Sex addiction is never really about sex. We mistakenly think that since so much time is being spent in the pursuit of or recovery from sex that it must be about sex. In reality, sex is the canvas that is being used to paint a picture revealing the deeper emotional world of the addict.
Often the painting is an unconscious effort to relieve wounds from childhood.
The addict is usually unaware of the connection between his sexual acting out and past life events. It isn’t until he looks more closely at his story and begins to understand how it is affecting him that the colors begin to fill in and the picture starts to take shape.
One of the first things I tell my sexually addicted clients when we start working together is that whatever their chosen sexual behavior happens to be, it is not random and it does have meaning. Their current sexual behavior is in some way related to their history.
As we begin to explore the addict’s behaviors and for the first time he or she hears their secrets said out loud, the addict starts to see patterns, and suddenly things begin to make sense. This is often a great relief, because, until now, the compulsive sexual behaviors have confounded, confused, and created deep shame for the individual.
As the addict begins to understand that the sexual behavior is grounded in and created by events in his or her life story, the addict’s shame begins to diminish. Moreover, the pull toward sexual acting out behaviors begins to lose power as the underlying forces are brought out of the unconscious mind and into awareness.
There are several elements of a person’s history that can manifest as part of the addict’s sexual acting out, and these must be explored as part of recovery. This week we are going to look at three of these elements: the sexual template, cross-wiring and trauma repetition. In next week’s post, we will look at the last three elements.
The Sexual Template
Each person has a sexual template. This template is formed in childhood and is made up of the experiences, teaching, observations, and modeling around sexuality that he or she has received. If a person grew up with parents who never mentioned sex, provided no sexual education, and never showed affection to each other, that person might unconsciously view sex as secretive, not to be talked about, and maybe even shameful and bad. If, however, a person grew up with parents who showed healthy affection to one another, and that person was provided with age-appropriate sex education, had his or her innocence guarded, and was allowed to develop his or her own sexual identity, that person might view sex as a good, normal, and healthy part of life.
During recovery, sex addicts must identify their sexual template and how it is revealed in their sexual acting out. For example, when Rob was seven he was sexually abused by a thirteen-year-old neighbor girl. Today, Rob is attracted to young teens and adult women with the same mostly undeveloped body type as the neighbor girl. He acts out sexually by cruising bars and hookup apps, searching for women who fit this template. He also goes to middle schools and gymnastics studios and sits in the parking lot watching the girls and masturbating. Prior to therapy, he never understood his compulsion to engage in behaviors that he knows could get him arrested; he simply knew that this is what is most arousing and powerful for him.
In the neurobiology world, there is a saying: “Brain cells that fire together wire together.” This describes the process that takes place in the brain when strong emotions are experienced simultaneously. For instance, a child who is sexually abused may experience strong physical arousal while at the same time feeling abject terror. When the arousal and the terror “fire together” in the brain they might also “wire together,” so terror becomes associated with sexual arousal. As an adult, this individual may fantasize about or engage in high-risk sexual situations that recreate a feeling of terror mixed with arousal. Some of the more common cross-wired pairings for sex addicts include: shame and sexual arousal; fear and sexual arousal; pain and sexual arousal; anger and sexual arousal; and euphoria and sexual arousal.
Sex addicts sometimes unconsciously engage in sexual behaviors that recreate traumatic events and feelings because those things seem normal and familiar. For instance, Jane was sexually abused by her father. As part of her sexual acting out, she compulsively masturbates. Sometimes she uses a mirror to look at her genitals while masturbating. In therapy, Jane realized that she was using the mirror to objectify herself with the same ugly energy her dad expressed when abusing her. She was unconsciously recreating the same traumatic feelings in her sexual acting out that she experienced with her father. This pattern is called trauma repetition, and it is common with sex addicts.
Stayed tuned for next week’s post where we will look at three more elements that can impact the ways in which sexually addicted individuals act out: eroticized rage, disowned parts of the self and unfinished family of origin business.