Recently I became aware of a new, highly compassionate and well-researched book about a very under-discussed topic: sex addiction. This is one area I have not been trained in, and I was interested to learn that Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is a major contributor to sex addiction.
It may seem surprising, but yet in another way, it’s not surprising at all. It makes excellent intuitive sense that these two issues would be linked. As I always say, feeling empty is remarkably painful. In fact, it’s one of the most intolerable feelings of all.
Growing up emotionally overlooked leaves its mark on you. As an adult, you will naturally seek the connection and warmth that you missed as a child. You may try to do it with food, shopping, entertainment, alcohol, porn, drugs, or an infinity of other possible “fillers.”
To learn more about the specific relationship between CEN and sex addiction, I asked the author of the book Life After Lust, licensed therapist and recovered sex addict Forest Benedict, LFMT, SATP about how these two issues are related.
1.What is the prevalence of sex addiction in the US?
It’s estimated that 3-6% of the US population struggles with sexual addiction. It’s difficult to know how many people are actually suffering from sexual compulsivity since many do not seek help due to their shame.
2. Is there a shortage of treatment or help for folks who struggle with sex addiction?
There are many resources available for those seeking recovery from sex and pornography addiction. Therapists with the SATP or CSAT certifications are trained to treat sex addiction. LifeSTAR is an outpatient sex addiction treatment program with multiple locations throughout the US (and one in Canada). I provided several resources in my book. I want to emphasize the importance of seeking out a specialist to treat sex addiction.
3. Do many people avoid seeking help for fear of being judged or labelled?
Yes, unfortunately those who struggle with sexual compulsivity experience a high level of shame. This is especially true for female sex addicts. As I wrote in my book “most do not passionately pursue healing until life “makes” them do it. They face painful consequences of potential divorce, court involvement, job loss, and countless other wake-up calls” (Benedict, 2017). Without experiencing consequences such as these, many do not seek the healing they need and deserve.
4. From your own experience, clinical and/or personal, does Childhood Emotional Neglect typically play a role in sexual addiction?
Definitely. Earlier research revealed that 87% of sex addicts were raised in emotionally neglectful families (Carnes, 1998).
As I explained in the book, “Many adult sexual addicts were emotionally neglected as children (Hatch, 2012). They were taught not to trust relational comfort, learning instead to self-soothe in sexually addictive ways (Frye, 2010).” Generally, sex addiction is an attachment disorder, meaning that the addict is unable to connect with themselves or others, and these patterns were learned in childhood from emotionally neglectful or abusive caregivers. Most of the sexually addicted clients I have worked with were emotionally neglected and this was my personal experience as well. Running On Empty is now required reading for recovering sex addicts in our program and referenced throughout Life After Lust as well. While difficult to look at, understanding the role that emotional neglect played in making us vulnerable to addiction is such an important part of the healing process.
5. What are the primary aspects of CEN recovery that might apply to sex addiction recovery in particular?
It’s incredible how much overlap there is between CEN recovery and SA recovery. When active in their addiction, the sex addict is reactive to their emotions, seeking out unhealthy behaviors to numb them out and escape from them temporarily. Often, the addict is disconnected from themselves emotionally and lacks the language necessary to name their emotions and communicate them to others. Learning how to understand and respond to emotions is a vital part of recovery. I call this self-connection. Learning what feelings are, identifying and naming them, and learning to express them to others is so important in recovery. This is a foundational part of learning how to connect with others and regulate emotions in a healthy way. It has been said that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection and this is so true. Unless the addict learns to connect with themselves and others, long-term recovery will not occur. Understanding emotions is foundational to learning how to connect.
Self-care is another area of overlap in recovery from both CEN and SA. In my book, I wrote how most addicts are masters of self-neglect and I’ve found this to be true in my own life as well. One of the “skills to master” presented in my book is “consistent and effective self-care.” I introduce this concept in my chapter The Neuroscience of Self-Care, where I share the research about how exercise, sleep, healthy eating, and mindful breathing increase self-control. In my chapter Permission to Rest, I shared that addicts “demonstrate an almost complete inability to relax and enjoy themselves” (Flores, 2004). Thus, learning how to master the essential skills of healthy self-soothing, relaxation, and having fun apart from addiction are necessary for recovery as well.
The third similarity in recovery from both CEN and SA is the need to learn and practice self-compassion. My clients know that I am basically a self-compassion evangelist and there is good reason for this. In my book I talk about how a “self-critical mindset decreases one’s ability to successfully change and increases the chances of repeating the behavior and giving up. Also, those who are more self-critical have less self-control and motivation. Thus, it’s unlikely that true change will occur when self-criticism remains the default manner of relating with oneself, especially in times of failure and weakness” (McGonigal, 2012). Thus, learning how to relate to oneself with self-compassion is another “skill to master” in recovery.
As you can see, there are many ways that recovering from CEN is similar to recovering from sex addiction. I would go even further by saying that recovery from CEN is necessary for recovery from sex addiction. They go hand in hand.
6. What’s the biggest struggle for most people recovering from sex addiction?
One of the biggest struggles for those in recovery from SA is learning to trust others. We often learn not to trust others through early experiences of neglect or trauma, so trusting others is new and scary territory. It’s so much easier to trust a substance or addictive experience. Yet, learning to trust others in some form is essential for recovery, whether it’s learning to trust a therapist, accountability partner, partner, or a Higher Power.
7. If you suspect someone you care about may have a sex addiction, do you have any advice for how to intervene or offer help?
It may seem a bit self-serving, but I’d say “give them my book Life After Lust.” The book will help someone see if they are using lust as a drug or practicing unhealthy, self-destructive, disconnected, or self-neglectful behavior. The book also directs readers to resources that will help them determine if they are addicted or not. While we can’t make someone change, we can educate them on the potential effects of their behavior.
8. Can you share a few of the most important facts about your book for those who are interested in understanding more about sex addiction?
Life After Lust is a sex/porn addiction recovery handbook written from my research, experience helping clients, and personal recovery journey. It’s written for men and women from varying backgrounds, and is strategically structured into 3 sections: Mindset, Mastery, and Mission. Each section provides a series of chapters aimed at examining specific Essential Mindsets, Skills to Master, and Missions to Accomplish for the successful recovery journey. For those desiring greater guidance, the book provides Your Recovery Roadmap: A 52-Week Plan, which includes weekly readings as well as assignments aimed at supporting early and long-term recovery. Life After Lust can be found at Amazon.com.
So here’s what no one’s told you about sex addiction: it’s not a problem to be ashamed of. It’s just another way that people try to cope with having been emotionally overlooked as a child. And it’s another reason that we should all make sure that we stop overlooking our own emotions, and respond to our children’s emotions as well.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible and unmemorable, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, and learn more, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.