SOURCE: Rob Jackson, MS, LPC, LMHC, NCC
While sex addiction affects both males and females, the challenges faced by female addicts are greater.
Sex addiction is never really about sex, but about a hungry heart that craves intimacy. Sex is merely the vehicle that a person uses to find nurture and acceptance. This is the same mechanism of action at work in alcohol, drug, and other addictions.
While sex addiction affects both males and females, the challenges faced by female addicts are greater. As a foundation to understanding the unique plight of female sex addicts, a better understanding of sex addiction in general will be helpful.
Understanding sex addiction
Research varies on the prevalence of sex addiction and it is difficult to state with certainty that one gender has a higher incidence of sex addiction than the other does. Estimates of sex addiction range from three to ten percent within the general population. Dr. Patrick Carnes’ research has indicated that approximately 20% of those seeking help for sex addiction are female. This male female ratio is consistent with that found among recovering alcoholics.
Some of the factors that push sex addiction include the need to medicate emotional pain or escape an unsatisfactory situation, and the impulsive or even compulsive quest to satisfy unmet emotional needs. In short, sex addiction is best viewed as an attachment or intimacy disorder.
Regardless of gender, sex addicts are prone to multiple addictions and typically come from severely dysfunctional families. This is not always the case, however. In the majority of cases, at least one other member of the family has an addiction as well. Multiple addictions occur when an addict is addicted to sex and at least one other thing. For females, eating disorders are common, as is chemical dependency, and compulsions for work, spending, and gambling.
Women continue to be underrepresented in health and addiction studies. Many individuals, both professionals and non professionals, assume sex addiction is for men only. Research demonstrates that the majority of abuse survivors are female, making them more susceptible to addiction. Sadly, however, many females will go undiagnosed and often treatment of past sex abuse will be too limited to prevent later sex addiction. Even if counselors recognize that females can be sexually addicted, they may fail to recognize the feminine nuances that typically define female sex addiction.
The impact of childhood sexual abuse
A high correlation exists between childhood abuse and sex addiction in adulthood. Varieties of abuse include verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse. Each of these types of abuse can be either obvious or hidden. For example, obvious verbal abuse involves the misuse of words, tone, and volume. A hidden type of verbal abuse is the failure to affirm someone with words of love and encouragement. More often than not, two or more types of abuse have occurred in the developmental history of sex addiction. When one considers the need for intimacy to be the primary motivator of a human being, it’s easy to see how abuse of any type undermines this core need and damages one’s ability to foster healthy attachment to others.
The double edge of females’ need for relationship
Females are generally more relational and nurturing than males. Their roles develop from playing dolls and babysitting to bearing and caring for children of their own. Even as wives and adult daughters, most women continue to provide the larger portion of nurture found in family life. This feminine giving of self is a godly attribute when done in a healthy, balanced way. The greater reception to relationship, however, can be both blessing and curse if the female’s trust in others has been violated by one or more forms of abuse. The hunger to connect remains, but it becomes combined with fear and mistrust. A false self may emerge as the female inadvertently seeks to protect herself from further exploitation. Left to her own fallen human nature, an exploited female may to seek to protect herself psychologically with various defenses and manipulations – both sexual and non-sexual. It’s not difficult to understand how a sexually wounded female might want to regain the innocence that was stolen from her during a vulnerable moment.
Without treatment and a safe recovery path, an exploited female may inadvertently use her sexuality either to punish men or herself. Sadly, the untreated sex abuse survivor often maintains distorted thoughts of how she and the perpetrator share blame for the abuse. The seductive survivor can be motivated to get even by enticing men. The closet female sex addict riddled with shame and self-contempt may punish herself by seeking to meet sexual needs privately and compulsively versus investing in an intimate relationship with her husband. Alternatively, she may starve herself sexually. Whatever the behavior, either obvious or hidden, it remains “the tip of the iceberg” where inner motivations laced with anger often remain a profound mystery for the addict and those who love her.
It is important to note that while all traumatic experiences affect us negatively, those involving abuse during childhood deeply affect the way we navigate life as adults. If you have suffered abuse in your past, please consider seeking out the professional treatment of a trained Christian counselor who specializes in this issue. Fear of disturbing old wounds may initially keep you from seeking out such help. Understand, however, that healing and resolving the wounds of your past will open up opportunities to live a healthier and happier life and will go a long way to preventing these damaged emotions and behaviors from being passed down to your children.
Unique challenges for the female sex addict
For the last 50 years, our culture has promoted a heightened sexuality where children, particularly girls, are hyper eroticized with seductive fashions designed for adults. Particularly immodest clothing—or clothing designed to drawn unnecessary attention to the body—alters how a young girl views herself and presents herself to others. In turn, fashion also alters how others react to her. The culture’s emphasis on seductive media and casual sex, typified by the magazines in supermarket checkout lanes, can also serve as gateways to sex addiction.
The responsibility to identify this cultural trap rests with parents, but it’s not easy to wage an effective defense against the onslaught of sexualized media messages. The best defense begins in early childhood where both parents maintain an ongoing dialogue with their child about the blessings and responsibilities of sexuality. When parents approach this topic relationally during early childhood development, children are spiritually and emotionally empowered to make better choices as adolescents and adults.
Female addicts often suffer a greater social stigma and inner shame than do male addicts. Society promotes the stereotypes of “boys will be boys” and “good girls don’t,” even while grooming females to play the coy seductress. Female addicts may compartmentalize their sexually addicted self from the roles of wife, mother, and Sunday school teacher. This type of denial, duplicity, or splitting off only serves to strengthen the addiction, given the secrecy of a double life.
As Christians, we recognize that before God “there is neither …male nor female” (Galatians 3:28), thus double standards don’t exist within the mind of God. In His great compassion, God hates sin (not the sinner) and the traumatic effect it has on His children. The promotion of godly living for both males and females will pave the road to equal treatment and respect.
Special Considerations for Female Sex Addicts
The nuances of female sex addiction can perhaps best be explained by looking at the body, mind, and spirit connection.
The Body Physically and physiologically, males and females are obviously different. The less obvious factors encompassed in the physicality of being female include a woman’s innate desire to look attractive and her more complicated sexual arousal and release. When too great an emphasis is given to the body because of the culture, exploitation, or addiction, the balance of the inner woman is disturbed.
The Mind Mentally and emotionally, females are typically aroused in different ways than males. Where men tend to be visual and have greater interests in a woman’s body, or sadly, just parts of her body, women tend to remain relational – even in their attraction and arousal. For example, gateways for feminine arousal will often include ambience or environmental setting, the personality traits of the man, and how he seems to nurture her with attention. These factors are often exploited in soap operas, romance novels, and other things traditionally targeted to females.
The Spirit While both sexes suffered spiritual damage from the fall of humanity, the consequences for males and females are different. One consequence for females is that the woman’s “desire will be for (her) husband” (Genesis 3:10). This may account for greater vulnerability in females. Their hearts are turned more to their masculine counterparts, than, perhaps, men’s are toward women. This vulnerability is not inherently bad, but it can foster a heightened need for masculine approval.
The Recovery Goal
Ultimately, the recovery goal of a female sex addict is not unlike that of the male addict, but her journey differs from that of men. She must learn to harmonize her body, mind, and spirit in a way that affirms God’s design. In her feminine spirit, she is unique and her personality bears the creativity of God. Supports for her will include personal accountability, professional counseling, and participation in the community of faith and in recovery groups if available. Like the male addict, the female must get beneath the behavior in order to heal distorted thoughts, damaged emotions, and a wounded spirit.
Rob Jackson is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice who specializes in intimacy disorders, including sex addiction and codependency.