One of the first questions I hear from almost every sex addict new to recovery is “How did this happen?” And many of the men and women who ask this question are unable (or unwilling) to move forward with treatment and the process of recovery until they have an answer. So even though knowledge about why they are sexually addicted won’t help them establish or maintain sexual sobriety, I answer the question, letting them know that sexual addiction, like other addictions, is not caused by any one thing. Instead, it is typically the result of numerous influences, both genetic and environmental.
Dozens of studies have shown both direct and indirect links between genetics and addiction. For instance, researchers have identified a specific genetic variation that causes the pleasurable effects of addictive substances and behaviors to be magnified. This, of course, directly increases the risk for all types of addiction.
Other genetic variations increase the risk for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, social phobia, and various other psychiatric disorders, and this indirectly increases the risk for addiction. Essentially, individuals living with these issues sometimes choose to “self-medicate” with an addictive substance or behavior instead of (or in addition to) seeking proper medical and psychiatric help. Over time, this repetitive process of self-medication via an addictive substance or behavior can escalate into addiction.
Addictions are not all about genetics. Environment plays an equally significant role. And it appears that nature can usurp nurture, meaning a bad childhood can and often does overrun good genetics. For instance, abused and neglected kids are at much higher risk for later-life addiction than kids raised in more functional households. One study found that children who experience regular abuse are, as adults, 3.6 times as likely to be sexually promiscuous, 7.2 times as likely to be alcoholic, and 11.1 times as likely to be an IV drug abuser. So yeah, there’s a pretty significant link between early-life issues and later-life addictions.
Essentially, when kids experience trauma and other forms of family dysfunction they feel confused and ashamed, and they internalize blame for what is happening (thinking they are somehow at fault). In an effort to not feel this emotional pain and confusion, they try to “numb out” with whatever escapist substance or behavior is available. Often they turn to alcohol or drugs, particularly if those substances are readily available.
Other kids learn (or are taught) that they can self-soothe with sexual behaviors (fantasy, porn, masturbation, etc.) 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. In time, these individuals may find themselves stuck in a never-ending loop of shame and self-hatred, ameliorated by sexual fantasy and activity, followed by still more shame and self-hatred. In other words, their escapist sexual fantasies and behaviors automatically and inherently trigger the need for more of the same. This, in a nutshell, is the cycle of sexual addiction.
Nature and Nurture: The Perfect Storm
At the end of the day, people generally become sexually addicted thanks to a combination of genetic and environmental risk factors. For instance, a family history of addiction coupled with childhood trauma is incredibly common among sex addicts. And much of the time the addiction and the abuse are interrelated, making it difficult to separate one factor from another. As such, any discussion about the cause of sexual addiction is less an argument about nature vs. nurture and more a conversation about how the two factors may have come together in a particular individual, driving him or her toward the compulsive use of escapist sexual activity.
If you would like to learn more about the various facets of sexual addiction, check out my recently published book, Sex Addiction 101. If you feel you may need clinical assistance with sex and/or love addiction, therapist and treatment referrals can be found here and here.