Then I found a piece in Psychology Today. I thought this might be a bit more reputable. Sadly, while there are actual citations, one is merely to a letter to the editor, and to one points to abstract about prolactin, which appears to simply note that intercourse triggers the release of four times are much prolactin as masturbation. Which would make sense, wouldn’t it, since prolactin is a hormone which suppresses sperm production and the libido? A pro-survival characteristic would be for your body to say, “Yeah, that felt good, but it didn’t lead to reproduction, so let’s keep those sperm levels and sex drive high until you do something that does lead to reproduction.”
The author is a corporate attorney who writes on evolutionary biology. That’s fine. I think any learned person who does her homework can write intelligently on a scientific topic. I’m not trying to defend some sort of scientific orthodoxy. It’s just that I think this non-scientist is holding herself up to the public as an expert, not as a journalist who’s writing about expert opinions. I also found her staunch defense of male-female intercourse versus all other sexual activity to be somewhat judgmental. It kinda implies that, if you’re not in a heterosexual relationship and gaining all your satisfaction from the one approved act, then you’re not normal.
I was most pleased with this piece by a licensed marital counselor. He says he’s never diagnosed anyone with sex addiction, and that it’s not in the DSM-V. He goes over how the public and the media latch onto the description “sex addiction” because it titillates people and allows them to feel superior to others. He points out that the substance addiction model doesn’t really apply well to sex, and that sex “addiction” is more a matter of patients feeling uncomfortable or anxious about their sexual choices, which can have as much to do with the neuroses of others as with their own. He compares problems with sex to OCD and other such disorders.
I say all of this because a lot of people will see this film because it’s a comedy, and might be prone to come away feeling unfairly judgmental of Jon: “See? Jon had a problem and needed to fix it!” No, Jon had not yet encountered anyone with whom he could have a truly two-way sexual experience, and so he found sex more pleasurable by himself. I think that’s healthy. It says that Jon sees easily that promiscuous, casual sex can be very empty, and that a lot of so-called relationships can be too. He points out, rather cleverly, to his girlfriend that men who cruise women and women who try to force men into a mold are seeking the same pleasure one seeks when masturbating, only they’re using another person as a masturbatory tool, which is immoral. I observed in college that some of my male friends were very proud of themselves if they could “score” a different girl every night or at least every week. I used to ask them how that was different from masturbation, if the girl meant nothing to them. Gordon-Levitt expands the observation to also include how some women use men as objects in a sexualized environment, trying to change them and shape them, rather than trying to establish an intimate connection.
Ultimately, I think the reason masturbation is still taboo, despite the best efforts of true social liberals to enlighten us, is that it is solitary. We can’t control what you’re thinking or feeling if you’re getting your gratification alone, so it must be wrong for you to do so. We don’t want you to lose the bullshit, because, if you lose it, we lose our hold on you.
And that really makes us uncomfortable.
Last thought: if someone has told you that you have a sexual addiction, or any sort of psychological problem, please, please, PLEASE do yourself a very big favor and consult a LICENSED professional before accepting it as fact. Don’t let an amateur diagnose you. A lot of the pop-psychology trash on the Internet is just that: trash. And a lot of people claiming to want to help are really just selling something, or trying to make themselves look important by making you feel worse. You may have some issues to work through, but that doesn’t mean you’re broken or that you’re sick. When all is said and done, you know how to be you better than anyone else does.
Your clear and concise writing is always a joy, and you’ve touched many different issues here (including your closing italicized remarks about not letting oneself be “diagnosed” by amateurs). I hope it gets a lot of reads…