By Wendy Lee Nentwig
Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, shape our beliefs and behaviors as adults. So, it’s no surprise that sexual trauma or abuse experienced as a child would carry over into adult life. Multiple studies show that sexual abuse during a person’s developmental years has a strong correlation with hypersexuality, sex addiction, and an unhealthy perception of sex, intimacy, and relationships as an adult. Even without overt sexual trauma from a parent, coach, or other adult, young men can still be traumatized by unwanted early pornography exposure or other unwanted or unexpected online sexual solicitations and interactions. Since this type of childhood trauma can adversely impact adult sexual behavior, it’s important to take a closer look.
The Childhood Trauma Connection
Traumatic incidents in a person’s developing years — ranging from unwanted exposure and interactions to sexual abuse — leave their mark. Research shows that many adult sexual behaviors may be related to childhood sexual abuse (CSA), ranging from withdrawal and dysfunction on one end of the spectrum to hypersexuality and compulsion on the other, according to “Pathways of Problematic Sexual Behavior,” published in the Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity Journal in 2012 by Michael Aaron, PhD.
Compounding the issue, males are less likely to report sexual abuse or speak up about unwanted sexual interactions due to social stigmas and stereotypes. For many abuse survivors, both the abuse and their reactions to it are painful, confusing, and difficult to comprehend.
Childhood sexual abuse doesn’t automatically mean a future of sex addiction, but research seems to show that survivors are at a higher risk. It is unclear why some adults respond to sexual abuse during childhood by withdrawal, while others respond with an endless cycle of short-term partners, dangerous or risky sexual behavior, addiction to pornography, or regular bouts of infidelity. One thing we do know, says Dr. Aaron, is that both the gender of the victim and the age at onset of victimization can be factors.
Research has found that male survivors are less likely to report or discuss their trauma and more likely to externalize their responses to childhood sexual abuse by engaging in compulsive sexual behaviors, Dr. Aaron reports. For a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse, these expectations are in large conflict with the need to shatter the secrecy of their trauma and/or obtain and maintain healthy sexual relationships; both of which require an open and honest dialogue.
From Childhood Sexual Trauma to Adult Sex Addiction
Responding to childhood sexual abuse with hypersexual behavior may seem on the surface to be counterintuitive. Why would a person willingly seek out activities that originally caused them intense psychological distress at the hands of another person? In fact, these types of behaviors are a very common reaction among those who have survived childhood sexual abuse.
Recent research shows that men who are addicted to sex are highly likely to have suffered trauma in their childhood. Approximately 72 percent of sexually addicted men say that they were physically abused, while 81 percent claim to have suffered from sexual abuse, according to Dr. Patrick Carnes, author of The Betrayal Bond and clinical architect of The Gentle Path treatment program.
Many people who suffer sexual abuse during childhood come to equate their sexuality with their self-worth. Over the years, the person may have come to “accept” the abuse as though it was the only aspect of their character which offered gratification to another person. It greatly skews a person’s perception of who they are, what their purpose in life is, and their understanding of appropriate relationship dynamics.
Suffering sexual abuse at a young age also lights up neural pathways in the person’s brain which are linked to sexual arousal. This can be damaging because children have not developed the structure to properly process this type of arousal. When sexual arousal occurs at an age when someone is matured enough to place it within a context of healthy desire and connection, it helps them develop a healthy perspective on intimacy and sex. But when it happens before they have matured enough, these same neural pathways become associated with negative emotions such as fear, shame, secrecy, confusion, physical distress, jealousy, and rage.
Childhood cumulative trauma (CCT) refers to an amalgam of childhood maltreatment experiences that can lead to a range of symptoms and problems in adulthood. One recent study at Canada’s Université Laval in Quebec examined CCT and its relevance to psychosexual adjustment in adult survivors, confirming that CCT is associated with affect dysregulation and sexual anxiety that, in turn, predict lower levels of sexual satisfaction.
Defining Sex Addiction
Much is misunderstood about sexual addiction, just what it is, and how it impacts sufferers. Some believe it’s an excuse for bad behavior or a way to justify infidelity. From a clinical perspective, sex addiction is classified as a mental health disorder on the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases list and includes a range of compulsive sexual behavior. The WHO’s ICD-11 is recognized as the foundational document that clinicians and scientists around the world use to identify and study health problems, injuries, and causes of death.