The relationship between sexual abuse and addiction
The previous article in this series introduced the topic, clarified the terms, and focused on the relationship between sexual harassment and sexual addiction. This edition will focus on the relationship between sexual abuse and addiction.
First off, I want to acknowledge that this is a broad topic, and entire books are written about these themes by people who are experts in this subject. (One classic is The Betrayal Bond, by Patrick Carnes.) I’m writing here to share some of my observations, as a spiritual teacher, and as one who worked in the sex addiction field for a number of years, working with many hundreds of sex addicts.
Here’s my observation:
Many sex addicts have been victims of sexual abuse
(but of course, not all of them)
and only a small group of sex addicts become abusers.
Those who do become abusers have issues beyond addiction.
To be sure we’re clear about our terms, sexual abuse, as defined by the The American Psychological Associate (APA) is “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.” It is often used to refer to sexual activity with minors … those unable to give consent.
Many Sex Addicts Have Been Victims of Sexual Abuse
When kids are exposed to early sexual activity, they respond in two ways: They either shut down sexually, and withdraw from any kind of future sexual activity, or they shift the other way, seeking out sexual activity on a large, unhealthy scale. This creates the energy for sexual addiction, also sometimes referred to as “hypersexuality.”
Joe Turner, with the Gentle Path at the Meadows sex addiction treatment center, writes this:
“While it may seem strange, [hypersexuality] is a very common reaction among those who have survived childhood sexual abuse. In fact, studies have shown 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. Furthermore, other recent research shows that men who are addicted to sex are highly likely to have suffered trauma in their childhoods. Around 72 percent of sexually addicted men say that they were physically abused, while 81 percent claim to have suffered from sexual abuse.” (click here to read the full article)
There are other studies that show a strong correlation between instances of childhood abuse — physical and sexual — and addiction later in life, whether to substances or to sex (study one, study two).
This should make sense to anyone: children who experience trauma will look for ways of coping … and will be more likely to turn to various kinds of addictions to do this. Sex is an especially powerful way of coping, and it will have complicated ties to one’s past sexual trauma. The various kinds of connections are made clear in Carnes’ book Betrayal Bond.
Once again, let me emphasize that there are no hard and fast rules: everyone’s experiences are different, and their reactions vary. Depending on the kind of trauma, and a host of other factors in a person’s life, sexual abuse may cause them be sexually anorexic, rather than hypersexual.
Only a small group of sex addicts are sexual abusers, and there are other factors involved
This is an important point to make for the friends and loved ones of sex addicts. Thankfully, things are changing these days as people become more educated about these issues, but I remember early in my work in the sex addiction field having conversations with family members of recently diagnosed sex addicts, and one of their primary fears was this: if he is a sex addict, does that mean he is also at risk of becoming a sex offender? The lurking question — sometimes verbalized, sometimes not — was this: Can I trust this person to be around my children? Can I trust that this person is not going to do something that is going to get him arrested?
Sexual offending falls into two main categories: acts committed against non-consenting adults, and acts committed against children. In both kinds of behaviors, there are specific issues that go BEYOND and are distinct from sexual addiction.
Acts committed against non-consenting adults — Sexual assault and rape are acts of violence and the abuse of power that are tied to sexual gratification, they stem from issues that go beyond addiction. Most sex addicts will never cross these lines. Other people who are not sex addicts will cross these lines. Crossing these lines is about violence, hatred, and the need to exert power.
Acts committed against children — Pedophilia is sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children (generally age 13 or younger), and is a unique condition. The exact cause(s) of it are not known, and as is the case with sexual assault and rape, most sex addicts will never cross these lines. Something unique — different than sexual addiction — is going on in the mind of a person attracted to children.
One final distinction that would be helpful for our conversation about sexual assault and abuse is the distinction between pedophilia, hebephilia, and ephebophilia. Hebephilia and ephebophilia refer to the sexual attraction of adults to adolescents and teens. Hebephilia is sexual attraction for early adolescents, typically ages 11-14. Ephebophilia is sexual attraction to late adolescent (post puberty) teens, typically ages 15-19.
These terms are not in common use (people seem ready to label any sexual attraction to people below the age of consent “pedophilia”). Even those who work with sex offenders don’t generally use the term “hebephilia,” which is attraction to those in early adolescence.
Ephebophilia might be an important distinction to make for people today, however, because it involves attraction to others who, although they may be below the age of consent (depending on what country you are in), they are sexually developed physically.
“Mid-to-late adolescents usually have physical characteristics near (or, in some cases, identical) to that of fully-grown adults; psychiatrist and sexologist Fred Berlin states that most men can find persons in this age group sexually attractive, but that ‘of course, that doesn’t mean they’re going to act on it. Some men who become involved with teenagers may not have a particular disorder. Opportunity and other factors may have contributed to their behaving in the way they do.'” (source)
Ephebophilia is used to describe the preference for mid-to-late adolescent sexual partners, not the mere presence of some level of sexual attraction. This is because it is normal for there to be some level of sexual attraction. As I’ve heard a few times from experts in the field, “we are biologically programmed to be sexually attracted to partners of child-bearing age.”
What has happened over the years is that we’ve come to understand that even though teens may be biologically equipped for it, it is a form of abuse for adults to impose their adult sexuality on them. But remember that this is different than pedophilia … it is a form of sexual exploitation — involvement with someone who’s not able, from an emotional / developmental standpoint, to give consent.
I hope these distinctions are helpful. If you have any questions, or could use help with situations in your life or family, please contact me through the contact form of this website.