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How Does a Sex Addict Become a Sex Addict?

The reasons that some people, and not others, become addicted to sex, is poorly understood. There seem to be four domains in which the individual becomes susceptible. They are:

  • Biological

  • Socio-cultural

  • Psychological (Family-of-Origin)

The Neurochemistry of Addiction

It is now understood that the common denominator in al addiction is dopamine. Dopamine is the neurochemical responsible for the experience of reward and pleasure and is naturally stimulated by eating, drinking and having sex. Dopamine is also heightened through anticipation and fantasy, which is why so many people enjoy pornography. It biases the brain toward events that will provide reward. The more you do something to increase your dopamine the more you’ll want to do it.

The sexual acting out creates a fast tract to dopamine and in the meantime other pleasure begin to fade. Anything compared to the “hit” of the dopamine rush from acting out is a poor substitute.

The brains of people with sex addiction have been shown to have expecially difficultly with impulse control, delaying gratification and making judgements about harmful consequences – all processes that involve the frontal cortex of the brain.

The ability to temper impulsive desires with rational thought is a brain function that varies with individuals. Some people have an impaired ability to resist certain types of impulses. Thus, these folks would be a greater risk for developing sex addiction because of their genetic vulnerability. Oddly enough, normal human grain functioning and brain chemistry make people vulnerable to addiction.

With current brain imaging technology, we can look at the brains of self-reported sex addicts to see if they react differently than brains of non-addicts to arousing sexual stimuli. We can also compare the brain responses of sex addicts to those of substance abuses. It turns out that brain responses of sex addicts exposed to stimuli mirrors the brain responses of drug addicts when exposed to drug-related stimuli. This suggests that sexual addiction manifests in the human brain in profoundly similar ways to more commonly accepted form of addiction, most notably substance abuse.

Socio-cultural Influences

Socio-cultural influences also contribute to the development of sex addiction.

The term culture describes a group’s learned and shared pattern of values and believes which guide group members’ behavior and their interactions. For instance, the increased availability of pornography is due to the Internet and is a cultural influence. By definition, sex addicts are the recipients of ambivalent messages about sexuality. Our culture hurts men which add fuel to the fire of sex addiction.

  • They are encouraged to suppress feelings, rendering them inexpressible, making it harder for them to achieve true satisfaction in an intimate relationship.

  • Men are taught not to ask for help. Not to express vulnerability which can be very isolating.

  • The media portrays men as being one-dimensional.

  • The emphasis on sexual prowess.

  • The focus on objectifying women; on not seeing them as equals.

  • Emphasis on socio-sexual reputation.

  • Extramarital affairs demonstrates expansive sexual appetites.

All of these “macho” attitudes which still abound in our society, make it easier for men to justify sexual acting out.

Psychological (Family-of-Origin)

The causes of sexual compulsivity and sexual addiction in general are complex and difficult to attribute to one single cause. What is known is that

many who struggle with sexual compulsivity have survived histories of severe family dysfunction and violence, frequently reporting that they were the victims and witnesses of emotional, sexual and physical abuse. According to one study, 72% had been physically abused in childhood, 81% had been sexually abused, and 97% emotionally abused. As you might imagine, sexual addicts come from families where their emotional needs were not met.

Sex addicts are made, not born.The factors that contribute to the development of sex addiction are many. Traumatic childhood event – years of sexual, physical or emotional abuse or abandonment, divorce, the death of a parent – all play a roll. Certain messages about sex – that is is sinful, dirty illicit or demeaning – can provide the soil for the development of sexual compulsion. Most sex addicts come from homes in which parents lacked communication skills, offered little affection to each others, betrayed the children’s trust and were frequently absent altogether. Rigid family rules, abusive criticism and harsh punishment can contribute to the development of sex addiction.

All the sex addicts I have treated have lived through painful childhood experiences. Unresolved childhood issues that continued to plague tham in adulthood include:

  • Low self-esteem

  • Abandonment fears

  • Blurred Boundaries

  • Mood Disorders

  • Dehumanizing Sexual Attitudes

  • Undeveloped Social Skills

  • Secretiveness and Isolation

  • Distrust

  • Escapism

  • Profound Loneliness

But what lies beneath all of these symptoms, and the glue that holds together all families where addictions/compulsions exists, is the ever-present existence of SHAME.

IN 1988, the pinnacle of the ADDICTION/RECOVERY movement, John Bradshaw wrote his groundbreaking book “Healing the Same That Binds You”. It changed forever how people looked at the origins of addiction.

I came to see that shame is one of the major destructive forces in all human life. As a state of being, shame takes over one’s whole identity. To have shame as an identity is to believe that one’s being is flawed, that one is defective as a human being. Once shame is transformed into an identity, it become toxic and dehumanizing. Shame is the affect which is the source of many disturbing inners states: depression, alienation, self-doubt, isolating, loneliness, paranoia, compulsive disorders, inadequacy or failure and disorders of narcissism.

Shame, he says, divides us from ourselves and from others. In toxic shame, we disown ourselves. Shame is experienced as the pervasive sense that I am flawed and defective as a human being. It give you a sense of worthlessness, a sense of failing and falling short as a human being. Toxic shame is a rupture of the self with the self. Toxic shame is the feeling of being isolated and alone in a complete sense. A shame-bound person is haunted by a sense of absence and emptiness.

And THIS, I think, is what makes a sex addict a sex addict.

The rest of the book, and a book called “Facing Shame: Families in Recovery” by Fossum and Mason discusses at length about how “shame-bound families” collude to enmesh all members in the family into a dysfunctional, shame-producing system, and how to extricate yourself from it.

A sex addict, until he gets into sex addiction therapy is this shame-bound person. Conditions that arise from shame: depression, anxiety, loneliness, emptiness, boredom, anger, interpersonal problems are feelings that the sex addict uses sex to avoid by masking them with intense physical pleasure. That’s called primary shame because it is inherent in the person’s personality. Secondary shame arises when the addict feels from acting out and being unable to control his sexual behavior – again. The pain of the secondary shame propels him back into his addiction cycle. And so it goes.

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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