Understanding the heart of feminine hypersexuality
The new Lars von Trier film Nymphomaniac: Volume I is the confessional tale of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a traumatized, shame-filled, hypersexual woman. We first encounter her lying in an alley in a pool of her own blood. She is discovered there by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a kindly man who takes her in and nurtures her with hot tea, a warm bed, and an empathetic set of ears. To him, Joe conveys her lifelong history of sexual acting out. What a lot of the people who see this film will likely wonder is: How realistic is this movie? Do women like Joe really exist?
Sadly, the story that Joe tells is one I could have written myself as an amalgam of my female clients. Her sexual behaviours started very early in life. Though it does not appear that she was sexually abused by either of her parents, she was definitely neglected and perhaps abused emotionally by her mother, causing her to bond with her father in dysfunctional ways. Over time, her sexual behaviour has escalated—more partners (as many as ten per day), and more intense sexual activities. She spends nearly all of her free time pursuing sexual encounters, to the point where she has no other interests. Her response to any sort of emotional discomfort is sex. (When her father is dying in the hospital, she has sex with an attendant. Later, when her father dies, she becomes sexually aroused at his deathbed.) She consistently views men as objects to be used for sexual gratification, never seeing them as potential partners in emotional intimacy. She routinely ignores the consequences of her sexual acting out. (When she ruins one man’s marriage she feels nothing for him or his wife and kids, and she certainly doesn’t alter her behaviour pattern.) Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, Joe seeks a sense of control and power through sex. (She “allows” or “forbids” certain activities, and at one point she tells Seligman about “privileges” granted to one of her regular sex partners.) In short, absolutely all of the feelings, thoughts, and behaviours that Joe describes are common among women who are hypersexual in response to early life trauma.
I think my favourite part of the film occurs when Seligman describes Joe the compartmentalized construction of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music. He tells her that Bach often wove multiple independent melodies together to form a disjointed yet somehow cohesive composition (a technique known as polyphony). Joe immediately grasps this concept, launching into descriptions of three separate lovers (corresponding to the three-part polyphonic music to which she and Seligman are listening). It is clear that for Joe each of these lovers is a completely separate entity, and that each meets a particular yet singular emotional requirement: the first gives nurture, the second provides animalistic sex, the third affirms her existence. I consistently see this type of compartmentalization among hypersexual individuals of both sexes. They simply “wall off” various aspects of their existence. In this way, their compartmentalized feelings and behaviours do not overwhelm them. Unfortunately, because these individuals are not able to successfully integrate their pasts and their present, their self-identity eventually erodes, resulting in confusion, fear, and overwhelming psychological pain.
Unsurprisingly to me, by the end of the film, Joe describes her entire life (not just her sex life) as “monotonous and pointless.” In fact, she compares her daily activities to the movements of a caged animal. Simply put, everything she does feels rote, repetitious, and meaningless. At one point she says to a sex partner, during coitus, “I can’t feel anything,” and it is clear that she is talking not just about physical numbness, but emotional numbness. I cannot even begin to tell you how many clients have related similar experiences to me in therapy sessions. Basically, these individuals have used the sexual activity as a way to dissociate from stress, emotional discomfort, and the pain of underlying psychological issues like depression, anxiety, and unresolved childhood trauma, and over time they have simply lost the ability to feel anything at all, either good or bad. Just like Joe.
With all the hype out there and all of the people crusading against this movie while reviling (Or exalting and eroticizing) persons who struggle with hypersexuality, here is a simple and clear review from a therapist who, for a change, actually gets what it takes to heal the broken heart of a struggler.