The cycles of behavior exhibited by people with sex addiction are often connected to traumatic childhood experiences, particularly attachment-related trauma that continues to impair their ability to form healthy interpersonal relationships.
Attachment-related trauma can include physical, sexual or emotional abuse by a parent or caregiver. It can also include neglect, which often leaves children feeling unworthy of affection, attention and love.
This kind of trauma can even include parental enmeshment, which is when parents derive all of their happiness and self-worth from their children and their children’s achievements.
While neglect and enmeshment are in many ways polar opposite parenting styles, they can both lead to unhealthy attachment styles that may contribute to sex addiction.
Childhood Emotional, Sexual Trauma Common in Sex Addiction
Childhood trauma is not uniquely associated with sexual addiction by any means—it is associated with a wide range of addictions and other psychological disorders. Sometimes, sex addiction develops during or after substance abuse. Abuse of stimulants and the intense sexual desire that can accompany these drugs can jumpstart a pattern of compulsive sexual behavior, and sexual addiction can also become a substitute addiction for people who are in the process of quitting an addictive substance.
Nevertheless, the history of abuse that dominates the pasts of a large majority of sex addicts shows the strong correlation between this addiction and early trauma. According to Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., the pioneering sex addiction researcher, 97 percent of people with sex addiction suffered emotional abuse in childhood or adolescence, while 81 percent suffered sexual abuse. A further 72 percent suffered from physical abuse; furthermore, frequent abuse was even more strongly associated with sex addiction than occasional abuse.
People with a history of trauma can manifest a variety of different responses that are rooted in their traumatic experiences. This can include a deep-rooted sense of unworthiness, efforts to block or numb residual feelings, finding pleasure in extreme risk-taking, compulsive deprivation and re-creation of the trauma experience. Many of these responses can manifest in the form of the compulsive sexual behaviors that are seen with sex addiction.
Addressing Trauma: Part of the Long Process of Recovery
A history of early trauma is part of the reason that recovery from sexual addiction is typically a long and difficult process. First, people with this addiction need to stop their cycles of compulsive behavior, which usually means refraining from any sexual activity and avoiding potential sexual stimuli.
Before these individuals can recover the ability to lead healthy sex lives, they need to address the underlying personal and interpersonal issues that have contributed to their addictive behavior, such as poor self-image and unhealthy attachment. If these issues stem from early trauma, confronting this painful past can be grueling and take many months.
Sometimes, medications such as mood stabilizers can help people with sex addiction to address co-morbid conditions like depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Twelve-step programs or other support groups help many people to overcome the shame they feel about their compulsive sexual behaviors and to separate those behaviors from their sense of overall self-worth. Talk therapy with a professional who understands sex addiction is also a crucial component of treatment for most people in recovery.
Sex addiction on top of a traumatic childhood may leave many people feeling that they are freaks who have little chance of a full recovery. However, these folks are actually in good company and can take heart in the fact that a full recovery is possible.