Lord knows we hear plenty about sexual addiction in the news – most often stories about politicians, actors, athletes, and just plain folks who are systematically ruining their lives with ongoing patterns of problematic sexual activity. Of course, for every scandal that makes the papers, tens of thousands of similar tales go unreported, known only to the individuals directly involved. Regardless of whether the stories make headlines or remain anonymous, one wonders: What exactly are these people thinking when they put everything on the line for a sexual experience? What causes these seemingly intelligent, often highly successful people to act in such amazingly irrational ways? How and why do these men and women become so preoccupied with sex that they act on their desires to the exclusion of family, career, health, and more – regardless of the consequences?
For many sex addicts, attachment deficits, childhood neglect, and related forms of early-life abuse are at the core of their adult intimacy and sexual acting out issues. In other words, many if not most sexually addicted men and women have backgrounds of profound family dysfunction. Often, as children, they were victims or witnesses of emotional, sexual, or physical abuse. One prominent study suggests that as children 97 percent of sex addicts were emotionally abused, 81 percent were sexually abused, and 72 percent experienced physical violence. It is also common for at least one other person in a sex addict’s family to suffer from either a major mental health disorder or an addiction, be it a chemical addiction to alcohol or drugs, or a process addiction like sex (or gambling, eating, shopping, etc.) A common thread among sex addicts is that they nearly always spend their formative years in households in which their emotional needs are either unmet or inappropriately responded to, meaning the lessons they learned as children about intimacy, connection, and support were formulated through a distorted lens.
Being consistently exposed to early family dysfunction often leads to an internalized sense of being unworthy of the acceptance and love that normally come when one is simply being open and vulnerable to friends and family. Because of this, seeking help and support in such an intimate way feels both unfamiliar and scary to most sex addicts. Instead, even when they are in a romantic relationship, they tend to seek what feel like emotionally controllable connections in the form of affairs, prostitution, porn abuse, and the like. Essentially, sex addicts use sexual intensity as a temporary distraction from and replacement for genuinely intimate support, care, affirmation, and love. In other words, sex addicts learn, usually very early on, to fill the emotional void in their lives by self-medicating with sexual fantasy and behavior, either alone or with others. To them, this feels like a far safer way of quieting their emotional needs than risking more intimate experiences that could result in a painful re-experiencing of what they grew up with (rejection, criticism, abandonment, and the like).
For sex addicts, sex is not about emotional intimacy or even physical pleasure. Instead, sex addicts use escapist sexual fantasies and behaviors to cope with (dissociate from) emotional discomfort, life stressors, and the pain of underlying psychological conditions like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, attachment deficit disorders, and unresolved childhood or severe adult trauma. (By the way, alcoholics and drug addicts use alcohol and drugs for the same basic reasons.) Unfortunately, hypersexual behaviors often cause feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse – further emotional discomfort – especially when those behaviors harm others or go against the addict’s moral code. This exacerbates the addict’s underlying issues, often leading to more frequent and progressively more extreme sexual behaviors. This downwardly spiraling cycle is characteristic in all forms of addiction, not just sex addiction, especially when the addictive behavior leads to external consequences such as damage to or loss of relationships, career, family-life, physical and emotional health, etc.
As is the case with other forms of addiction, biochemical processes in the brain factor into the development and maintenance of sexual addiction. Essentially, certain stimuli (sex, alcohol, drugs, etc.) cause the release of dopamine and other pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters into the brain’s rewards center (the nucleus accumbens), resulting in a sensation of enjoyment. Other parts of the brain – primarily the areas in charge of memory, mood, and decision-making – take note of this, remembering that sex (or drinking, taking drugs, etc.) is fun and encouraging a repeat performance. Unfortunately, vulnerable individuals sometimes learn that the easiest way to feel better is to feel less – to “numb out” through a pleasure-inducing behavior or substance. Over time, triggering the brain’s pleasure response can become a go-to coping mechanism for any and all uncomfortable emotions, even something as seemingly benign as boredom.
Interestingly, rewards pathways in the brain can be triggered not just by the addictive behavior or substance, but by anticipation of using that behavior or substance. Consider a drug addict driving to his dealer’s house. Isn’t he high already, even though the drug is not yet in his body? After all, his pulse is elevated, his palms are sweaty, and his decision making is already impaired. This is doubly true with sex, as sexual fantasy provides an “anticipatory high,” an elevated neurochemical state of dissociation that is actually the driving force behind the addiction. In essence, this extended emotional buzz is the “substance” that sex addicts use to temporarily escape and numb out. As such, orgasm is not the point of sex addiction. In fact, orgasm ends the sex addict’s high. Because of this, sex addicts often delay this event for hours or even days while acting out. Thus we see that sexual addiction, like other behavioral addictions, is more about the process of looking, seeking, searching, and planning than the act itself.
In sum, sexual addiction is most often caused by a multi-determined, deeply complex psychological history, often traumatic, in which an individual learns that being vulnerable with intimate others is not only unlikely to lead to his/her emotional needs being met, it may lead to rejection, abandonment, abuse, and other emotional pain. Thus the individual learns, usually during his or her formative years, to utilize seduction, manipulation, and ultimately sex as a means of temporarily filling emotional needs and/or avoiding the pain of unmet emotional requirements. Over time, the individual establishes a pattern of using sexual fantasy and behavior as a primary coping mechanism, eventually becoming addicted. Many sex addicts report having begun their compulsive sexuality as early as 9, 10, or 11 years old, though such concerns usually don’t take on a life of their own until late adolescence or adulthood.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters.