On Promiscuity and Avoidance

Are all survivors of sexual violence permanently scarred? No. Do they go on to flourish and live a fulfilling life? Definitely. Do they deserve support and compassion? 100%. Victims of sexual violence oftentimes adopt unhealthy coping strategies for the trauma they experienced, some go on to become hyper-sexual to the point of promiscuity, while others cope by avoiding sex entirely. Response to sexual trauma differs from person to person and from experience to experience.

Unusual though it may seem but becoming promiscuous in response to sexual assault is a very common phenomenon. According to research, victims frequently react to sexual assault by pursuing indiscriminate sexual encounters in order to find someone who will make them feel safe. This is especially true for those who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. In fact, research indicates that childhood sexual abuse is more strongly associated with hypersexuality. Therefore, understanding the emotional and behavioral underpinnings of this association can help you begin the process of understanding both your own history of trauma and the resulting effects of the experience of a loved one.

When an individual has been sexually abused at an early age, how they view sex becomes altered. Having been violated at an age when they weren’t mature enough to understand and handle a sexual relationship, often repeatedly against their will, teaches the person that sex is not about love; it is about being used and often treated as an object. Promiscuity can mean a string of empty relationships or it may lead to prostitution. And with each meaningless sexual act, the victim dies a little more inside, but they are usually too numb to notice.

Some other victims go in the opposite direction; avoiding sexual relationships entirely. With painful memories, sometimes tinged with misplaced guilt, the victim becomes unable to seek healthy relationships. Those who choose abstinence would often do so to avoid opening themselves up physically or emotionally to another person. If they don’t give another person permission or control over their bodies, then they remain in control alone – unlike when they were abused or raped against their will.

The Search for Validation. Many people who experienced sexual abuse in their formative years come to see their sexual availability as their primary worth. While the abuse itself may have been deeply painful, internalized conditioning caused by sustained sexual trauma can distort their sense of self, fracture their understanding of healthy relationship dynamics, and cause them to seek validation in sexual activity, especially if the abuser made distinct connections between affection, desirability, love, and sexual activity.

Reclaiming Control. Some trauma survivors attempt to regain and assert control over their experiences, bodies, and emotions by engaging in compulsive and risky sexual behavior. Social expectations that assume trauma victims would avoid rather than embrace sex drives victims to hide their compulsive and dysfunctional behavior under the guise of healthy sexual exploration. In reality, what they construct are elaborate emotional and behavioral systems to cope with deep grief and protect themselves from re-traumatization.

Chemical Relief. Not all sexual dysfunction amongst rape or sexual abuse survivors is behaviorally linked to the trauma itself. For some, the connection is purely chemical; sex, like drugs and alcohol, can offer intense and self-reinforcing neurochemical rewards that allow them to temporarily escape the inner turmoil caused by sexual violation. According to research, when an individual prepares for or engages in sexual activity, the brain floods with serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline, a potent cocktail of chemicals that increases feelings of pleasure, well-being, and even euphoria. For some, this rush of neurological activity becomes addictive, as they seek to recreate and enhance their feelings of being high. For others, they serve not to produce elation, but to make emotional pain more tolerable.

Integrated Treatment. Promiscuity and other forms of sexual dysfunction can lead to serious physical harm, damaged interpersonal relationships, and even legal consequences. However, the biggest problem with compulsive sexual activity in response to childhood sexual trauma and rape is that it doesn’t work. Rather than offering real and lasting relief from pain of the abuse, promiscuity prolongs suffering, reduces opportunities for meaningful social support, and acts as a new source of shame, disappointment, and struggle.

Consistent treatment of both the sexual dysfunction and the psychological impact of trauma is the best way to create meaningful healing. In a safe, non-judgemental environment, you can begin the process of exploring the emotional, behavioral, and experiential causes and expressions of distress while strengthening your self-awareness and resilience. With compassion and support, experienced clinicians can guide you toward healthier ways of coping with your grief, anger, fear, and sadness, help you uncover your authentic self, and expand your potential for trust, self-acceptance, and true intimacy.

Adapted from Bridges to Recovery: How Trauma Informs Sex Addiction.

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