The recent release of the Lars von Trier film Nymphomaniac has brought an old term into the spotlight again and has generated an extensive discussion of its meaning and whether it is still relevant today. For those unfamiliar with the terms nymphomaniac and nymphomania, the definition is a woman who is obsessed with or addicted to sex. But the question always has and always will be; what classifies as addiction and in what ways do these terms label, demonise, pathologies and punish female sexual expression?
To understand this controversial topic further, I am going to use the film Nymphomaniac as a point of reference. The film depicts the sexual journey of Joe, a 50 year old self-proclaimed sexual outcast who is telling the stories of her sexual experiences to a stranger. From the request that her virginity be taken at an early age; a scene that counted 3 vaginal thrusts and 5 anal thrusts without foreplay or the removal of clothes, to having up to 10 male sexual partners a night in her early 20’s, a one-way BDSM relationship with a man whose intentions are unknown and the use of her sexuality to exploit in a criminal occupation, we can see that sexuality has dominated much of Joe’s course and current feelings about herself, humanity and how we act on instinct and lust.
But how strange or extreme are any of the sexual stories that Joe tells? This may be dependent on the viewer and their subjective perspective. Joe asks this poignant question herself when she wonders if anybody would be as shocked by these stories if they were from the mouth of a man? A resounding answer is probably not. But somehow when it comes to a female that flirts with danger, sexual competition and at times, manipulation when it comes to her body and sexuality, we can be prone to becoming perplexed, astonished and even thinking that there is something wrong or unhealthy that needs to be fixed.
Yet the truth about any kind of human behaviour is that someone only has a problem or concern if it is causing distress, disruption or has far reaching affects to their health, wellbeing and relationships. Taking this one step further, the person has to recognise this for herself and want to change the behaviour because of her own internal desire to do so. What happens when Joe is encouraged to change? Without giving too much away, rather than deny her sexuality, she accepts it as a dominant part of her identity, declaring, “I am a nymphomaniac” to her self-help group. Whether we agree or disagree with her decision and choice to use such a stigmatised label, it is ultimately hers to make.
Nothing can generate more heated discussions and polar opposite opinions than sexuality and the topic of impulsive and compulsive female sexuality is no different. Unfortunately for many women, regardless of how often female sexuality is brought into the light, what is still persistent and prevalent is the shaming of it, most often when it is misunderstood and considered taboo.
With the intention to isolate, the terms slut, whore and nympho are often used to describe a woman that has been ‘careless’ or ‘promiscuous’ with her sexuality. But there are women and men who are fighting this by promoting alternative, often accurate definitions to these historically damaging words. Sheri Winston, author of Women’s Anatomy of Arousal uses the term slut to describe a sex goddess – that is, a woman who loves sex! The well-received book Sex At Dawn extends on our misuse of the word promiscuity by clarifying that promiscuity is often a calculated move in regards to sexual expression. It is not done blindly without standards, boundaries or a sense of selectivity. How refreshing is that!
It really is time that we acknowledge not just the differences but also the similarities between female and male sexuality. Ultimately, we are all sexual beings with different sets of conditions and expectations around our expression. Is it any worse that Joe hurt herself and others when it came to her sexuality because she was a woman? No. It was simply a relatable tale of how libidinous energy can be both creative and destructive.
My own take on Nymphomaniac is that it was a raw, visual portrayal of female sexuality that was frank, moving, dynamic and at times funny. The sensationalism of the title is warranted because the films (volume 1 and 2) are sensational. If you are drawn to films that avoid the sugary sweet version of human sexuality in favour for what may resonate closer to home then Nymphomaniac is a film that you may want to invest in. But be warned, it is not for the faint hearted and the directors cut that is to be released on DVD totals a purported 5.5 hours for volume 1 and volume 2.
In my opinion, Nymphomaniac has done a favour to society’s understanding of female sexuality. And as per my own philosophy, sexuality is personal and unique so it is an individual’s decision as to what sexual activities they consent to. Admittedly, this can become blurry because if a compulsion or addiction is at play; functioning to the detriment of other facets of our lives...is there still freedom in choice?