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How Sex Addiction Begins

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The beginnings of sexual addiction are usually rooted in childhood. Often the child who becomes a sex addict grows up in a chaotic, hostile or neglectful home. However, it is sometimes difficult for a sex addict to recognize dysfunctionality in the family in which she or he grew up. For example, the family may have appeared very normal, but the parents were unable to provide the love and acceptance all children need, which can leave the child feeling isolated, lonely or depressed. One way to relieve this unconscious pain is to use something the child may have discovered to feel very good for a time, like masturbation. Gradually every time loneliness or other kinds of emotional pain are experienced, the child turns again to masturbating. And eventually it becomes a compulsive habit that if not indulged regularly creates anxiety for the growing child.

In a typical scenario, a child whose parents have frequent violent arguments may turn to masturbation every time these arguments occur in order to escape the fear that someone will be hurt or that the parents will divorce. Or unconsciously to fill an unmet need for attention or affection, the child may seek out Internet chats that become romantic, then sexual. And it is easy for a bored and loosely supervised child to encounter pornography on the Internet and develop a fascination with it because of the forbidden lure.

In another frequent scenario, a vulnerable boy—one accustomed to frequent criticism or who is experiencing physical or emotional abandonment—discovers someone's pornography collection (usually a male family member), in the form of a magazine stash, computer files, video cassetts, CD’s or DVD’s, and almost intuitively begins secretly “borrowing” the pornography to stimulate arousal and heighten the experience of masturbating. The extra stimulation tends to feed a more frequent need to repeat the process. And of course the boy also is acting on the implicit message: If Dad/Stepdad/Brother/Grandpa/Uncle does this, it must be something that guys do. The secretive, forbidden aspect adds to the excitement and draws the boy back to something that seems to fill some kind of void. And thus a life-long pattern of masturbating to pornographic images is set into motion. In all of these examples, eventually the masturbation far surpasses normal childhood experimentation and gradually becomes a replacement for other things, a convenient act to turn to in times of any kind of need— from escaping boredom to avoiding feeling anxious, to being able to go to sleep at night.

Compulsive masturbation is a frequent way sex addiction begins, especially for males, but for some children the compulsion is around sexual activity with others. Looking again at the child who is lonely or insecure, frequently seeking out someone who is willing to be sexual or having serial relationships that include frequent sex may be the way the child unconsciously medicates the inner pain. After getting in a committed relationship, the adult who grew up coping in this manner will often become a sex or love addict who compulsively has secret affairs or periodically seeks out prostitution or other forms of “extra” sex, in order to provide the amount and variety of sex to which the person is accustomed.

One more way sex addiction occurs is from direct influence or modeling of parent figures. Examples are a mother who wears provocative clothing and openly flirts with other men, a father who is rumored or discovered to be having affairs, and parents who frequently talk or joke about sex, treating it as a trivial matter and conveying the message that sex is something to seek when and however the opportunity occurs. These scenarios create a distorted sexual norm for the child that is followed as a natural course as the child sexually matures.

And finally, a very common source of sex addiction stemming from childhood is inappropriate introduction to sex by an adult or significantly older child. This constitutes child sexual abuse. Instead of the normal sexual experimentation that often takes place out of curiosity between similar aged children at some point growing up, some children are introduced to sex by an adult who uses them for their sexual pleasure instead of seeking another adult for their sexual needs. Or the person exposing the child to sexual experiences may be another child who is five or more years older—an older cousin, babysitter, etc.—where the sexual experience doesn't feel mutual. For the abused child there often is a combination of natural curiosity, newfound pleasurable feelings and the emotions of fear and shame, or repressed anger. The fear and shame may be increased by threats the older person uses to gain the child's cooperation or to prevent the child from telling anyone about it. (It is interesting to note that research conducted by leading authority on sexual addiction, Dr. Patrick Carnes, has led him to estimate that about 81% of adult sex addicts were sexually abused growing up.) For a discussion in this site of adults who are sexual with children, click here.

A pattern may be established of seeking out similar experiences throughout the person's life in which there is a combination of sexual pleasure and fear or shame. When the child grows up she or he may be excited or aroused by sex in high-risk situations that unconsciously generate fear or in secretive circumstances that feed on shame. The person becomes addicted to seeking these highs.

The connections between child abuse events, as well as other emotional trauma in childhood, and the compulsive sexual patterns that sometimes result, are referred to as trauma bonds, which create attractions to specific people, circumstances and behavior. Patrick Carnes has written a book on this subject, called The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships. For detailed information about the book, including an excerpt, click here. And to order the book, click here.