A biography of Marilyn Monroe by Lois Banner, professor of history and gender studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, reveals a complicated woman determined to be the best at everything. Published around the fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death (August 5, 1962), Marilyn: The Passion and Paradox also reveals Marilyn Monroe’s troubled psyche and tragic childhood, including her childhood experience with sexual abuse, which led to a life-long struggle with sexual addiction. In an act that continues to strike us for its bravery—especially in a society like ours that is obsessed with objectifying women—Marilyn Monroe acknowledged and spoke publicly about her struggle with the consequences of childhood sexual abuse.
Banner builds on Monroe’s own statements to create a picture of a woman battling sex addiction and seeing herself as an object to be possessed by men and women. In one particular interview she gave to the British press, she stated “I sometimes felt I was hooked on sex. I could not stop having sex with almost every man I met.” Her persona as America’s “sex symbol” speaks loudly to America’s twisted relationship to sexuality, which takes tragic self-objectification and makes it something desirable rather than identifying it as a defense to trauma that causes suffering and requires treatment.
Aside from celebrities having affairs and sometimes excusing this behavior under the guise of “sexual addiction,” our society does not talk about the topic, and therefore we do not fully understand sexual addictions. The first thing to note is, oddly enough, sex addiction is never about sex. It is about a repetition of trauma and a craving for intimacy. Sex becomes the tool a person uses in order to find love and acceptance. Of course, the aim is never satisfied because the intimacy created through frequent sexual encounters is never really intimate or loving.
Sex addiction is a byproduct of trauma coupled with loneliness, pain, and the need to be loved and accepted. It is a substitute for these needs, a counterfeit way to meet real desires. However, it always fails to meet those needs and desires and subsequently creates a greater need for more sex in order to mask what one is truly missing. In Marilyn Monroe’s case, this craving for affection probably developed early on in life as she was moved around from foster parent to foster parent. In addition, having been sexually abused by men as a child, she would likely have equated sex with attention, and attention with love.
Studies show a high correlation between childhood abuse and sex addiction in adulthood. “Sixty percent of sexual addicts were abused by someone in their childhood” (Book, 1997, p 52). If your caretakers failed to protect you, or worse, inflicted the pain, you end up repeating what you know; you are attracted to the kinds of people who will fail to protect you or cause you harm. Having been sexually abused early on in life, a child grows up emotionally starved for love and mistakenly comes to equate love with sex. To bear the pain, one begins creating a fantasy where love means sex. And so, slowly, sex becomes a tool to satisfy any kind of need, whether that be loneliness, fear, anxiety, or shame. Worse, contemporary society constantly sexualizes us, especially young women, by teaching them how to become an object for someone else’s pleasure, not a participating subject. From the TV shows that we watch to the magazines that we read, we learn about sex as a performance and, for women in particular, we are taught that our bodies are a tool to be used in order to attract people. This further prevents survivors from seeking out treatment, as our society rewards unhealthy behavior and seldom teaches us how to view sexuality in a healthy way.
Sexual addiction has many different forms: compulsive masturbation, sex with people who are prostituted, anonymous and often unsafe sex with multiple partners, multiple affairs outside a committed relationship, habitual exhibitionism, habitual voyeurism, inappropriate sexual touching, repeated sexual abuse of children, abstaining from having sex altogether, or episodes of rape (Book, 1997). Addictions are quick fixes in order not to experience pain. Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often find it hard to trust another, to create real intimacy, to overcome feelings of shame and rejection, and to be present in intimate relationships. Sex, then, becomes a way to create a fantasy world, to tell oneself that you are sharing with another, that you are intimate and therefore present in the relationship. But, since sex addicts don’t necessarily enjoy sex with other people, and the need for intimacy is never fulfilled, one is then compelled to act out sexually—hence the addiction.helpless, more alone, more ashamed. Slowly, a preoccupation with a new sexual encounter develops, and its promise for a new beginning gives rise to fantasies of intimacy, love, and affection. Perhaps the worst pain inflicted by childhood sexual abuse, which can be easily seen in the powerful and disruptive negative thoughts of someone who is addicted to sex, is the person’s lack of self-esteem, the idea of being damaged. Thus, rather than experiencing sex as a self-affirming, pleasurable activity, it is a source of pain, shame, and suffering.
Sexual addiction is a symptom of a bigger problem, and treating the symptom does not solve the problem. Underneath the symptom, one finds a codependent, wounded soul. As a young girl, Marilyn Monroe was treated as a sexual object and like many adult survivors, she became addicted to sex, suffering in silence. In treating sexual addiction, one needs to move beyond the symptoms and work with the survivor on issues regarding shame, self-esteem, and trauma. Yet therapy also needs to go a step further: In analyzing our culture’s view of women, sexuality, and relationships, we can begin to understand how ideology contributes to negative views of sexuality and women. Perhaps the greatest task for both the client and the therapist is to explore what it means to be a subject rather than an object in a relationship—to begin creating spaces where both women and men value each other and celebrate sexuality, not as a means to an end, but rather as a ground for pleasure.
By slowly peeling away the layers, Banner’s book reveals the complexity of a human being. Through Marilyn Monroe’s tragic story, we are reminded of the painful scars created by childhood sexual abuse that, when left untreated, continue to bleed throughout one’s life.
- Banner, L. (2012). Marilyn: The passion and the paradox. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.
- Book, P. (1997). Sex & love addiction, treatment & recovery. New York: Lucerne Publishing.
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Silvia M. Dutchevici, MA, LCSW, therapist in New York City, New York
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