And when all these strata are collated and the vast bulk of the iceberg of sexual dysfunction glimpsed beneath the waterline of mass consciousness, the question arises: “Where is all this heading?” Everywhere we look, the monster of sex is trying to break loose from the shackles of well-ordered society. As in the film Deep Impact, which sounds like a third-rate porn flick but is actually about a blazing comet about to strike the earth with catastrophic results, all this discontent is a sociological juggernaut bearing down on one of the keystones of our society: sexual permissibility.

The issue is so overwhelming that it seems all we can do is watch helplessly as we lurch towards the next X-rated disaster and hope we’re not caught in the fallout. In this sense, we are all prisoners of Sexcatraz. In the thought-provoking conclusion to The Sex Myth, Brooke Magnanti warns against conflating the various debates on sex into a monolithic issue that creates “a view of the world in which virtually every human interaction is sexually charged—and potentially dangerous.” It’s too late. Research by geographer James DeMeo[1] suggests this happened around 6000 years ago and, consciously or unconsciously, we have been living in that world ever since, a situation that is now coming to a head—no other phrase will do—in some kind of “sexually charged” apocalypse.

In the face of what some portray as an Armageddon of sexual and moral degeneracy, fundamentalists bray unequivocal solutions: ban, control, legislate, castrate. We need more rules, stiffer sentences, a harsher god… but before anyone jumps to the conclusion that this book will blame all this sexual discontent on religion, let it be clear that Sexcatraz is not an anti-religious tract. Sexual repression predates monotheism by several thousand years[2]. Religion’s traditional antipathy to sex is a symptom, not a cause; having religious or spiritual values and a fulfilling sex life are not mutually exclusive.

Instead of blaming religion, the premise of Sexcatraz is that the root of our sexual malaise is a prison of age-old unconscious, sex-negative attitudes that keep us trapped in patterns of behaviour that are at best dissatisfying and at worst downright damaging, patterns from which there is seemingly no escape. That’s why this series’ title derives from America’s notorious—and supposedly escape-proof—maximum-security jail. The collapse of traditional, largely self-regulating behaviour highlights that our current sexual worldview has outlived its use-by date. This rising tide of dysfunction signals nothing less than the onset of a paradigm shift—a quantum leap in human sexual understanding—and, as a result, in the whole way that we think about, perceive, experience and express our sexuality—a “new understanding of ourselves,” to quote Ryan and Jethá. However, to reach the Garden of Eden of a new sexual paradigm we must first escape from Sexcatraz.

But how do you shift paradigms? You can’t sign up for an evening course in paradigm shifting. As Albert Einstein noted, “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” We are blinkered by ancient cultural beliefs, handed down from generation to generation, trapped as surely as the inmates of Alcatraz, locked into sexual attitudes so deeply embedded in our social conventions that, as the Everyday Sexism Project notes, they have been normalised into invisibility.

If these patterns are invisible then how can they be identified? Where can we find minutely documented case studies into the hidden layers of the human condition where sexual dysfunction resides?

The answer lies in the arts: in contemporary literature, music and film. These aren’t just entertainment; works of fiction they may be, but they’re cultural documents too. The stories we tell about ourselves contain traces of our deepest impulses. Film, in particular, with its ability to reveal with a glance what thousands of words can never convey, has long been fascinated by sexual dysfunction in its myriad forms. It is easy to dismiss the products of Hollywood and the world’s other filmmakers as fictions unsuited to stringent analysis, but the reason these films resonate so powerfully with their audience is because, for all their fictitious origins, they are emotionally honest. As author Idries Shah, an authority on Sufi Islam and its use of storytelling, writes,

Most fables contain at least some truth, and they often enable people to absorb ideas which the ordinary patterns of their thinking would prevent them from digesting.

In this context, the modern equivalents of fables are films. In Oscar-winners like Boys Don’t Cry and Antonia’s Line; independent hits such as Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Blue Velvet; European art house gems such as Swimming Pool and The Piano Teacher; from glossy Hollywood romantic comedies such as When Harry Met Sally to the quasi-porn of Catherine Breillat to the classic BBC TV series The Singing Detective, some of the world’s leading writers, actors and directors have contributed to a composite picture of the profound misery that only sex can cause. There are many other films that could—perhaps even should—have been included; nonetheless, these are the films that have presented themselves as best illustrating the concepts of Sexcatraz.

Over the course of around 60 hours of (generally) high-quality filmmaking, the hidden patterns of human sexual behaviour that keep us trapped in Sexcatraz gradually emerge on our screens and laptops so they can be freeze-framed, replayed, dissected and analysed. While many of the films reviewed in Sexcatraz address sexual issues directly, others do so at a tangent or even through omission. The impulses underlying sexual dysfunction are never particularly obvious, even in films that directly address the theme. They must be glimpsed from the corner of the eye; they lie between the lines (or, in this case, the frames) of the material or may be notable only by their absence. In its search for the wellspring of human sexual misery this book mines the various strata of filmmaking—writing, directing, acting, filming and editing—to uncover and examine the unconscious beliefs that imprison us in Sexcatraz.

Many of these films contain explicit depictions of nudity or sex and some of them may be considered pornographic. This book is not concerned with demarcating what is or isn’t pornography; the films included in Sexcatraz have been selected on their ability to reveal the hidden patterns behind our sexual attitudes and behaviours. On this matter outright porn, which illuminates only skin, has little to say.

Because of its premise, many of the films examined in Sexcatraz contain narratives of sexual abuse in various forms, including rape and sexually motivated murder. Such stories can be challenging to absorb, leaving the viewer feeling like they’ve been in the emotional equivalent of a bare-knuckle boxing match. It is therefore recommended that Sexcatraz should be read at a gentle pace, perhaps one chapter at a time. Better yet, watch each film then read about it. Or read about each film and then watch it.

Over its course Sexcatraz suggests that beneath the seemingly irrational and unpredictable world of sexual dysfunction there lurks an entirely consistent layer of emotional behaviour based on a few simple, endlessly repeated rules and processes

Either way, over its course Sexcatraz suggests that beneath the seemingly irrational and unpredictable world of sexual dysfunction there lurks an entirely consistent layer of emotional behaviour based on a few simple, endlessly repeated rules and processes. This is the blueprint of Sexcatraz. While the awareness of this hidden layer may not be new—early psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich noted it nearly a century ago—Sexcatraz uses cinematic case studies to make the emotional mechanics of sexual repression visible to the naked and untrained eye.

Sexcatraz is not the result of years spent researching arcane documents in lightless vaults, nor is it the product of carefully controlled experiments. Its origins lie firmly in the everyday world of business, where functional analysis deconstructs processes into common and uncommon denominators. Sexcatraz is built upon the observation that beneath every unique and irrational instance of sexual dysfunction lurks a universal and rational pattern of unconscious, sex-negative programming. This book does not—and cannot—claim to prove this in any scientific sense. The admonition that ‘correlation is not causation’ is noted; yet observation of both real life and the many films viewed in the process of writing this book suggest there are common patterns at work, patterns that are repeatable, understandable and ultimately changeable. The reader is invited to glimpse this insidious programming at work in the news, in the lives of those around them, and—with some courageous self-reflection—in their own lives. Sexcatraz is intended not as the end of an inquiry but the beginning of one.

Sexcatraz is full of what are generally called ‘dirty’—Steven Pinker’s phrase—words; more blasphemously yet, it is filled with what may be considered dirty ideas and a frankness with all matters sexual. Sexcatraz isn’t just a vivisection of our moribund sexual mores; it’s a celebration of what it means to be a joyfully sexual human being, free from the numbing, self-censoring grip of frigid sexual limitations. Sexcatraz is, above all, an attempt to move beyond existing stale—and stalemated—discourses. It has been guided throughout by the notion that any solution that favours any one person, group or gender at the expense of any other is no solution at all.

Next: The unholy trinity


[1] DeMeo’s Saharasia: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence in the Deserts of the Old World will be referred to later in Sexcatraz.

[2] In Sex in Prehistory, Timothy Taylor writes, “the idea that there is a sexual line that must not be crossed… is far older than the story of Eve.”

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