Most people know what they know about sex addiction from a string of celebrity-focused cases in which high-profile men blamed their infidelity on mental illness. When we think of sex addiction, our minds may be prone to conjuring an image of Tiger Woods, Colin Farrell, or (oh boy) Charlie Sheen. Media coverage of celebrity sex scandals is surely entertaining, but it also works to delegitimize the issue at hand. Sex addiction is very real and very serious disorder, and it concerns much more than sleeping with a string of swimsuit models while the wife is out of town. Individuals who struggle with addictive sex disorders often experience immense shame and self-loathing, irreparable interpersonal problems, and a slew of other related consequences. And in most cases, sex addiction does not stem from fame and fortune and an excessive number of tempting propositions. In most cases, sex addiction stems from childhood trauma and early emotional abuse.
Sex Addiction Defined
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) defines sex addiction as what the psychiatric community widely agrees is a serious, diagnosable, and treatable mental disorder. In the 1987 publication of the DSM-III, sex addiction is referred to as “distress about a pattern of repeated sexual conquests or other forms of nonparaphilic sexual addiction, involving a succession of people who exist only as things to be used.” This excerpt is but a brief part of a much larger explanation, and was retracted in subsequent editions; it is certainly not included in the most recent publication, the DSM-V. However, this succinct passage clearly highlights the way that the psychiatric community used to view sexual addiction – much in the way that the media still portrays the disorder today. One man or woman, engaging in promiscuous, non-emotional sex with a disproportionate amount of partners. We know now, of course, that the disorder is far more complex than that, and can affect the afflicted in a wide variety of ways. Some sex addicts, for example, have yet to lose their virginity.
The Journal of Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity continues to research the complexities of sexual addiction, and the ways in which such addictions manifest themselves in different individuals. Long-standing fears of unscientific approaches to research are being abated as more studies are conducted and reviewed, and as the finer points in both pathology and treatment are made apparent. Recent studies continuously suggest that the purported causes of sex addiction seem to mirror those of drug and alcohol addiction, and other behavioral addictions (such as compulsive gambling and overeating). It seems as if most sexual addictions stem from some degree of genetic predisposition, in combination with environmental factors and unresolved past trauma.
Trauma and Sex Addiction
Many different forms of trauma may be involved in the development of sex addiction. Early developmental trauma is very common amongst adults with sex addiction, for example. If a child grows up in a home that lacks structure and support, he may not be properly introduced to the realities of adolescent sexuality. He may also experience extremes regarding sexuality, either growing up in a harshly restrictive household in which sexuality was disallowed, frowned upon, and never discussed, or growing up in a household in which there is an excessive encouragement of sexuality, and sexual boundaries were blurred or nonexistent. Early sexual abuse has also been known to create unhealthy sexual development, potentially leading to addiction. When a child is sexually abused at an early age, the development of his healthy psychological, emotional, and physical processes will be interfered with and hindered, leading to unhealthy and misguided sexual behavior later on in life.
Some human sexuality and addiction specialists believe that compulsive behavioral disorders may form as a result of attempts at self-medicating the pain of past sexual trauma. Many trauma survivors will ‘recreate’ the event that traumatized them, and for some, this event may become to object or focus of their addiction. For example, a young boy who is molested by an older woman may develop an interest in older women as an adult, and compulsively masturbate to pornographic material depicting relationships between older women and younger men. A young boy who is sexually abused by a teenage, male neighbor may go on to develop a sexual obsession revolving around teenage males. Without realizing they are doing so, they may be attempting to place themselves in positions of authority and power over individuals who represent their initial abusers.
Sex Addiction Recovery
Those who suffer from sexual addiction will live amidst a constant and uncontrollable cycle of self-destruction. A pain agent, or strong sense of emotional discomfort (such as anger, rejection, or shame) may trigger the cycle, sending them into a devastating whirlwind of obsession, impulsivity, and lack of control. The individual will remove themselves emotionally from the situation, entering a kind of psychological numbness in which obtaining pleasure is the only driving force. Consequences will be overlooked, or acknowledged and bypassed. Like is the case in any other severe addictive disorder, sexual satiation becomes the only option. Just as an alcoholic may drive straight to the bar after leaving a hospital stay during which he was diagnosed with liver failure, a sex addict may give into his sexual impulses despite the knowledge that what he is doing will inevitably hurt him – and others. He has simple lost the power of choice.
Fortunately, many recent breakthroughs have been made in the realm of sexual addiction treatment. While 12-step programs are often beneficial, it is usually crucial for the afflicted individual to enter into long-term treatment – allowing him to focus on the underlying issues. We at Next Chapter focus heavily on the role that trauma plays in the development of addictive disorders of all kinds. We have extensive experience helping men with sexual addictions get to the root of the problem, and go on to lead happy and fulfilled lives as sexually healthy and mature adults.