Complex Early-Life Trauma, Sexual Abuse, and Addiction

April 1st, 2016 | Posted by Rob Weiss in Addiction | Trauma

Josh grew up in a highly dysfunctional home. His father drank and raged (mostly at his mother, but also at him and his older brother). His mother enabled the drinking and tolerated the verbal and physical abuse mostly without complaint, seemingly blaming herself for her husband’s alcoholism and temper. When things got really bad, Josh and his older brother were sent to stay with their uncle, who, sadly, abused them sexually, starting when Josh was 8. From then on, Josh was also sexually abused at home by his older brother. Josh says that if either of his parents knew about the abuse at his uncle’s or at home – and he is now quite sure that they did – they ignored it. In fact, none of the family’s dysfunctional behaviors were ever discussed, either in the home or elsewhere. By the time Josh hit junior high school, he was filled with shame about himself and his life, living in constant fear of discovery by his classmates. Thus, he isolated, which worsened his emotional pain. In time, he learned to numb out with drugs, alcohol, and sex (mostly online, with both pornography and webcams). Now 28, Josh says that he feels completely alone, and that his substance abuse (alcohol and meth) and sexual behaviors (anonymous hookups, porn, and prostitutes of both genders) are completely out of control.

Sadly, Josh’s story is hardly an aberration. Far too many children come of age in dysfunctional, addicted, and abusive/neglectful homes. And without doubt these kids are incredibly at risk for depression, anxiety, attachment deficit disorders, addictions, and all sorts of other issues as they grow into adults. This is especially the case when their early-life trauma is chronic (repeated and ongoing), as we see with Josh. In one well-known study, researchers found that individuals who experience chronic childhood trauma are:

  • 1.8 times as likely to smoke cigarettes
  • 1.9 times as likely to become obese
  • 2.4 times as likely to experience ongoing anxiety
  • 3.6 times as likely to be depressed
  • 3.6 times as likely to qualify as promiscuous
  • 7.2 times as likely to become alcoholic
  • 11.1 times as likely to become an intravenous drug user.

In short, there is no doubt whatsoever that early-life abuse and later-life problems, including addictions, are inextricably linked.

Furthermore, the earlier a child is exposed to an addictive substance or behavior, the higher the likelihood of later-life issues. And this appears to be true with all forms of addiction, including sex addiction. In one recent survey of self-identified sex addicts, 41% said they were using pornography before age 12. It’s important to keep in mind that when today’s adult sex addicts were 12 or younger, Internet porn was not nearly as accessible as it is now, so kids had to look hard for it, or, more likely, they had to be inadvertently or intentionally exposed to it. Josh, for instance, says that his uncle gave him passwords to pay-per-view porn sites and webcam sites. So in his case, early-life trauma and early-life exposure to porn were linked.

Exacerbating matters for Josh is the fact that his abuse was never talked about or even acknowledged in the home or elsewhere. As such, he was left to stew in shame and self-doubt, feeling more and more isolated, defective, and unloved as time went on. For Josh, this was likely as damaging, long-term, as the abuse itself. In fact, research performed by Drs. John Briere, Christine Courtois, Bessel van der Kolk, and others clearly shows that ignoring childhood trauma is usually at least as damaging as the actual trauma. In other words, families that acknowledge and address childhood abuse and other forms of family dysfunction if/when these issues occur tend to produce healthier children, who grow into healthier adults, than families who simply pretend the abuse and dysfunction are not happening.

We should also consider the fact that early-life sexual abuse is usually just one facet of a family’s dysfunction, as we see with Josh and his family. Typically, sex abuse is coupled with addiction, inconsistent parenting, neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and numerous other problems. And each of these issues tends to be ongoing in nature. Over time, victims are wrapped in layer after layer of deeply shaming trauma, feeling worse and worse about themselves as times passes.

Is it any wonder that they sometimes turn to addictive substances and behaviors?

Much of the time, victims of childhood sexual abuse (and other forms of trauma) begin to “self-medicate” their emotional discomfort shortly after the abuse begins. This may involve alcohol and/or drugs if those substances are readily available. Self-soothing might also involve sexual behaviors, including escapist sexual fantasies and masturbation, as well as porn, sexting, webcams, virtual reality sex games, and in-person sexual activities like casual/anonymous hookups, exhibitionism, voyeurism, prostitution, and the like. Whatever activity is utilized, childhood sexual abuse victims typically try to eroticize and reenact one or more aspects of the sexual trauma as a way of mastering (feeling control over) the abuse.

Unfortunately, even though they are distracting in the moment, these self-soothing sexual behaviors tend to exacerbate preexisting shame and emotional discomfort, thus creating an even greater need for escape and dissociation. As such, many survivors of childhood sexual trauma find themselves mired in an addictive cycle of self-hatred and shame, ameliorated by sexual fantasy and activity, followed by still more self-hatred and shame. In short, their escapist addictive sexual fantasies and behaviors automatically and inherently trigger the need for more of the same. In time, of course, this cycle of shame and compulsive self-soothing can, will, and does escalate to the level of addiction.


Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health. In this capacity, he has established and overseen addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and Los Angeles, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. An internationally acknowledged clinician and author, he has served as a subject expert on the intersection of human intimacy and digital technology for multiple media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Network, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and CNN, among many others. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Love, and Porn Addiction. For more information please visit website,

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Robert Weiss PhD, MSW, CEO of Seeking Integrity LLC, is a digital-age sex, intimacy, and relationship specialist. Dr. Weiss has spent more than 25 years developing treatment programs, educating clinicians, writing, and providing direct care to those challenged by digital-age infidelity, sexual addiction/compulsivity, and other addictive disorders. He is the author of several highly regarded books on sex and intimacy disorders including Prodependence, Out of the Doghouse, Sex Addiction 101, and Cruise Control, among others. He also podcasts (Sex, Love, & Addiction 101) and hosts a free, weekly interactive sex and intimacy webinar via His current projects are:, an extensive online resource for recovery from sex and intimacy disorders; and Seeking Integrity Los Angeles, an Integrated Intensive Program for Sex and Intimacy Disorders (Opening in Feb, 2019). For more information or to reach Dr. Weiss, please visit his websites, and, or follow him on Twitter (@RobWeissMSW), LinkedIn (Robert Weiss LCSW), and Facebook (Rob Weiss MSW).

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