The obsession to sexually compulsive behaviors is a complex subject and can hardly be attributed to a single cause. Sexual addiction is more likely a build up of conditions over time, such as early sexualization or early exposure of an individual to inappropriate sexual material or behavior, traumatic experiences during childhood, physical and/or sexual abuse, abandonment, or emotional trauma.
Generally, the causes of sexual addiction may be classified into three: biological, psychological, and spiritual.
Biologically, a biochemical process in the brain, affecting the pleasure and reward pathways, may trigger sexual addiction. Studies show that food, abused drugs, and sexual interests share a common pathway within the brains’ survival and reward systems. Sex and food are quite similar in this sense as they are probably the most basic and fundamental human drives. Consider that without food we would die and without sex we would no longer continue our DNA into the future.
Brain chemistry has created elaborate reward systems to motivate this goal directed behavior. Sex activates the natural opioids and dopamine that produce intense pleasure and euphoria accentuating the addiction and the likelihood of continued behavior. Interestingly, modern brain imaging shows us that the brain when sexually aroused looks nearly identical to a brain under the influence of cocaine. No wonder the drive for sex is so intense. This may explain why even competent, intelligent, and goal-directed people can be so equally obsessed with indulging in sexual fantasy and seeking a sexual “fix.” Their brains have been hijacked!
Psychologically, sexual addiction has become one means of adapting to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Most of reported sex addicts relate histories that include these psychological abuses and traumas. Emotionally for the sex addict, sex is not really about sex but a vehicle to provide an illusion of affirmation, a veneer of control and connection in a safe environment. The sexual “fix” has become the source of pleasure and a means of avoiding unpleasant feelings, a coping mechanism to fight stress, work difficulties, interpersonal, psychological, and emotional problems.
Studies reveal that most sex addicts come from dysfunctional families. The findings of one study show that 72% of sex addicts had been physically abused in childhood, 81% had been sexually abused, and 97% emotionally abused. Patrick Carnes’ research also indicates that 87% of the families of sex addicts included more than one addict in the home and a majority of them grew up in a rigid family system, disengaged family system, or both a rigid and disengaged family system. The implication is that a lot of sex addicts come from families where their emotional needs were not met. They learned to self soothe and self medicate as a means of enduring some pretty awful childhood experiences.
Spiritually, sexual addiction feeds the delusion that fulfilling comfort, love, and security can be experienced apart from God. What need would they have for God if a sexual “fix” is all that they “need?” The addiction becomes the God that comforts, arouses, or helps the sex addict escape the present moment. As long as sex is an option the addict can live in the delusion of power and control and is unlikely to make the spiritual surrender necessary to experience a true spiritual experience.
These causes are many and usually overlap depending on the circumstances of the sex addict. This is why treatment of a sexual addict entails much effort and support not only from the individual but also his or her loved ones. Support and encouragement from 12 step groups and a recovery community, group therapy, and even family and friends all contribute to the treatment of the sex addict and assist the healing process.