Last week we took a look at why sex addiction may start and how opportunity plays an important role in this development. This week we will explore how trauma also contributes to addiction.
There are many different types of trauma varying from a lack of nurturing in childhood to incidents of abuse or experiencing an assault. Trauma is complex and if you want to know more, there is lots of research and reading available, but here I’ll be discussing trauma in relation to sex addiction. Primarily what I call capital ‘T’ Traumas – the ones the body cannot forget. Traumas that make people fear for their survival and can result in long-term anxiety and hyper-vigilance.
There are many different types of abuse. Physical abuse in childhood can damage a person’s ability to trust. They learn to protect themselves by pushing people away rather than learning how to have healthy relationships. In this case, sex can be used as a means of forgetting that pain or receiving some much deserved physical comfort. Emotional abuse in childhood, either from a parent or peers, can cause low self-esteem and deep feelings of shame. And when that leads to feeling isolated and alone, a child can fear for their survival. Someone with sex addiction may use sex to soothe these emotions.
Sexual abuse is one of the most difficult forms of abuse to identify and address. Particularly if the abuse has been subtle. It is important to note that any behaviour that results in a child being coerced into anything sexual is abuse, such as viewing pornography. Many victims of sexual abuse feel so much shame that they may minimise or even deny the abuse happened all together. It is often these smaller, but nonetheless unacceptable incidents of sexual abuse that causes damaging sexual expression in adulthood.
Some sex addicts also report having experienced an assaulted. An assault is categorised as an isolated incident of extreme abuse which is usually violent. In my survey, 16% of addicts have been physically or sexually assaulted and they are often left terrified and shocked by the incident or they may have learnt to cope by normalising the behaviour or even justifying it. The latter often being the case if the victim has previously suffered from abuse. In this case, someone with sex addiction may use sex to manage the emotional impact of the experience and soothe the physical memory of it.
There are also other prominent shocks to the system that can prove a contributing factor to addiction. For example, bereavement, and especially if a loved one has been lost prematurely and/or suddenly. In my survey, 21% of addicts suffered from such a bereavement. Other examples of these shocks to the system are perhaps a sudden disability to oneself or a loved one or being a witness to domestic violence.
The impact of trauma is often hard to acknowledge if a victim has been using sex to soothe their pain. Sex can become a means of survival rather than a way of achieving pleasure. They may feel a tremendous amount of anger – at their aggressor, at the situation or even themselves. Research has even indicated that some forms of abuse can lead to types of sexual fetishes. What is clear is that trauma has a direct effect on our brains and our ability to form healthy relationships in adulthood. For more detail, please refer to page 45 of my book ‘Understanding and Treating Sex Addiction.’
Next time, we will take a look at how attachment issues can cause sex addiction.