Sex addiction is an often misunderstood and stigmatized condition. It is not uncommon for people to attach moral judgment and shame to it. However, it is important to remember that sex addiction, like many other mental or behavioral health conditions, often stems from other deeply-rooted issues.

A common thread among people living with a sex addiction is early exposure to sexualized behavior or material, and / or trauma. But how can trauma lead to sex addiction? And what does this mean for recovery?

Trauma Definition

Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. It can be caused by a single event or by ongoing experiences that may have occurred in childhood or adulthood.

There are many types of trauma that can be triggered by various traumatic events. They include:

  • Physical Trauma: This type of trauma stems from physical harm or injury. It may be triggered by events such as a car accident or physical assault.
  • Emotional trauma: Emotional trauma stems from experiences such as emotional abuse, bullying, neglect or sudden loss of a loved one. This type of trauma may be triggered by a one-time, highly impactful event or from repeated exposure.
  • Sexual trauma: Sexual trauma stems from unwanted or non-consensual sexual experiences. Triggers include sexual abuse, assault, harassment or more.
  • Developmental trauma: This type of trauma stems from adverse childhood experiences. Triggers include childhood neglect, abuse and unstable living environments.

Each person responds to trauma in their own way, however some people are able to cope with traumatic events on their own using appropriate coping skills or support, while others may experience negative effects on their mental, emotional and physical well-being that require treatment by a professional. Sometimes, trauma can lead to mental or behavioral health issues such as sex addiction.

The Connection Between Trauma and Sex Addiction

According to prominent sex addiction researcher Patrick Carnes, Ph.D, childhood trauma such as emotional abuse, sexual abuse and physical abuse are extremely prevalent experiences in people with sex addiction. But why does trauma tend to lead to compulsive sexual behaviors?

Sex addiction as a trauma response

Trauma can be overwhelming to process, which is why some people develop unhealthy trauma responses in an attempt to deal the difficult emotions and distress it causes. These unhealthy coping mechanisms may include substance abuse, isolation, or compulsive behaviors like sex addiction and sexual anorexia.

Sex addiction may provide temporary relief and escape from the difficult realities a person’s trauma is rooted in or they associate with their trauma. It may be used to numb the emotional pain of trauma or to dissociate from difficult emotions.  However, these unhealthy trauma responses can quickly spiral out of control and further perpetuate the cycle of trauma and sex addiction.

Sex addiction as a self-soothing method

People who have lived through traumatic experiences may also turn to sex as a self-soothing or regulating behavior. When the symptoms of trauma, such as anxiety, depression or low self-esteem, arise, sexual behaviors may provide a sense of temporary relief, affirmation, or connection, however false or superficial it may actually be. If a person becomes overly reliant on this method of self-soothing, they may quickly become trapped in a cycle where they use sex to manage most if not all of their difficult experiences.

Sex addiction as a way of seeking validation and control

A common feeling associated with traumatic experiences is lack of self-worth and control over one’s reality. As a result, some people turn to sex addiction to feel a sense of validation and control in their lives or even a sense of identity and belonging.

A common manifestation of this is what is known as “trauma reenactment”. This refers to a person engaging in behavior that recreates or mirrors the original traumatic event. Sexual trauma reenactment is typically done in an attempt to understand the traumatic event, to rewrite the narrative of the trauma or to gain control over the trauma by reversing one’s role to be in a position of power. Trauma reenactment is also prevalent in individuals who were groomed or rewarded by individual to engage in a certain type of behavior.

Recovering from Trauma and Sex Addiction

In many instances, trauma and sex addiction are entangled with one another. As a result, a major focus in sex addiction treatment is addressing any underlying trauma that may be driving the addictive behaviors. So what does sex addiction recovery look like for someone whose addiction is rooted in trauma?

Getting Professional Help

For those whose problematic sexual behavior is rooted in trauma, seeking professional help can be extremely beneficial but scary.

Sex addiction treatment centers like KeyStone Center ECU provide supportive and nonjudgmental spaces to receive sex addiction treatment rooted in trauma-informed care. They offer a variety  of trauma-focused therapies that can help patients work through the difficult traumatic experiences that contribute to sex addiction.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, for example, uses sensory inputs and left-right brain stimulation to help patients identify traumatic memories and reprocess them in ways that decrease the need to engage in sexual behaviors as an unhealthy trauma response.

Another effective therapeutic technique is psychodrama, which involves acting out the traumatic event with the goal of relieving the negative emotions associated it.

Developing Healthy Coping Mechanisms

For many, sex addiction is an unhealthy coping mechanism caused by trauma that may lead to even more trauma for the individual as well as their family, friends, and loved ones.

Psychotherapy, therefore, can help people process and heal from trauma, reducing the reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as sexually addictive behavior. A therapist can also provide tools and strategies for managing difficult emotions and triggers, especially shame, and thus reduce the risk of relapse.

As people work through their trauma and addiction, it is important to develop healthy coping mechanisms to replace the unhealthy ones. This can include activities such as exercise, mindfulness practices, journaling, attending 12-Step meetings, developing and maintaining healthy friendships, acknowledging and appropriately expressing one’s feelings, or other creative outlets. It can also include setting boundaries for oneself and developing techniques to avoid “triggering” environments, thoughts, events, and situations.

Building a Support System

Recovery from trauma and sex addiction is a challenging journey taken one day at a time, and having a support system in place can make all the difference. A support system can include friends, family or others battling sex addiction and trauma and are in recovery themselves. Having a supportive community can provide encouragement, accountability and a sense of belonging. It can show you that you are not alone and that recovery is possible.

Resources, including 12 Step meetings such as Sexaholics Anonymous (SA), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) and Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) are a great starting point when looking for sex addiction support systems.

Recovery Is Possible

By understanding the relationship between trauma and sex addiction, we can respond with more empathy and work towards reducing the stigma around this issue in society.

Although it may feel difficult and overwhelming, sex addiction and trauma recovery is indeed possible.

KeyStone Center ECU, in Chester, Pennsylvania, is here to help. Learn more about our treatment for sexual addiction by getting in contact with us at 833-635-6840 or using this form.