Frances Cohen Praver Ph.D.
What Drives a Sex Addict, Part 11
Is sexual addiction psychological, neurological, or both?
Posted Dec 11, 2011
In my last blog, Married to a Sex Addict, I described the plight of the spouse who is married to a male sex addict. On Oct 7, 2009 I wrote about the psychology of a female sex addict. More recently the topic of sex addiction is being hyped in the media. The movie Shame depicts a male sex addict and the cover story The Sex Addiction Epidemic, Newsweek, Dec 5, 2011 features a female sex addict. In light of that I thought I would update my original blog. Here then is a snippet of a case study of a female sex addict. The same dynamics can also be attributed to male sex addicts.
Trying to control her tears, Kara whimpered, "Brent found out I was cheating and he's suing me for divorce."
"Oh my," I said.
"It's more than just Chuck, our neighbor. Brent began to check up on me and discovered what I was doing." Kara lowered her eyes.
I asked, "What were you doing?"
"I was having sex with a lot of men. I think I'm a sex addict." Kara made eye contact with me, then, looked away."
"When did this all begin?" I inquired.
Kara began to tell her story. "It all began nine months ago. Brent was never there and when he was, he was drinking. I felt lonely and neglected and always thought Chuck was cute. So when Chuck came onto me, I was ready and sex was great. But he's married and not always available. And I needed sex, so I looked elsewhere."
"Once again, I inquired, "Where did you look?"
"It's not like I cruised bars; I went on line. It started with Facebook where I connected with some old class mates, who were also unhappily married. We hooked up, had sex, but I wanted more. One thing led to another and before you knew it I was on these sex hook-up sites. I can't even remember all the men I had sex with. I knew it was a problem and tried to stop, but I couldn't. Finding sex partners became a compulsion. I know I need help." Kara pleaded.
Like Kara some people remain hungry for more and more sex, no matter the quality or quantity of sex. It's as though they are sexually insatiable. Most often, their insatiable sexual hunger is related to deep-rooted psychological factors. Toxic early childhood relationships can influence their sexual hunger in adulthood.
Insatiable sexual hunger is not really a desire ─an act of will─ but rather a desperate need, a compulsion that is experienced as a craving. The need is pursued like a drug. Although sex addicts are enslaved to sex, it is far from their goal. Rather, the pursuit of sex is in service of a different goal─ to dispel feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety, rage or other feelings that the sex addict experiences as unbearable.
Like a drug addict or alcoholic, the sex addict relentlessly seeks satisfaction from an external source to palliate an internal pain. Modern technology, such as the internet, provides a new external source that sex addicts use in their quest for sex partners.
As to the genesis of this addiction, it can begin in early childhood with a needy mother─ who suffers from unbearable emotional distress. Rather than soothe the infant's distress or excessive stimulation, the mother uses the infant to soothe her own distress. The infant then is deprived of a soothing mother to calm her distress. Without a calming and soothing mother, the infant does not develop her own internal sources for dealing with internal pain. She cannot be alone and is constantly seeking her mother.
As an adolescent or an adult, she is unable to self-soothe and can no longer find mother. So she seeks another solution in the external world to palliate her internal pain, as she did earlier with her mother. Sex is a transitory fix; it provides instant gratification for psychic pain, rather than lasting psychological coping mechanisms.
Here's a little of what goes on in the brain of sex addicts. The brain's dopamine receptors ─ the pleasure-reward system─ is activated during sex, drugs, alcohol, or gambling. In the case of sex addicts who quickly slide down into despair after the sex act, their dopamine receptors are left hungry for more sex. These primed dopamine receptor, thus, crave more sex; a craving is set up biologically and psychologically.
Fixes provide a state of ecstasy, calm, nirvana. Alas the shot of nirvana during the sex act lasts only as long as the magic of sex wears off. Result? The sex addict is rendered emptier, distressed, and fragmented. To quell these painful feelings, she is compelled to resume her pursuit for her next fix.
As you can see, the sex act is not borne out of love, but performs the function of a drug to satisfy the primed dopamine receptors. Of no consequence other than to provide the sex addict with a fix, the sex object is indispensible. Rather than desiring a sexual partner, the sex addict craves the sexual object─ her fix. She is constantly seeking to repair early deprivations and to palliate depression, anxiety, self-esteem blows.
How do sex addicts recover? Twelve step programs work for some people. For others, I recommend deep analytic therapy that focuses on visiting the past, but living in the moment, learning coping skills, finding internal satisfaction, pursuing healthy passions that fulfill the emptiness. Read my new book The New Science of Love: How Understanding the Brain's Wiring Can Help Rekindle Your Relationship (Sourcebooks, Casablanca, 2011) to find ways for internal satisfaction.