I recently watched the film “Shame,” directed by Steve McQueen starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful person in his 30’s living in New York who suffers from a sexual addiction. It is a truly amazing film, and it’s really unfortunate that it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award last year. Unfortunately, the existence of the film and the reaction to it say almost as much as the film itself does.

Shame Movie Poster

Shame Movie Poster (1)

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

It’s difficult to classify specifically what Brandon’s addiction is, and the film wisely doesn’t try and explain it for us. Instead, the film simply observes his behavior and his interactions with others. It simultaneously tries to make a statement about addiction in general, but also sets out to tell a very personal story as well. We see Brandon engaging in as many sexual encounters as possible. He takes several breaks during work to masturbate in a bathroom stall. He always arrives late to work, even though he leaves his apartment early. He takes long lunches and takes off during the afternoon to have sex with prostitutes. He starts looking at porn and masturbating as soon as he gets home, and doesn’t stop until he goes to bed. His life is consumed by sex.

Brandon’s sister Sissy is a singer trying to make it in New York, but hasn’t had a lot of luck. Early in the film, she stops by Brandon’s apartment and asks to stay with him because she doesn’t have anywhere else to stay. Brandon, desperate to conceal his addiction, is very reluctant to say yes but he eventually relents. They don’t get along and constantly fight, but she stays and he doesn’t throw her out. We learn that Sissy cuts herself and it is implied that she has attempted to commit suicide in the past. Both of their pasts are shrouded in mystery, but we get the impression that they went through a shared trauma together.


Brandon (2)

Brandon sometimes goes out in the evening with his boss, David, to various bars and lounges. David is the type that hits on anything that moves, and usually fails spectacularly. Brandon never hits on anyone, which ironically makes him more attractive to others than David does. Brandon never puts any effort into picking up women at all; if they happen to want to have sex, then all the better, but otherwise he couldn’t care less. I suspect that Brandon doesn’t try because he is so used to porn/prostitutes who don’t say no that pursuing women at a bar just isn’t worth the effort. One night, David and Brandon go to hear Sissy sing, leading to one of the best scenes in the entire film.

Brandon eventually asks a co-worker, Marianne, out one evening which leads to a very awkward dinner. Brandon obviously doesn’t know how to act around real people. At one point, he goes to a hotel with Marianne where they try to have sex, but Brandon isn’t able to maintain an erection. It’s a rather unusual situation for someone with a sex addiction, but at the same time it kinda makes sense. Brandon is not used to having to care about the sexuality of a partner, and indeed is not used to having any connection at all with his partner. It’s possible that Brandon feels that having sex with Marianne is letting her into his secret life, making him apprehensive. Or perhaps it’s that sex with Marianne is a little to “real” for him. Or maybe it’s just simply too much effort. Sex with prostitutes is an act of fantasy that is completely focused on Brandon, so this situation just doesn’t fit with his usual experiences.

The comparisons with drug abuse are obvious, but there are a few key differences. Drug abuse has, in a way, become “accepted.” Not in the sense that it’s OK to be addicted to drugs, but in the sense that it’s OK to admit if you have a problem. Society has accepted that drug abuse is just a part of modern society, albeit an undesirable one. Sex addiction, however, has no such acceptance. Admitting that one is a sex addict is likely to result in much shaming and revulsion for all but the most experienced therapists. It must be an incredibly lonely experience compared to other addictions. We see this in the reaction of Brandon when his sister catches him masturbating one evening. This, in and of itself, isn’t that big of a deal; most guys, myself included, have been caught masturbating at least once in their lives. Normally it’s just an embarrassing situation that you get over quickly, but not so with Brandon: he utterly flips out. He is aware that sex addiction is universally reviled, and is freaked out that his may be exposed. While most addicts display similar behavior, the severity of the reaction for Brandon seems much greater.


Sissy (2)

The climactic moment in the movie has Brandon spiraling out of control wherein he goes on a sex “bender.” He goes to clubs, meets up with prostitutes, and even frequents a gay bar where he hooks up with some men, something he hadn’t shown an inclination for before. It seems obvious that Brandon just needs more and more, and is willing to try anything to satisfy his cravings. Like any addiction, his fixes become less and less fixating over time, requiring him to do more and more to satisfy him. During this time, Sissy attempts to commit suicide. When Brandon finally gets home, he finds her in a pool of blood on his bathroom floor. She survives, barely, and Brandon is utterly shaken. He resolves himself to rid himself of his addiction, and we get the sense that he may finally find some resolution. But, as in reality, this is not bound to last. While riding on the subway, Brandon exchanges glances with a beautiful woman and we immediately know that he has slipped back into his old habits. Although not exactly an uplifting ending, it is sadly realistic. People who overcome their addictions are, unfortunately, in the minority.

One frustrating aspect of this film is it’s rating. This film was rated NC-17, and that is absolutely absurd. It’s not surprising in the least, but it’s still absurd. In any absolute measure of the sense, there wasn’t anything in this film that Eyes Wide Shut, Original Sin, or Basic Instinct didn’t also have. So what makes this movie different? Two things: it contained full male nudity, and it contained gay sex. This is something that just pisses me off to no end: full female nudity is perfectly OK (hell, PG-13 rated Titanic had full female nudity), but full male nudity is verboten. It’s a perfect example of the inherit sexism present in the mainstream media. They feel that women are supposed to be sex objects, and men aren’t. Same thing with sex. Heterosexual sex can be very explicit, as long as it’s not hardcore, to be R rated as Original Sin showed. But if it’s gay sex? Forget it. That this film was rated NC-17 shows off perfectly well the biases in mainstream movie industry today, and shows just how far we have to go before we really achieve equality. At least we have people like Steve McQueen who are willing to make films the way they need to be made, regardless of the impact it will have on their bottom line.

(1) “Shame Movie Posters #3.” IMP Awards. 18th November, 2011. Available: http://www.impawards.com/2011/shame_ver3.html
(2) “Shame.” Fox Searchlight. Available: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/shame/


Why don’t Christians understand the separation of church and state?

The reactions of the Cranston, Rhode Island Christian majority to the result of Jessica Ahlquist’s lawsuit has gotten me thinking. Just why is it that Christians don’t understand the concept of separation of church and state? They certainly disagree with the concept, but I think that, just as importantly, they have some misconceptions about it.

First, some background for those that aren’t familiar with the Ahlquist case. At Cranston West High School in 1963, a banner was created titled “School Prayer” containing the following text:

Our Heavenly Father.

Grant us each day the desire to do our best.
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically.
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers.
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others.
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win.
Teach us the value of true friendship.
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.


Jessica Ahlquist

Jessica Ahlquist (2)

This banner still hung in the gym when Ahlquist, an atheist, began attending. During her sophomore year, the ACLU sent a letter on behalf of an anonymous parent (presumably not Ahlquist’s parents) to the school requesting the banner be removed since it is obviously illegal. When Ahlquist learned of the letter, she began attending school board meetings to try and persuade the board to remove the banner. After multiple failed attempts, she filed a lawsuit with the help of the ACLU against the school and won (obviously). (1) Before, during, and after the trial, Ahlquist has faced a great deal of push-back from the Christian majority in Cranston, including threats of violence. She has had to have a police escort at school, and her state senator even called her an “evil little thing.” (2)

Many arguments have been put up in defense of the banner, and many arguments have been made about how the lawsuit is part of our evil plot to get the government to support the religion of atheism. Obviously these arguments incredibly inane and not even remotely based in reality, but nonetheless they are being made. As an example, see this comment from the comments section in the Providence newspaper (3):

As an analogy to hanging a banner with a verse on the wall of a public building that our citizens are exposed to, I fear that at some point in the future, the legal process on this issue will evolve to the point that houses of worship will not be allowed to front public streets. After all, citizens pass them bye while traveling said public streets and the separation purists certainly will not allow that will they?

Why do so many Christians always seem to think that our efforts in enforcing the separation of church and state are really efforts to outlaw faith? I have been pondering this question lately, and I have a few hypotheses.

"Help! We're Being Oppressed"

"Help! We're Being Oppressed" (4)

A common hypothesis that comes up is that these Christians have enjoyed majority status for a very long time, such that they don’t know what it’s like to be a minority. They don’t know what it’s like to experience real religious prejudice, so to them anything that hampers their ability to what they want is viewed as a grave injustice and a violation of their rights. I do think this is true, but I don’t think it’s the only reason, and maybe not even the primary reason.

Another hypothesis I have is that these Christians have a lack of basic understanding of the law and our governmental structure. There are two common misconceptions that I see rather often. The first is that the government is only forbidden from establishing a government church. I think the reason for this comes from a reading of the First Amendment in a vacuum.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof (5)

As worded, the amendment does seem to imply that it only forbids the US Congress from writing legislature that favors one religion over another, but anything else is allowed (side note: how do people take this wording to mean that congress is only forbidden from establishing a state church? It’s quite the leap). What these types of people fail to take into account is that the constitution does not exist in a vacuum since we are a common law nation, but instead must be considered with the history of the Supreme Court and other legislation, namely Everson v. Board of Education and the 14th Amendment (the constitution applies to federal and local government). The second misconception that I see often is that legislation passed by “majority rule” has the highest level of precedence. The most obvious example of this is the backlash against the recent Proposition 8 ruling. Rick Santorum even stated (6):

We need judges who respect the people’s voice. Let the people decide with respect to what the Constitution says.

That is simply not how our government works. The US Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Nothing can override it except another constitutional amendment. At all. Period. End of discussion. Yet Christians don’t seem to understand this and so we get so many instances of “those damn judges are ignoring the will of the people.” Judges aren’t ignoring the will of the people, they just simply recognize that the Constitution trumps the will of the people.

Let's just go with "First Amendment"

Let's just go with "First Amendment" (7)

My third hypothesis is that these types of people tend to not really care about the law. They tend to go on and on about “I live and die by the Constitution” and “Government should get out of our lives so we can be free,” but they don’t really believe those things. Instead, they see the government beginning to crack down on laws supporting their beliefs, whether it’s no prayer in school, outlawing abortion, or banning gay marriage. They see these actions as the government intervening in their lives, and as a result they are experiencing a loss in freedom. Technically they are correct, too. They are loosing their freedom to illegally use the government to advance their personal beliefs in spite of the constitution. What they fail to realize is that, in these instances, the government is actually making our society more free, not less. Then again, maybe they do realize that this is the case…

It’s important to note that I used the term “hypothesis” here, not “theory.” I did this intentionally because I do not have strong data to support these hypotheses, just personal observation and a lot of reading, but they seem reasonable. What can be done about this? We just keep doing what we do…calling out their stupidity and doing our best to educate the public. We are already seeing a decline in religious attendance, and much of it is due to increased education. Education is the key to everything, and societies always become more educated over time, not less. Time is on our side, we just have to endure in the mean time.

(1) “Jessica Ahlquist.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessica_Ahlquist
(2) Goodnough, Abby. “Student Faces Town’s Wrath in Protest Against a Prayer.” The New York Times. 26th January, 2012. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/27/us/rhode-island-city-enraged-over-school-prayer-lawsuit.html
(3) Dujardin, Richard C. “Federal judge orders ‘immediate’ removal of Cranston school prayer mural; appeal unlikely .” The Providence Journal. 11th January, 2011. Available: http://news.providencejournal.com/breaking-news/2012/01/federal-judge-o-1.html#.TzXtjl0Xuca
(4) “Help! We’re Being Oppressed!” Reddit. Available: http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/comments/dy84p/help_were_being_oppressed/
(5) “First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution
(6) Savage, David G. “Santorum decries ‘judicial tyranny’ in Prop. 8 ruling.” Los Angeles Times. 12th Februaru, 2012. Available: http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-santorum-decries-judicial-tyranny-in-prop-8-case-20120212,0,2601434.story
(7) Tristam, Pierre. “Deconstructing the Bill of Rights.” Candide’s Notebooks. 23rd February, 2007. Available: http://pierretristam.com/Bobst/07/cn022307.htm

Victory in New York in the fight for gay rights

On Friday, New York became the 6th state in the United States to allow gay marriage! Not civil unions, but equal marriage! Truly wondrous news! This is a very significant development in the fight for gay rights. New York is the third most populous state behind California and Texas, with a population of 19.4 million people (1). In other words, the number of gay couples who can legally get married just increased significantly. This is also really significant because New York doesn’t have a residency requirement for marriage (2), which means that people from other states can get married there. The trend is obvious, and one day we will achieve marriage equality nation-wide, but we still have a long fight ahead of us.

Rainbow colored Empire State Building

Rainbow colored Empire State Building celebrating the victory (3)

Here in California, gay marriage has had a tumultuous history. It has been made illegal via voter referendum twice, and made legal by the courts once. It is currently illegal, but a high-profile case is working its way through the federal courts system, and could end up at the Supreme Court. With any luck, we can win in there, which will make gay marriage legal across the U.S. I can only hope that we will look back on Perry vs. Schwarzenegger the same way we look back on Brown vs. the Bord of Education and Loving vs. Virginia. That is the best case scenario, but unfortunately not the only one. The current Supreme Court is rather conservative, so it’s hard to say what the result will be. The case may not even make it to the Supreme Court, because the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is currently considering whether or not the defendants have standing. If the Ninth Circuit decides that the defendants don’t have standing, then the victory will only be partial. Gay marriage would once again become legal in California (most likely for good), but the rest of the country would remain the way it is. There’s always the chance we could loose outright too. (4)

In many ways, the atheist movement has a lot in common with the gay rights movement. Greta Christina discusses these issues far more eloquently than I can (plus she is much more of an authority on LGBT issues than me), so I highly recommend reading her article on the subject here (5). Suffice to say, the atheist movement is really just getting started, and is roughly where the LGBT movement was in the 1970’s after the Stonewall riots. There are many ways that the two movements are similar, but I think the biggest thing we have in common is that the primary opposition to both movements is religion. This commonality also makes the two movements natural allies, in my opinion. When one group succeeds, the other benefits. We in the atheist community owe a debt of gratitude to the LGBT community for all of their hard work and perseverance in the face of religious oppression. Hopefully we in the atheist community can return the favor.

I want to finish with a clip from an amazing speech by Harvey Milk (6), one of the early LGBT movement’s leaders. It’s amazing to see how far we have come since this speech was given, but it is also a reminder of how far we have to go. But for now, let’s celebrate with New York for all that has been accomplished.

(1) “State & County QuickFacts: New York.” U.S. Census Bureau. Available: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/36000.html
(2) “New York Marriage License Information.” About.com Available: http://marriage.about.com/cs/marriagelicenses/p/newyork.htm
(3) Parr, Ben. “Rainbow Empire State Building Pic Goes Viral on Twitter.” 24th June. Mashable. Available: http://mashable.com/2011/06/25/empire-state-building-rainbow-twitter/
(4) “Prop 8 Trial.” Prop 8 Trial Tracker. Available: http://www.prop8trialtracker.com/category/prop-8-trial/
(5) Christina, Greta. “What Can the Atheist Movement Learn from the Gay Movement?” Greta Christina’s Blog. 15th Feburary, 2011. Available: http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2010/02/what-can-the-atheist-movement-learn-from-the-gay-movement.html
(6) Milk, Harvey. “The Hope Speech : Harvey Milk.” Danaroc. Available: http://www.danaroc.com/guests_harveymilk_122208.html