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Childhood Disturbances in the Personality of the Sex Addict

Sex Addiction is the result of early-life misatunements with parents including abuse, neglect, valuing the child only for achievement, lack of mirroring of feelings and blame/shame placement.  As adults, they suffer from low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, relationship problems, dissociation, lack of a cohesive self. Sex addiction is a exciting, pleasurable alternative to their overwhelming inner life.

Patrick Carnes, PhD, in his seminal book, “Out of the Shadows – Understanding Sex Addiction” made two important points among many. He first stated the main dysfunctional belief systems of the sex addict. They are:

  • I am a bad person.
  • No one would love me as I am.
  • Sex is my most important need.

Subsequently he discussed the disproportionately high percentage of people in sex addiction treatment NY who had experienced abuse at the hands of one or both parents. Clinicians are becoming increasingly aware of the staggering number of children who are abused or mistreated in our culture. These children, as a matter of course, become adults who are distressed, dysfunctional in various area of their lives and present with a large variety of symptoms in therapists’ offices.

A number of these childhood abuse-related symptoms underly the phenomenon of sex addiction but remain unrecognized and untreated because the patient’s shame about his addiction puts the focus on other issues. I would group these issues as follows:

Low Self-Esteem:- Abuse, whether it be physical, emotional, sexual or through neglect, engenders in the victim a chronic sense of personal “badness”. For the child, who’s very survival depends on his parent, his caretaker is never wrong. Therefore, when verbal abuse is forthcoming (“You’re a bad kid”, “You’ll never amount to anything.”), the child internalizes these messages as true and lives with a chronic sense of unworthiness and shame throughout his life. Shame, as has been discussed, is the underpinning of sex addiction and reinforces Dr. Carnes’s first cognitive distortion of the addict, that of “I am a bad person”. Sex becomes his most important need if the act releases him from his self-hatred by making him feel self-empowered.

Social Isolation:- A narcissistic parent, self-centered in the extreme, is incapable of experiencing empathy for another person, even if that person is her own child. Emotional neglect prevents the positive support, nurturance, and recognition that the young child needs to thrive and develop a healthy identity. If there was chaos or any compulsive behavior in the family such as alcoholism, the unspoken rule was to keep secrets from the outside world. The child develops into an adult who can be highly professionally competent but remains isolated due to the fear of being found to be the immature, needy, deprived child he feels himself to be. He has no sense of the possibility to forming close, sustaining friendships that can be sustaining and trustworthy. He remain isolated because, as Dr. Carnes states in his book (“No one would love me as I am.”)

Depression:- Chronic sadness and unhappiness, self-blame, and perceived helplessness are magically alleviated through impersonal sex and addiction to pornography where the addict receives his dopamine “hit”. Where once he felt helpless in his depression, the sex act provides him with a sense of pseudo-power.

Anxiety:- The child’s experience of maltreatment becomes associated with fear about foreboding woes and danger. He has no belief that he inhabits a secure, safe world. Chronic anxiety is the result. As an adult, it is common for him to use the defense mechanism (a strategy a child uses to psychologically survive but becomes maladaptive as an adult) of sexualization to manage his overwhelming anxiety. He turns his frightening sense of fear and foreboding into sexual arousal, which is a much more pleasant experience than chronically being afraid.


Dissociation:- Sex addicts in my office, more times than not, begin to speak about having “two different lives”. I call them “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. The secret life of the person addicted to sex almost has a distinct personality with different values and goals than the “Dr.Jekyll” side of his personality who is in need of the security and stability of a happy family life. This is dissociation. While in the “erotic haze”, the person’s usual identity is forgotten and a different identity is assumed. The sense of one’s own reality is replaced by an alternative reality where the laws of time and space do not apply. Psychological distress from the rigors of living an ordinary life no longer exist. Dissociation is especially prevalent in “chat rooms” on the Internet where one is free to assume any identity that fits one’s fantasy.


Undeveloped Sense of Self:-   Survivors of childhood abuse have difficulties in how they relate to self. The development of a sense of self unfolds in the context of a secure attachment to the maternal figure in the earliest years of life. How a child is treated in early life invariably effects an either negative or positive self-evaluation in later life. If the mother was neglectful, the child lacks access to a sense of self or personal existence that is stable and reliable. Without an internal stable base, the person is haunted by feelings of emptiness in later years. Because of the parental figure’s inability to nurture, the future adult is left with an inability to self-soothe or comfort oneself adequately and basic difficulties in self-regulation. If the sense of emptiness and alienation is sufficiently strong, it will catapult the sex addict into his addictive cycle, resulting in “acting out” with resulting shame and self-hatred.


Relationship Difficulties:- Sex addiction has long been defined as an intimacy disorder. The sex addict, because of early-life experiences, distrusts others. Problems with interpersonal functioning interferes with crucial social networks such as friendships, spouses of sex addicts, acceptance and support. Without these basic needs being met, he misuses sex as a replacement for love and acceptance. A recent study shows that trauma survivors may have a tendency to be preoccupied with sexual thoughts and have a tendency to sexualize situation that are not sexual. They have a history of multiple, superficial and quite brief sexual relationships that ends as soon as there’s a possibility of intimacy.

The same study reports that sexual abuse survivors are prone to excessive sexual fantasizing. He/she learned at an early age that the way to garner needed personal nurturance and recognition was through sexuality. Because the adult survivor is so distrustful of people, he sees the world as a place of win/lose where nothing is ever freely given; nothing is inherently deserved. The only way to get needs met is through manipulation and power-plays. He sees sex as the best way to initiate, or seduce, someone into a close relationship or to gain caring through interpersonal powers-plays. (“Sex is my most important need.”)

The tragedy of sex addiction is that there are powerful needs for closeness and intimacy due to the deprivations of childhood and yet they are fearful and avoidance of the vulnerability and perceived danger inherent in s sustained intimacy. Treating sex addiction needs to address these deep-seated issues.

One aspect of effective psychotherapy for the person in therapy for sex addiction is the provision of a sustainable, reliable human being who can disconfirm the negative belief that a close relationship with a person is fraught with danger and potential harm.



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Related Links: The Fix: Trauma and Addiction

Psychology Today: Trauma and Sex Addiction







Dorothy Hayden, LCSW has 20 years of experience treating sex and porn addicts, love addiction, codependency, fetishes, sadomasochism, "kink friendly", crossdressers and their wives, partners of sex addicts. She has been interviewed on "HBO", "20/20" and Anderson Cooper 360. Ms. Hayden has authored the book "Total Sex Addiction Recovery - A Guide to Therapy"

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