How does sex addiction start? Part 1

Like any addiction once acknowledged, the immediate question seems to be why. Why me? How did this happen? What did I do to end up in this situation? More often than not these questions arise in the initial stage of acceptance where this new information proves overwhelming and often leads to despair. However, once the initial shock has subsided, the real question is – can I change?

Firstly, I shall answer that question with a simple yes. Recovery is always possible if you are willing to be honest, sacrifice and work hard. This is something that must be emphasised to all struggling addicts but especially to those who may have suffered abuse. Recovery from trauma-induced addiction is a difficult task that starts with a deconstruction of the learned behaviour through abuse. Only then can it be possible to move on to building new and healthier coping strategies. (I will discuss this is more detail in Part 2). The crucial point to note is that every person has the capacity to change and achieve a healthy sexual lifestyle.

But why do only some become addicted to sex whilst others can remain in control? Unfortunately there is no straightforward answer to this. The addiction can be trauma-induced, attachment-induced or simply opportunity-induced. There are far too many complex factors at play to identify a single cause. Because of this it is crucial that we do not compare ourselves to others when addressing addiction as it will undoubtedly lead to feelings of shame. It is perfectly possible for two people seemingly cut from the same cloth to have wholly contrasting experiences in later life.

There are two main questions a sex addict should address (ideally with a professional). Why are they an addict and why sex? Whilst the answers to the first question usually lie in a person’s childhood, the latter is mostly related to sexual development in adolescence, availability and accessibility.

In Part 1, we’re going to take a brief look at these questions within the context of opportunity-induced addiction. For further information, please refer to Chapter 3 of my book Understanding and Treating Sex Addiction.

From newspapers to movies to the entire world-wide web, sex is everywhere. Long gone are the days when sexual curiosity meant taking a sneaky peak at page 3 in the local newsagent. Nowadays we have an endless supply of pornographic material to suit every single taste. But without adequate education and public health warnings, what is to stop us drowning in an abyss of anonymous and unlimited sexual opportunity?  This pornography ‘free for all’ is not free of consequences and without an effective warning light in place, the cost can be very great indeed. After all, if you don’t know something is potentially addictive, what is going to stop you? To put it simply, addiction cannot exist without opportunity and as long as it is right there waiting, people will inevitably draw to it.

We must accept that society as a whole is somewhat responsible. However, I must stress that it is not my motivation to disregard or abolish pornography entirely. On the contrary, I only urge that we collectively address this urgent need to educate people more thoroughly on the dangers and risks of addiction. It is vital that we establish an informed discourse and put adequate boundaries in place in order to ensure a practice of safe sexuality.

But why do only some fall into addiction?

Some research indicates that heredity can play an important role and perhaps some people are more biologically predisposed to addiction. What is clearer in research is that dopamine is the common denominator in all addictions. Dopamine is the chemical in your brain responsible for experiencing feelings of pleasure and reward and so any imbalance of this is bound to lead to problems.

Another theory is that the roots of addiction simply lie in a person’s personality. It is true that many addicts share similar character traits such as impulsive behaviour and difficulty managing under stress. However this idea presents a problem as it is difficult to identify whether these traits are innate or whether they are simply a result of learned behaviour. We can trace back a number of possible causes from childhood experiences. For example, a person may have difficulty exercising self-control if they have been raised in an overly-relaxed environment where they never learned the benefits of moderating behaviour. Similarly, a child from a very strict background may have developed a rebellious nature where they concealed secrets and harboured a deep shame for them.

Finally, our early introductions and attitudes to sex and sex education play a key role. Perhaps a person was raised to view sex as a dirty, taboo subject or maybe it was discussed openly and at great length. Either way, whether sex was vilified or glorified during early development, it will surely have an effect on their future attitudes and experiences.

In a fortnight in Part 2, we will look at how trauma can lead to addiction.