Are Sexual Trauma and Hypersexuality Always Linked?
- This condition is characterized by consistent difficulty controlling sexual fantasies, urges or behaviors.
- These behaviors can result in distress or impairment in a person's life and relationships.
- Those dealing with hypersexuality should seek therapy and support to manage the challenges and societal stigma that surround the condition.
My "sluttiness" has been a running joke in my friendship circle since I was a teenager.
I built a defensive wall with witty quips about my boundless promiscuity as if the behavior was a harmless choice.
However, there is a direct line between my sexuality and enduring childhood sexual abuse. Grooming and abuse caused untold damage during my developing years, leaving an obsessive preoccupation with all things sex-related in their wake.
After a decade of suffering in silence, mocking my own trauma to cope and shrugging off the abuse as inconsequential, I discovered there was a name for my behavior: hypersexuality.
What is hypersexuality?
"The term hypersexuality is currently still being debated, making a clear definition difficult," said Sarah E. Wright, Psy.D., a South Carolina-based psychologist and sex therapist. "It's often used to describe a condition in which someone has consistent difficulty controlling sexual fantasies, urges or behaviors resulting in distress or impairment in significant life areas."
Commonly misidentified as something people with a high sex drive or ones who just like sex suffer from, hypersexuality is an overwhelming condition. It may start as excessive masturbation but soon evolve into an all-consuming way of life.
How common is hypersexuality?
Identifying the commonality of hypersexuality is difficult because it's often underdiagnosed or categorized under the banner of another mental health condition, such as borderline personality disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It is estimated that hypersexuality occurs in 2 percent to 6 percent of the population, according to a 2018 study. Men are more commonly diagnosed with it than women.
What are the symptoms of hypersexuality?
The symptoms of hypersexuality encompass some or all of the following:
- Compulsive masturbation or sexual activity
- Difficulty establishing and maintaining healthy relationships
- Engaging in sexual behaviors despite prior negative consequences
- Excessive or compulsive viewing of pornographic material
- Feeling increased tension or heightened arousal leading up to the sexual activity, which is followed by relief or loss of tension afterward
- Inability to control fantasies that recur during inappropriate times, sometimes making focusing on other life activities difficult
- Prioritizing masturbation or sex over other activities
- Pursuing sex even when experiencing little to no satisfaction from it
"It's important to note that someone can engage in these behaviors and not feel distress and would therefore not be considered hypersexual," Wright said.
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What does hypersexuality feel like?
My hypersexuality has moved in peaks and valleys over the years. During childhood, it appeared as compulsive masturbation starting at age 8. I derived little to no pleasure from it but felt it necessary to achieve calm.
My preoccupation with sexual fantasies and thoughts made it difficult to focus on daily life. I remember interviewing for my first job and my thoughts being overwhelmed with sexual imagery and fantastical sexual tangents. Despite my internal deviance, I somehow got the job.
My proclivity for impulsive sexual behavior grew tenfold as I aged. I pursued sex mindlessly, feeling like an addict chasing my next high. Tension built to an uncontrollable crescendo before another meaningless encounter took the edge off for another few days. I scheduled my life around my next fix and relationships never lasted long in the shadow of my hypersexuality.
The satisfaction diminished with every new partner, so I sought sex in increasingly dangerous situations, without protection. Despite the crushing disappointment and trauma derived from these encounters, I surrendered to the behavior and accepted its influence over my life.
Why do people become hypersexual?
"Research has continued to show no discernable predictor of what can cause this condition, with some studies suggesting that the distress comes from internal judgment and shame about one's behaviors," Wright said.
Hypersexual behavior has been associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and borderline personality disorder. Hypersexuality presents in some people with brain disorders, caused by altered brain chemicals, such as in cases of dementia.
Unsurprisingly, hypersexuality can be mistakenly identified as an inevitable byproduct of sexual trauma. Some survivors of sexual trauma develop hypersexual tendencies—I am part of that group—it isn't a given. There is nuance.
How can sexual trauma impact someone's sexuality?
"Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are at a greater risk for hypersexuality than the general population," said Amanda Stretcher, L.P.C.-S., a Dallas-based therapist and co-founder of Crescent Counseling. "In some instances, shame and guilt may prevent someone from reporting or talking about sexual abuse, and individuals may develop compulsive sexual behaviors as a result, as a way to cope or distract from difficult thoughts or feelings."
Abuse swallowed up my childhood and hung over my developing years, so my sense of worth became intrinsically tied to my sexual value. Hypersexual behaviors flourished to match a desperate need for validation through sexual contact.
Engaging in promiscuous sex felt like the obvious way to heal. My misguided teenage brain buried my body in other people's to feel some twisted sense of liberation. I inadvertently ended up causing even more harm.
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Is hypersexuality ever OK?
"I think it's worth considering if it's about escapism because very often when it's to do with something traumatic or overwhelming, it can be about escaping distress," said Charlotte Fox Weber, a psychotherapist in London, and the author of "Tell Me What You Want: A Therapist and Her Clients Explore Our 12 Deepest Desires." "It's not always a bad thing but it's important to understand."
Some go through stages in life where sex becomes a temporary coping mechanism—and that's OK. It's when the habits morph into something uncontrollable and obsessive that people should question their behavior.
"There's a world of difference between fantasy and reality, and I think when you can recognize that something is a fantasy—but that doesn't mean it has to translate to behavior—you can be more self-accepting," Weber said.
How is hypersexuality treated and managed?
The best way to work through hypersexuality is to consult with a therapist.
"Pay attention to when sexual thoughts and urges occur, notice how you're feeling, what's going on around you and who you're with," Wright said. "See if any patterns begin to emerge. Once you start to get a better sense of these things, it's easier to know how to effectively intervene."
I brought my hypersexuality under control through intensive therapy by rewiring thought patterns to stop sexual fantasies from taking up so much space. I worked on changing my relationship with sex and pleasure to stop associating it with chasing an orgasmic high. Instead, I forged sexual connections that felt uplifting and emotionally fulfilling.
"Once we're struggling with something, it can be difficult to think rationally about what we can do to best take care of ourselves," Wright said. "Create a solid plan when you're in a good state of mind and leave it somewhere you know you tend to go when difficult feelings come up."
How to explain hypersexuality to a partner?
"With anything sexual, it's good to broach the conversation before sex has become part of the mix," Wright said. "Let prospective partners know specifically about aspects that may impact them and what steps you're open to taking to mitigate this."
Try writing down your thoughts before sharing them. It will be easier for a loved one to understand if your points are clear and concise. Remember, you don't owe someone all the intricate details of your experience, so don't fall into the trap of oversharing to forge a bond. It isn't necessary.
How can a partner support someone with hypersexuality?
"Be clear about what boundaries are needed in the relationship and be open to hearing from your partner about boundaries they may need," Wright said. "Be careful about being tasked with holding someone accountable. Be honest about the types of support you are and are not able to offer."
A healthy relationship is built on mutual trust and respect, not becoming someone's caretaker to protect them from their own behavior. It's not up to you to take responsibility for someone else's mental health.
"Approach the topic as a team," Stretcher said. "Don't view your partner as 'the problem.' Identify hypersexuality and how it shows up as the target for intervention and look at how you can work together."
Measuring the impact of stigma on hypersexuality
"Cultural stigma definitely worsens the challenges people with hypersexuality face, leading to shame, isolation and reluctance to seek help," said Alexandria Lanza, L.P.C., a psychotherapist in New York City. "Those with hypersexual tendencies often express fear of judgment, lack of support, internalized stigma, and feelings of shame, guilt and self-blame."
The obliterating stigma around hypersexuality disempowers people, but shattering it can save them. The easier it is to talk about a problem, the smoother the resolution will be.
I shrouded myself in shame, burrowing into it like a comforting blanket. Even after I had a word, a diagnosis that described my symptoms, I rarely said it aloud, even in therapy. It belonged in the shadows, just like the abuse I'd experienced.
Freeing myself from the constraints of shame kickstarted my healing, allowing me to share the burden without fearing rejection.
"Challenging the stigma can lead to societal shifts in attitudes toward survivors and perpetrators," Lanza said. "It can lead to increased awareness about consent dynamics, prevention of nonconsensual acts and the creation of safer environments where individuals feel empowered to assert their boundaries and communicate their desires openly."
The bottom line
"It's not unusual for people to embrace sexuality as a way to deal with gnarly things that may have happened," Wright said. "Fantasy, masturbation, partnered activities or even BDSM scenes are all ways for people to reclaim control over a situation where they likely had none."
Sex can be a savior from the darkest recesses of our brains. However, hypersexual behaviors should not be allowed to run rampant because they can have devastating effects. Just know that they can also be healed.