Porn Addiction in Film: “Don Jon” Gets Intimacy Disorder Right

The new film “Don Jon” starring and written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (and hopefully its planned sequel “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”) have the potential to do more to combat the epidemic of sexist porn and sex addiction than all the “feminist porn” movies, books and women’s studies classes put together.  The film is so well done and so entertaining that you might not notice that it is a feminist film or that it deals with intimacy disorder.

In the title role Gordon-Levitt plays a shallow young man whose life is anchored by strong ties to his family, church and male friends.   He is not a sleaze or a loser, he likes to keep his apartment sparkling clean, and he’s a nice guy with a lot of charm and innocent warmth.  It’s just that he inhabits a social world in which the sexual objectification of women and the search for sexual hook-ups are the norm.  He is also a hope-to-die porn addict, which he confesses to his Catholic priest every Sunday but which he fails to identify as a real problem.  He has no idea what intimacy is let alone intimacy disorder.

The story is one of a man whose consciousness is raised through meeting and connecting with Esther (played by Julianne Moore), a totally present and very spiritual survivor of great personal tragedy.  The theme of the film is stated toward the end: that intimacy is losing yourself in someone else not losing yourself in fantasy.

A lot of the film is taken up with the funny and poignant attempt at a relationship with Barbara, a woman he lusts after but who withholds sex.  Scarlett Johansson gives an amazing performance as Barbara, the sexy, gum-cracking, love addict who wants to mold a relationship to match her fairy tale fantasy of the great love.  As this relationship develops we see that both Jon and Barbara are totally intimacy disordered.  Neither one really knows how to get to know another person or how to move forward in a genuine courtship.

In the Julianne Moore character, Jon finds an ancient goddess archetype,  who approaches him in a night class which he is taking to please Barbara (i.e. to get in her pants).  In case there is any doubt that religion and spirituality are not necessarily the same thing.  Jon goes  to church every Sunday with his family and confesses his “sins” of pornography/masturbation and sex out of wedlock with hilarious honesty (“35 times in the last week”) and while he performs all the resulting Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s diligently, he never evolves one inch until he meets his de facto spiritual guide.

Gordon-Levitt, unlike the character he plays in the film, has feminist consciousness in his DNA.  He is the son of non-observant Jewish progressives.  His father was at one time the news director for KPFK and his mother ran for U.S. congress in the 70’s in the Peace and Freedom Party.  Gordon Levitt is quoted as saying:

“My mom brought me up to be a feminist.  She was active in the movement in the 60s and 70s.  The Hollywood movie industry has come a long way since its past.  It certainly has a bad history of sexism, but it ain’t all the way yet.”

When Love Addicts Fall for Sex Addicts

As a therapist I have noticed that partners of sex addicts frequently have characteristics of love addicts.  This is not always the case of course.

Partners of sex addicts may be innocent bystanders.  But I think there are some reasons to suggest an affinity between love addicts and sex addicts.

There are underlying similarities between sex addicts and love addicts in terms of brain chemistry, intimacy issues, abandonment fear and co-dependentence.  Both tend to have early childhood trauma and attachment issues.

However, I think it is the separate, distinct characteristics of each that attract them to each other.

Here are my thoughts on how this pairing might come about and what function  it might serve for the addict and the partner

The allure of the sex addict

What sex addicts do is to behave in certain predictable ways that turn out to be an engraved invitation for the love addict.

  • Superficial intensity

Love addicts have the fantasy of being desired and rescued.  As Pia Mellody puts it

“When these individuals get old enough, they begin to form a fantasy in their head of somebody rescuing them from being so alone, of making them matter. The fantasy usually takes the form of being rescued by – it is like Cinderella — a knight in shining armor or a wonder woman, who will take care of them and help them come out of their dilemma of being too alone and worthless and not knowing what to do.”

Sex addicts are themselves very insecure and narcissistic.  They want to be seen as the hero even if it is a façade.  The love addict would like to be permanently swept away.  But intensity is not the same as intimacy; it is a fantasy that cannot be sustained.

  • Dishonesty

Sex addicts can appear to offer unconditional love and acceptance because they lack the ability to be who they really are in a relationship.  The sex addict is often comfortable with saying what the love addict wants to hear since he or she is invested in a whole other, secret sexual life.

This works for the love addict who needs to feel completed in a relationship.  The love addict does not see through the sex addict’s perfect love but merely projects their own fantasy onto it.  They feel safe.

  • Seductiveness

Sex addicts are seductive.  They can manipulate the love addict into feeling that they are perfect, the fairy princess.   The love addict needs to feel perfect in order to feel safe.  If I am perfect you will never leave me.

  • Lack of intention or commitment

Sex addicts substitute the intensity, superficiality and seductiveness for any real investment in the relationship or in the future.  Lacking intimacy skills they don’t confront the partner about anything, don’t negotiate, and often avoid talking about their needs and wants altogether.

The love addict cannot tolerate the requirements of real intimacy either such as being open to confrontation, being willing to admit to being imperfect or wrong, or allowing the addict to be imperfect.  Since the sex addict lacks the ability to be real and work on a relationship, the basic unavailability of the sex addict a good fit. 

As Patrick Carnes has said:

“Love addicts consciously want intimacy, but can’t tolerate healthy closeness, so they must unconsciously choose a partner who cannot be intimate in a healthy way.”

The love addict partner is unconsciously drawn toward a relationship in which there is intense romanticism (at first) but which cannot lead to a stable grown-up relationship.  In the long run, the love addict will be subjected to disappointment, deception and episodes of abandonment by the person they love.  Yet they will often continue to be “hooked” on the fantasy.