Childhood Sexual Abuse and Hypersexuality: How Trauma Informs Sex Addiction

childhood sex abuse sex addiction
The trauma of childhood sexual abuse can lead to hypersexuality and sex addiction in adults. | Image Source: Unsplash user Eutah Mizushima

Jenna is a wife, mother, former model, and running enthusiast. She is also a recovering sex addict whose compulsion drove her to both indiscriminate sexual encounters in her personal life and engagement in professional sex work as a dominatrix and sensual masseuse. Triggered by years of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, she relentlessly sought the attention of men to quell the residual pain of sexual trauma. “[I used] everything at my disposal to try to keep myself from feeling bad,” she says. “Like a shark who must constantly swim to stay alive, I would move from relationships to relationship … wanting to find that place that would make me feel like a safe little girl again.”[1. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/11/sex-addiction-isnt-a-guy-thing/281401/] Even after she married and had children, she continued to recklessly pursue sexual experiences to the detriment of her relationships, physical health, and psychological stability. It wasn’t until she hit rock bottom that she was forced to confront her addiction and the traumatic sexual violation that drove it.

For some, sex addiction following sexual traumatization may seem counter-intuitive. After all, why would someone deliberately search out the behaviors that caused profound psychological pain? While it may appear baffling at first glance, it is also extremely common. In fact, research indicates that childhood sexual abuse is more strongly associated with hypersexuality and, by extension, sex addiction than any other sexual dysfunction.[2. https://books.google.ca/books/about/Principles_and_Practice_of_Sex_Therapy_F.html?id=AvfkAgAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y] Understanding the emotional and behavioral underpinnings of this association can help you begin the process of understanding either your own history of trauma and addiction or the experience of a loved one.

The Search for Validation

Many people who experience sexual abuse in their formative years come to see their sexual availability as their primary worth. While the abuse itself may have been deeply painful, internalized conditioning caused by sustained sexual trauma can distort your sense of self, fracture your understanding of healthy relationship dynamics, and cause you to seek validation in sexual activity. The feeling of being wanted by another person becomes intoxicating and essential to your self-esteem; sex becomes an attempt to gain love, belonging, and acceptance while guarding against abandonment or rejection. This may be particularly true if the abuser made explicit connections between affection, desirability, love, and sexual activity.

Reclaiming Control

Some trauma survivors attempt to assert control over their experiences, bodies, and emotions by engaging in compulsive and risky sexual behavior. In a moving essay detailing her experiences after rape, one woman writes, “Being hypersexual was my way of trying to regain control of the power I lost when I was attacked. It was as if I adopted a similar mentality to my rapist; sex was a game and I wanted to win at the end of the night.”[3. http://www.afropunk.com/profiles/blogs/hypersexuality-the-opposite-spectrum-of-coping-rarely-discussed] Social expectations that assumed trauma victims would avoid rather than embrace sex made it easy to hide her compulsive and dysfunctional behavior under the guise of healthy sexual exploration. In reality, she was constructing elaborate emotional and behavioral systems to cope with deep grief and protect herself from re-traumatization:

Sex was how I baited men and eventually women alike – it also became how I manipulated them to stay. Sex was a way to wedge a certain amount of distance between us. I figured if I [has sex] early on, then there was no way an emotional attachment could form. If I started feeling a certain amount of dependency forming, I started talking to other people and eventually I was able to juggle multiple lovers at once. Every romantic relationship I had became a circus act of me attempting to control people to fill a void.

Ultimately, she lost the ability to make meaningful human connections with others and experience true intimacy. Rather than regaining control, her experience of sexual violence loomed over her every move and profoundly limited her social and sexual behaviors.

Chemical Relief

Not all sexual addiction amongst sexual abuse survivors is behaviorally linked to the trauma itself. For some, the connection is purely chemical; sex, like drugs and alcohol, can offer intense and self-reinforcing neurochemical rewards that allow you to temporarily escape the inner turmoil caused by sexual violation. When you prepare for or engage in sexual activity, your brain floods with serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline, a potent cocktail of chemicals that increases feelings of pleasure, well-being, and even euphoria. For some, this rush of neurological activity becomes addictive, as you seek to recreate and enhance your high. For others, they serve to not produce elation, but to make emotional pain more tolerable. As sex addiction expert Maureen Canning says, “The chemicals released in the brain act as a block to emotional discomfort. Often this coping mechanism has been a part of an individual’s life for a very long time. It has become automatic.”[4. http://consults.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/25/when-is-it-sex-addiction/]

Integrated Treatment

Sex addiction can lead to serious physical harm, damaged interpersonal relationships, and legal consequences. However, the biggest problem with compulsive sexual activity in response to childhood sexual trauma is that it doesn’t work. Rather than offering real and lasting relief from the pain of your abuse, sex addiction prolongs your suffering, reduces opportunities for meaningful social support, and acts as a new source of shame, disappointment, and struggle. Concurrent treatment of both your addiction and the psychological impact of trauma is the best way of creating meaningful healing. In a safe, non-judgmental environment, you can begin the process of exploring the emotional, behavioral, and experiential causes and expressions of distress while strengthening your self-awareness and resilience. With compassion and support, experienced clinicians can guide you toward healthier ways of coping with your grief, anger, fear, and sadness, help you uncover your authentic self, and expand your potential for trust, self-acceptance, and true intimacy. In the words of one survivor:

Each day, I have to tell myself that what happened to me is no excuse to manipulate lovers, sexual partners, or even those around me just to feel loved temporarily. I can attest that the love inside me was missing. However, I am not a victim. I am woman. I am a survivor. And no one can take that away from me.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive mental health treatment for survivors of trauma struggling with sex addiction and other process disorders. Contact us for more information about how we can help you or your loved one on the path to healing within an immersive, supportive therapeutic community.