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Sexuality Through a Lens of Heterosexual Relationships Research Paper

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Updated: Mar 19th, 2020


Arguably, society has always perceived sexuality through a narrow lens of heterosexual relationships (a romantic relationship between a man and a woman). This perception has often defined traditional romantic relationships. Through this framework, human sexuality was predictable.

It defined people’s identity, gender, societal roles, and other attributes associated with sexuality. For example, traditionally, men were the providers, while women were homemakers (Unger 360). Women would also rarely take part in the employment sector because their work was to give birth and take care of their families.

However, times have changed, and so have gender roles and sexuality. For instance, human sexuality, although still part of human identity, has become more complex. Increased sexual liberty among different societies informs this trend (Gummow 1). People are now more willing to try new sexual lifestyles, without the traditional societal barriers associated with past human societies.

The new sense of sexual liberty has dominated different lifestyle aspects. Modern art forms have strived to show the new sexual freedoms in their design and contents. For example, films have highlighted the growing complexity of sexual identity in modern society. Same-sex relationships, wife-swaps, and other alternative lifestyle choices, although a taboo in many societies, have become part of mainstream film production, today.

Similarly, bisexual relationships have become increasingly acceptable in film and some sections of western society. These changes have influenced film production, casting, and script writing because film directors strive to represent the changing modern lifestyles that characterize present-day societies. Relative to this assertion, such changes in film production processes also explain the influences of films on societal perceptions of gender and sexuality.

While it is interesting to analyze how films and movies influence societal perceptions about this issue, this paper argues that modern society has adopted liberalized sexual lifestyles that have redefined people’s identities. Particularly, this paper focuses on a 2011 film, Shame, directed by Steve McQueen, to show increased sexual adventure in modern society.

Indeed, by analyzing the character of the protagonist in the film (Brandon), this paper argues that human sexuality has become increasingly liberal. The same liberty has created “complex” sexual identities among many people today. Indeed, compared to past societies, people are now choosing to live sexual lifestyles that are more adventurous and, often, unconventional.

Infidelity, group sex, homosexuality, online sex, and prostitution outline some sexual practices, of some main characters in the film, which highlight this fact. Through the high incidence of these practices in the film, this paper affirms a high sense of sexual liberation in modern society. The structure of this paper shows this fact by using the attachment theory, evolutionary theory, and the Cass model because they explain the changing sexual practices in modern society.

Shame and the Attachment Theory

Today’s high numbers of sexual partners (mainly in heterosexual relationships) explain the changing nature of sexuality in modern times. While people could have had many sexual partners in the past, Hollywood films have made the practice more mainstream today. In fact, through films, such as Shame, Hollywood exposes the growing complexity of human sexual identities in modern times.

By many measures, a relationship between a man and a woman would largely define the “conventional” perception of heterosexual relationships. In fact, sexual and romantic relationships between men and women largely define the “norm” in many societies. However, according to Brandon’s sexual relationships, in Shame, this is not the case.

In fact, the film depicts conventional heterosexual unions (a married man and a married woman living together) as the exception, and not the ‘norm.” For example, throughout its plot, the film shows Brandon developing a friendship with a female colleague, Marianne. Their relationship later becomes romantic.

Like normal couples, the two went for dates, walked together, and shared romantic jokes. Throughout the courting period, Brandon appeared “normal.” He was genuinely interested in the company of his colleague. However, when their relationship became serious, he had trouble sustaining it.

For example, in one afternoon, he took Marianne to a hotel and although they had a good time together, Brandon was unable to have sexual intercourse with her. He became anxious about the incident until Marianne requested to leave. While still at the hotel, Brandon called a prostitute and had sexual intercourse with her. This action shows Brandon’s inability to live a “normal” life and enjoy a normal sexual relationship with someone he likes. However, he has no problem sharing the same intimacy with a stranger.

Brandon’s inability to have a “normal” sex life also manifests through his peculiar online pornographic viewing habits. In several instances in the film, Brandon seeks the services of online webcam girls that know him by his name. He tried to hide such practices from his sister (when she comes to visit), but she quickly discovered his sexual practices after viewing his laptop. This action made Brandon uncomfortable about his sister’s presence in the house.

Mackenzie (2) offers a deeper perspective to this issue by saying Shame portrays society’s misplaced sexual intrepidness. He takes a broader look at this issue and says today’s “sex-drenched” society portrays worsening moral decay (Mackenzie 2). Relative to this assertion, he also says, the society fails to link pornographic addiction to changing sexual behaviors.

Through the same analytical lens, he believes many people are developing bad social behaviors that span across human sexuality and eating habits, such as the growing obesity rates and the growing fast-food culture (Mackenzie 2).

Aloisi (9) supports the above view by saying that Shame supports a new sense of sexual freedom in modern society. However, he believes this sexual freedom has imprisoned people by adopting “wild” sexual behaviors to numb their pain. He also says the internet has significantly changed human sexuality by promoting these habits (Aloisi 9).

The connection between Brandon’s sexually adventurous habits and most of the sexual behaviors practiced by many people today is vivid. Relative to this assertion, Aloisi (10) believes that Brandon’s sexual behaviors represent the deviant sexual practices that characterize modern society. In fact, he affirms that most of Brandon’s sexual adventures are recognizable to most of us (Aloisi 10).

The attachment theory explains the deviant sexual behaviors manifested in Shame. Researchers developed this theory in the 1940s and 1950s, when they revealed that pathology often exists from a conflict between two human impulses (Porter 2). An alternative hypothesis of the theory shows that deviant sexual behaviors (considered peculiar among most societies) stem from biology and not fantasy. The attachment theory plays a significant role in explaining the “wild” sexual behaviors that characterize Shame.

Based on the above view, the attachment theory suggests that the complicated sexual behaviors stem from proper, or improper, attachment during infant and adult years (Shemmings 40). People who share a close attachment to family members and caregivers often develop a deep sense of security in their adult years. However, those that are emotionally distant do not develop the same (sense of) security.

Instead, they develop negative emotional experiences that force them to adopt “peculiar” sexual habits (Shemmings 40). They have “affect regulation” problems that inhibit them from developing intimate and autonomous relationships. Therefore, instead of searching for relationships that meet their wholesome emotional needs, they only seek the relationships that meet such needs, physically.

This fact explains why Brandon was unable to develop any emotionally satisfying relationship in his adult life. Instead, he sought physical relationships that provided momentary emotional satisfaction. Whenever he had a real chance to enjoy a “normal” relationship with a family member (his sister), or a colleague (Marianne), he withdrew emotionally.

Both siblings (Brandon and his sister) also show a deep sense of emotional void that could stem from their childhood. Brandon’s (sense of) emotional void stems from his withdrawal and sexual addiction. His sister’s emotional void manifests in a strong need for male affection, which she seeks from her brother and her brother’s boss. In fact, in several instances in the film, she begs Brandon to be affectionate to her.

This need explains why she crawled into his bed and often wanted to cuddle with him in the living room. Brandon resisted such advances because his emotional problems affected him that way. Broadly, both actors have many (deep) emotional issues that affect how they relate with other people. These problems stem from attachment issues that they both developed at a young age. The same issues developed into unhealthy and wild sexual behaviors in their adult years.

These issues highlight a wider social phenomenon that exists today, through a high divorce rate in the society that affects children’s development. Indeed, many children today grow up in single families, or without their biological parents. Some of these households nurture children that have many attachment issues. Similar to Brandon and his sister, they grow up to develop “strange” relationship habits that thrive on their unresolved emotional issues.

Shame and the Cass Model

Shame presents different sexual behaviors in one film. Sequentially, this section of the report, first, defines such identities and uses the Cass model to explain them. Developed by Vivienne Cass, in 1979, the Cass model identifies six stages in human sexuality – identity confusion, identity comparison, identity-tolerance, identity acceptance, identity pride, and identity synthesis (Moon 24).

Identity Confusion Stage: The identity confusion stage incorporates the awareness of sexually confusing feelings, such as attraction to the same-sex. Here, people may ask themselves questions like, “Am I gay?” or “Am I a lesbian?” People who experience this sexual confusion may find support from the occurrence of sexual identity along a spectrum (Moon 24). Therefore, they may be comfortable to explore several sexual identities.

Identity Comparison Stage: Unlike the identity confusion stage, the identity comparison stage outlines personal convictions for sexually confused people to accept their sexual identities (say, gay or lesbian). Here, confused people explore the wider implications of their identities, such as not having children, or being unable to legally marry. People that are in this stage may accept an unconventional sexual identity, but still have a heterosexual identity. They may do so by thinking that their unconventional sexual behaviors are temporary (Moon 24).

Identity Tolerance: The identity-tolerance stage manifests when people realize they are not the only ones with unconventional sexual identities. For example, at this stage, a person may realize that other gay people exist. Therefore, they feel they are not alone and seek partners that have the same sexual identities. Unlike the identity comparison stage, decreased social alienation characterizes this stage because afflicted people find solace in people who share the same sexual identities (Moon 24).

Identity Acceptance Stage: The identity acceptance stage manifests when people believe that their sexuality is acceptable. Stated differently, they start to believe that although they may have different/unconventional sexual traits; their lives would still be “livable.” Furthermore, instead of tolerating their sexual identities, they accept it.

Identity-Pride: The identity-pride stage manifests when people start to feel the need to let other people know who they are. For example, at this stage, people often understand why conventional and unconventional sexual identities exist. If they associate with unconventional sexual identities, they express pride in it and minimize contact with people who think differently. Broadly, this stage manifests in an “us vs. them” mentality (Moon 24).

Identity Synthesis: The identity synthesis stage is the last stage of the Cass model. At this stage, people perceive their sexual identities as part of personal identity. However, instead of sexual identities becoming wholesome parts of human identities, they only form part of it.

As shown above, the Cass model explains how people develop unique sexual behaviors. Particularly, it explains homosexual behaviors within the gay and lesbian community. This reference draws a special attention to the lead character, Brandon, in Shame, because his sexual adventures include engaging in sexual activities with other men. This happens in a night out in New York, when he goes to a gay bar and starts kissing another man.

They later enter a dimly lit room and engage in (what appears) as sexual intercourse. This act happens, although Brandon openly lives a heterosexual life (having sex with other women). In fact, this incident is the only part of the film where he engages in sexual activities with a man. Since Brandon has sex with women, as well, Shame depicts his sense of sexual adventure as a first stage of the Cass model – identity confusion stage.

Indeed, Brandon’s sexual relations with both sexes show that he has a confused sexuality. Here, Brandon’s “gay incident” shows the relevance of the Cass model in explaining human sexuality. Moreover, this incident shows the relevance of the identity-tolerance stage, which outlines people’s quest to seek people who profess the same sexual attitudes as they do. When Brandon went to the gay bar, he sought solace from other gay people.

He did so, almost effortlessly because he did not hesitate to engage in sexual relations with another man, unlike people who are “trying out” a new sexual lifestyle. Instead, he participates in consensual sex with another man, almost as if he knew what he was doing, or he had done before. Therefore, this incident shows that Brandon sought solace from other people who resonated with his sexual preferences (sexual tolerance stage).

The film fails to show how Brandon’s multiple sexual identities affect him. However, it shows how his homosexual and “sexually awkward” behaviors isolate him from the society. This representation affirms the identity comparison stage, which outlines the awareness and the consequences of a person’s sexual identity. For example, Brandon understood that other people would not accept his “awkward” sexual habits.

Therefore, he chose to live an isolated/solitary life. Coincidentally, although he was about 30 years old, Brandon did not have a family, or live with any family member, until his sister came. Shortly after his sister started to live with him, he became uncomfortable with her presence (around the house) because he understood that, he could not engage in his “wild” sexual behaviors anymore.

This fact manifests when he gets overly angry with her for walking into the bathroom, unannounced, and finds him masturbating. After this incident, he storms out of the house in a rage. Later, he indirectly complains about her unannounced stay at his apartment. He insinuates that she should leave and “let him be.”

These feelings manifest because Brandon understands that his actions isolate him from the society and he is uncomfortable when people infringe on his personal space. Surprisingly, he is comfortable with this fact and prefers to keep it that way. This analysis outlines the identity comparison stage because it defines people’s resolve to understand the implications of their sexual attitudes/behaviors (they learn to live with them).

Lastly, the identity synthesis stage also manifests in Brandon’s sexuality. As shown in this paper, this stage highlights how people perceive their sexual identities, as part of their personal identities (instead of sexual identities becoming wholesome parts of human identities, they only form part of it). Although many sexual behaviors define Brandon’s sexual identity, he lives an “ordinary” life as a paid New York employee.

His sexuality does not directly affect his life, except for the one incidence when his boss found pornographic materials in his computer. Nonetheless, Brandon lived a normal life and his multiple sexual identities did not seem to affect his life (directly). Overall, the Cass model shows how Brandon developed his wild sexual behaviors and how he lived with them. Within the wider framework of Brandon’s “gay incident” Gummow (4) says such sexual adventures stem from increased opportunities to explore sexual fantasies (that exist today).

He says many societies today enjoy increased freedoms to pursue alternative sex lifestyles. Moreover, he affirms the existence of sexual groups (like Brandon’s gay club), that promote specific sexual lifestyles that past societies considered shameful and unacceptable (Gummow 4). Today, like-minded people exploit these freedoms through increased sexual adventure (Gummow 4).

Shame and the Evolutionary Theory

The evolutionary theory explains the wide spectrum where modern sexual practices exist. This theory stems from the works of Charles Darwin, through his book, The Origin of Species (Rosario 23). Broadly, the theory explains how organisms change over time, in terms of behaviors and physical attributes.

The theory also suggests that these changes occur for better environmental adaptation. Scientifically, many people have used this theory to explain animal behavior. However, sociologists have also used the same framework to explain human sexuality. Rosario (23) says this theory has helped to explain several aspects of people’s sexual behaviors (particularly heterosexual relationships). This section of the paper explains the relevance of the theory in explaining several “wild” sexual behaviors depicted in the film, Shame.

Brandon’s Sexual Adventures

Through the film, Shame, Brandon engages in “wild” sexual activities at work and at home. For example, he often took several breaks at work to masturbate in the toilet. He did the same while at home. Furthermore, he would later have sexual intercourse with the prostitutes he called to his home, and the women he met at the club. For example, Brandon’s sense of sexual adventure manifests when he goes to a bar, one night, and meets a woman at the counter.

They immediately lock eyes and he starts to tell her what he would do to her, sexually. Later, he narrates graphical details about his fantasy for her, until her boyfriend comes along and an argument ensues. After this argument, the film shows Brandon in a train with multiple injuries on his face (meaning he had fought with the boyfriend).

In a different scene, Brandon engages is a random sexual act with two women when he visits their apartment. The film shows the protagonist engaging in sexual relations with both women, at the same time. These sexual activities show that Brandon was overly adventurous with this sexuality.

The evolutionary theory explains the sexual behaviors of Brandon as comprising an innate need to spread the human gene to future generations. For example, the evolutionary theory suggests that although Brandon may have experienced pleasure masturbating, the need to have sexual intercourse, with real women, was unavoidable because, as a man, he had to transfer his genes to future generations through sexual intercourse. Indeed, the evolutionary theory explains why people often prefer sexual intercourse to masturbation.

However, the society often promotes the idea that masturbation is an undesirable practice that often exists among “socially awkward” people who cannot get a sexual partner. Moreover, evolutionary theory subsets suggest that masturbation produces a stronger physiological intensity than other types of sexual activities.

Nonetheless, Eisenman (2) observes that although some societies may perceive the practice as taboo, people always engage in such activities because it is an inherent human trait for people to investigate what gives them pleasure and continue doing it.

Sister’s Sexual Adventures

Brandon was not the only character in Shame that exhibited “wild” sexual behaviors. As shown in this paper, the sexual relationship between his sister and his boss also shows how both characters adopted unconventional sexual behaviors. For example, although a married man, Brandon’s boss sleeps with Brandon’s sister, at Brandon’s home, after a night out.

This incident disturbs Brandon, but he is unable to stop it because he does not want to argue with his boss. However, he later complains to his sister about her sexual relations with his boss because he was in a compromised position, where he had to choose between both of them.

Although the sexual act may not (particularly) support the thesis of this paper, this sexual encounter presents an interesting analytical piece because both parties were in other sexual unions. For example, Brandon’s sister was in another relationship with an unknown man because his brother often overheard her talking to an anonymous person and professing her love for him. Similarly, Brandon’s boss had a wife and children at home.

Yet, he did not hesitate to have sexual relations with Brandon’s sister. Broadly, these incidences occurred almost casually for the characters. They marked a departure from constrained sexual unions (in past societies) to unregulated sexual behaviors (in modern society). Pearson (11) believes that the sexual behaviors of Brandon’s sister represent her damaged “feminism.” These behaviors also match her brother’s malfunctioning masculinity (Pearson 11).

Singh (6) believes that these sexual adventures represent a new era where women are becoming bolder in expressing their sexual and emotional needs outside the conventional confines of marital unions.

Comparatively, Gummow (2) adopts a broader understanding of today’s sexual liberties by saying the changing nature of societal perceptions towards human sexuality stem from increased exposures to erotic content. Relative to this assertion, he says, “Society’s increasing openness towards erotica, coupled with greater exposure and opportunities today to seek out adventurous sexual behavior has certainly enabled us to broaden our sexual palate” (Gummow 2).

Although the above commentators affirm the growing sense of sexual adventure in modern society, the evolutionary psychology explains the reaction of Brandon to his sister’s relationship with his boss. Evolutionary psychology suggests that most men are more sexually adventurous than women are, in terms of sexual behavior and fantasy (Eisenman 9). It also shows that most men are more adept to engaging in sexual relations with many partners, and are more comfortable doing so with strangers, than women are.

The same framework explains why women are more inclined to tolerate infidelity than men are. This finding exists within the same understanding of “gene spread” analogy. Deep within this understanding is the need for women to feel emotionally secure and cared for. Based on this understanding, the main threat for women is a man developing an emotional attachment with another woman.

Similarly, the main threat for men is their women having sexual relations with other men because they could raise an offspring that does not have their genes. This fact explains the differences between male and female jealousy. This is why even famous women tend to tolerate infidelity and wild sexual behaviors of their men.

However, men seem to have a problem doing the same. From this observation, Eisenman (9) says, “Women tolerate their boyfriends, or husbands, for having sex with others, but men will often seem to go crazy when their mates do that, and may engage in violence. This behavior does not seem to fit the pattern of the more accepting male” (9).

Moore (1) says the sexual adventures showed in Shame reflect the same behaviors in modern society. In fact, he says most of Brandon’s behaviors represent the sexual energy that characterizes many American cities. Referring to New York’s social culture, he says,

“You can feel that pulsating energy day or night in the Big Apple, on the street, the line of women as they wait in line for a bus at rush hour on Fifth Avenue, the looks you get from them as you walk by, at bars, restaurants, and bookstores” (Moore 1).

Similarly, Moore (1) says he is familiar with all the sexual behaviors Brandon depicts in the film. They largely represent today’s sexual behaviors. From the same view, he says,

“For better or worse, many men and women in the audience will likely recognize parts of themselves in Brandon. Some will recognize themselves as people who have behaved almost exactly the way Brandon does in Shame. We have all looked at pornography. We have all had our sexual adventures. We all think about sex. And fantasize about it” (Moore 9).

Comprehensively, Shame shows the growing sexual freedoms and adventure that characterize modern society.


This paper argues that the film, Shame, fits into a wider social pattern of increased sexual adventures in the society. Infidelity, same-sex relationships, group sex, online sex, and prostitution are some evidences of this fact. Most of the characters in the movie adopt at least one of these practices.

However, Brandon’s sexual practices encompass most of these acts. Therefore, he is the epitome of sexual adventure in the film. Moreover, his wild sexual adventures border on sexual addiction. This paper also relies on the attachment theory, evolutionary theory, and the Cass model to explain the increased sexual adventures that Shame portrays.

The attachment and the evolutionary theories share similar findings because they explain the “wild” sexual behaviors of the characters, through biological and psychosocial explanations. For example, the attachment theory affirmed biological influences, as opposed to fantasy, in explaining deviant sexual habits. Particularly, it highlights the lack of attachment during the early developmental years of a child, as the main cause of deviant/adventurous sexual behaviors during the adult years.

Comparatively, the evolutionary theory adopts a biological perspective to explain increased sexual adventures in the society by highlighting reproduction need influences on male and female sexual behaviors. This theory mainly explains infidelity, group sex, online sex, and prostitution, as demonstrated through Brandon’s sexual behaviors. Overall, the sexual behaviors of Brandon, and other characters in the film, Shame, show a high prevalence of liberal sexual attitudes/adventure in modern society.

Works Cited

Aloisi, Silvia. . Reuters, September. 2011.

Eisenman, Russell. Evolutionary Psychology and Human Sexuality. Social Psychology, November. 2002.

Gummow, Joddie. Kinky Sex: Have We Become More Sexually Adventurous? Alternet Organization, February. 2014.

Mackenzie, Mandolyn. . Word Press, December. 2013.

Moon, Lyndsey. Feeling Queer Or Queer Feelings?: Radical Approaches to Counselling Sex, Sexualities and Genders. London: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Moore, Omar. Shame: A Harrowing, Powerhouse of Sex Addiction via Steve Mcqueen. Examiner, December. 2011.

Pearson, Chris. The Reasons Shame Is My Least Favorite Movie of 2011. The Critical Condition, December. 2011.

Porter, Jake. . Academia, January. 2013.

Rosario, Vernon. Homosexuality and Science: A Guide to the Debates. New York: ABC-CLIO, 2002. Print.

Shame. Dir. Steve McQueen. Momentum Pictures, 2011. DVD.

Shemmings, David. “Adult attachment theory and its contribution to an understanding of conflict and abuse in later-life relationships.” Journal of Adult Protection 2.3 (2000): 40 – 49. Print.

Singh, Vanita. . India Today, January. 2006.

Unger, Rhoda. Handbook of the Psychology of Women and Gender. London: John Wiley & Sons, 2004. Print.

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