Why does abuse cause hypersexuality

Deborah C. Escalante

Content warning: this piece contains a discussion of trauma due to sexual abuse and an account of child sexual abuse. Click here to go back to homepage

If you were to hear the term hypersexuality, what would you think it meant? An increased libido, or maybe an addiction to sex? These are easy assumptions to make — after all, according to Wikipedia, hypersexuality is “extremely frequent or suddenly increased libido”.

Although it’s true that hypersexuality does involve an increased sex drive, it’s much more complex than that. Hypersexuality is much more than an addiction to sex.

For example, if I told you that hypersexuality is a common aftereffect of sexual abuse, would you be surprised?

Hypersexuality has broadly been defined as “‘excesses’ of sexual behaviour”, which can be accompanied by social and personal distress.1 Researchers have acknowledged that the term itself is vague and is often misinterpreted.2

Far too many people are still unaware that hypersexuality can be a response to abuse. Plus, the numerous misconceptions about hypersexuality only worsen how it is seen: you may see us as sex addicts rather than survivors, who are in need of help and healing.

My recklessness towards sex was seen as part of my personality; it was part of who I was

When I was a child, I was sexually abused by our neighbour’s eldest son. There was no violence nor a sense of threat; his approach was one of conditioning. He groomed me into believing that what he was doing was a sign of his affection – I was special, unlike anyone else. No doubt survivors reading this will know that line all too well.

The thing is, once his abuse came to light and my family began to move on with their lives, never once did anyone consider how much it would impact me. I suspect this was due to several factors: chiefly, that it was the 90s and paedophilia wasn’t as widely discussed, and secondly, because everyone assumed that I was too young to remember it. I seemed fine, so I must be have been fine, right?

This isn’t to place blame on my family — abuse of any kind is difficult for families to process. Nevertheless, there was a distinct oversight, especially by medical professionals, of how this experience would shape me. Even when I sought professional help as I got older, not once did anyone suggest that I could have hypersexuality as a response to my trauma. Instead, my recklessness towards sex was seen as part of my personality; it was part of who I was.

I became so convinced of this that my whole personality started to revolve around it. To some extent, it still does. Throughout my school years, all my friends commented on how sex-focused I was, how all my jokes were dirty — I was a “nympho”. Even after leaving school, boys who’d always said they’d never fancy a girl like me then messaged me to say that they always thought I’d be kinky in bed.

My hypersexuality defined my worth while also dissociating me from my identity; I saw myself as an object. I was only good for one thing, which meant that anything beyond that wasn’t meant for me

On the surface, this may seem harmless, and on their part, it may have been intended in this way. However, for me, my hypersexuality defined my worth while also dissociating me from my identity; I saw myself as an object. I was only good for one thing, which meant that anything beyond that wasn’t meant for me. As for who I was and who I liked, I kept forcing myself to accept that I was cisgender and heterosexual because all of my experiences had told me as much — anything else I felt was false, something I needed to ignore and push further down.

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I’ve carried that persona with me most of my life. To put that into context, I recently turned 30, and only now am I beginning to separate myself from it. What helped me do this, at least in part, was getting my borderline personality disorder (BPD) diagnosis, which then led me to attend a life skills course. During that course, one of the medical professionals running it finally told me that I was hypersexual; others abused substances like drugs and alcohol, whereas I abused sex.

Since this realisation, I’ve been able to better connect with myself, though it’s still a work in progress. I came out back in 2011, but that still didn’t express the full extent of my identity. It’s only now, this year, that I’ve felt comfortable and accepting enough to recognise that my queerness goes beyond that. Yes, I like women, but I like women as a genderfluid individual and not as a cis woman.

Hypersexuality isn’t a dirty word, nor is it this ‘sex-crazed’ idea that people have formed; it’s a real response to traumatic experiences

I still love inappropriate jokes, and I still talk about sex more than a lot of my friends. However, this isn’t because I feel the need to, it’s because I want to. Of course, there’s the natural oversharing that comes with most BPD cases, but again, I’m now able to recognise it. I’m not relying on sex to describe me as a person because now I know there’s more to me. My body isn’t just there to satisfy others while reinforcing my own disdain for myself — I’m, in fact, worthy of love and respect like anyone else.

Although my reasons for sharing this story now are largely personal, there’s also the need to spread awareness as more sexual abuse cases come to light. Sexual abuse has always been an issue, but this year it’s gotten worse,3 mostly due to a pandemic that’s kept us locked in with our abusers.

Sexual abuse leaves you feeling alone and frightened. I don’t want anyone who responds to their abuse like I did to feel as if they’re lesser for it. Hypersexuality isn’t a dirty word, nor is it this “sex-crazed” idea that people have formed; it’s a real response to traumatic experiences. If you feel like this is you, that what I’ve talked about resonates with you, then please don’t hide.

It’s okay to be hypersexual because of your abuse.
If you think you may be hypersexual, speak to your GP who will be able to advise on a treatment pathway or refer you to therapy or addiction support

Featured image is an illustration of a white, feminine-presenting person, with long brown hair. They are lying on their bed, curled up on their side, with a slightly pensive look on their face. Behind their back, there are outline illustrations of sexual scenes, which are presented as being the person’s thoughts or daydreams

Page last updated January 2021

Written By: The Meadows Web Team

By Wendy Lee Nentwig

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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

“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.”

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.

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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.

In the ICD-11, compulsive sexual disorder is defined as “a persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges resulting in repetitive sexual behavior.” A disorder isn’t defined by the number of sexual partners you have or the specific sexual behaviors, instead it is marked by an individual’s sexual behavior becomes a “central focus of the person’s life to the point of neglecting health and personal care or other interests, activities, and responsibilities.”

Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse and Help for Adult Sex Addiction

“…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.”

Whatever the etiology of problematic adult sexual behavior, there is help available. Unfortunately, the shame that is often associated with being a victim of abuse can cause men to shy away from getting treatment for sex addiction and addressing their underlying trauma. But a clinical disease warrants in-depth professional treatment.

For men struggling with childhood sexual abuse and sexual addiction, learning to abstain from problematic sexual behaviors that reinforce abusive sexual scripts is just as important as learning how to develop healthy intimate bonds and create a sexual identity that is affirming.

For someone attempting to face these complex issues, the importance of having acceptance and unconditional, non-judgmental support can’t be understated. It is the abusive and negative interpersonal interactions that created the pain, and supportive and affirming ones will have the power to lift it.

At Gentle Path at The Meadows, we specialize in creating this space while offering a host of trauma-based services that are informed by the most current understanding of the nature of trauma and its impact on the person as a whole. Additionally, the therapeutic focus at Gentle Path includes not only learning to identify which components of someone’s sexuality are subtracting from the quality of their life but also identifying or creating ones to enrich it, helping them to develop a healthier new outlook on relationships, sex, and intimacy.

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