Exploring Reasons for Sexual Compulsions: Nothing to Take Lightly
There has been a lot in the media these days about " sexual
addiction, but I think what we're reading and hearing is more about
generating heat than light. Sexual compulsions are nothing to neither
laugh at nor make light of. Here's a startling, different perspective:
Perhaps, if you understand the genesis of the addiction to unhealthy
sexual behavior, you might find yourself feeling sympathetic toward
sexual addicts! Certainly, sexual compulsions are not positive behaviors
and they cause terrific personal, interpersonal, and societal problems.
But that's not what I want to write about now. As a professional
therapist, who treats men and women suffering from sexual compulsions,
I hope I can draw a realistic picture of the "typical sexual
addict." Most sex addicts are not horrible people, certainly
not cold-blooded murderers or sexual offenders who deserve to be
punished. Actually, many people with sexual compulsions are reacting,
in a self-destructive manner, to having been severely wounded by
the people closest to them-- their parents, uncles, aunts, or siblings.
I have seen studies reporting that 72% of sexual addicts had been
physically abused in childhood, with another 81% having been sexually
abused, and 97% suffering from prior emotional abuse. These statistics
are completely compatible with my clinical experience.
Raised in What World?
Children are supposed to be raised in an environment where their
basic needs are consistently met; not just for food and shelter,
but also for safety, love, touch, trust, empathy, and self esteem.
Each of these Milestones of Sexual Development (Zoldbrod, 1998)
is a building block for healthy sexual development.
This is how children learn that it's safe to love other people,
to depend on other people. This is how they learn to reach out to
others and connect in friendships and relationships. And it's what
creates the motivation, as they grow up and mature sexually, to
be brave enough to fall in love, to want to combine being emotionally
and sexually dependent on another person.
When sexual addicts reveal their family history in treatment, their
childhood stories are often hair-raising and horrifying, even to
seasoned mental health professionals. Yet patients treat their pasts
as completely normal. They are in denial... Patients seeking help
for sexual addiction are full of shame and depression over their
out of control behavior, but they are completely mystified by its
My patients routinely fill out a questionnaire which screens for
physical and sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. I've learned
to screen in this very detailed way because if you don't ask people
a long, specific list of what has happened to them, they won't give
you the information. They "forget" the details, unless
you remind them. It's too painful. They don't want to remember it.
Therapists don't relate the way people do at cocktail parties.
We don't like it if people tell us they're fine. We ask for the
truth. So we get the stories you never hear from your friends and
You may know of woman in your social circle that is so well put
together, she seems to have the world on a string. Yet, you can't
understand why she seems to have problems drinking too much. Well,
when she was a little girl, her mother berated her every day, and
one day Dear Old Mom threw her pet cat out of the window of a high
rise apartment building. Dad just went to work and came home, pulled
in the big bucks, blind to the destruction of this little girl's
sense of trust and self esteem.
People, who are addicted to sex, often drink, or take drugs are
avoiding looking inside at their pain. Many sex addicts had terrible
childhoods, but they don't talk about them. They're numbing out
by compulsively acting out sexually.
Here's the history of one of my patients, Gary, a "happily
married" man with three kids who was addicted to computer pornography
and occasionally visited prostitutes.
In Gary's family, children obeyed and did not disagree. On the
checklist of abusive behaviors, he reports many forms of emotional
abuse: getting called names, being belittled, being harassed or
made the object of sadistic jokes, getting punished unfairly, having
his independent thoughts punished, always being compared to others,
being made to eat something that has been spilled on the floor,
being isolated from others, being bullied, and not being allowed
to leave his room for hours or days. He also was physically abused,
including slapping, hitting, and spanking. Some of these episodes
led to broken bones or bleeding. There was no sexual abuse. The
father was the primary abuser, but the mother did not try to stop
the father. She "stood by while he did what he had to do."
The other children were abused in some of the same ways by the father,
but Gary seemed to be singled out for the worst abuse, as the oldest,
and as a male. As a youngster, Gary used masturbation as a way to
soothe himself after these episodes, and soon was masturbating every
Gary's story illustrates some common factors in the development
of sexual compulsions. Children who grow up in homes where they
are abused or neglected have no way of coping with the overwhelming
fear, hate, hopelessness, longing and pain which they experience.
When they're upset, their parents aren't holding them and soothing
them. The parents are often the abusers.
How to Cope
Young men like Gary have very few inner resources to cope with
what is happening to them, and they need some way to regulate their
emotions. If you can imagine being treated like Gary, then perhaps
you can allow yourself to feel how angry or depressed or helpless
you would feel on a daily basis. The meta-message of being treated
the way Gary was is, "You're worthless, not lovable."
It's a message that abused children carry inside themselves throughout
their adult lives.
There is a good reason why more males than females become sexually
compulsive. Little boys tend to discover the pleasures of touching
their penis, because boys have to touch their penises to urinate.
For boys like Gary, masturbation, and later sexual fantasy, becomes
the one soft, calming, pleasurable activity in a very bleak life.
There are two common pathways to becoming a sex addict because
of prior abuse or neglect, and they interact. First of all, it's
likely that many of those who become sexually compulsive were born
with a sexual drive at the higher end of the normal spectrum and
when exposed to violence, aggression, profound emotional neglect
or sexual abuse, many of these men and women, in childhood, used
masturbation to soothe themselves.
Secondly, growing up in these kinds of environments, children
learn not to trust other people or the world in general. Consciously
or unconsciously, they don't want to allow themselves to become
emotionally and sexually dependent on one other person. It's putting
"too many eggs in one basket." So developing a sexuality
which avoids emotional intimacy with others in favor of casual encounters,
prostitution, or cybersex makes sense.
High function, But
Many people with sexual addictions are quite high functioning in
other areas of their life, particularly work. But they just don't
have the coping mechanisms to deal with the day-to-day disappointments
of the world.
In order to overcome his sexual compulsions, and to
reconnect with his wife emotionally and sexually, Gary had to go
on a long, involved, up and down journey, which included group support,
individual psychotherapy, couples psychotherapy, and learning enough
positive coping strategies to make it safe to confront the painful
feelings he had about how he was treated by the very people who
were supposed to love and comfort him. If sexual addictions and
compulsions were treated more sympathetically and more deeply in
the media, more people suffering with these problems might have
the courage to undergo treatment.
(Copyright, Dr. Aline Zoldbrod, November, 2007)
* Please note that the term "sexual addiction"
is not coded in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American
Psychiatric Association, and there is controversy in the field about
whether that term should even be used. But there is no argument
among professionals that people use sex in a compulsive way. I'll
be using the terms "sexual addiction" and "sexual
compulsivity" interchangeably throughout this article.