Question: I would love to get your perspective on molestation and the correlation to hypersexuality or sexual acting out.
[Content note: discussion of sexual trauma]
Hi lovely! This is a tough and important topic. Thank you so much for reaching out. To ensure that I’m answering your question as clearly as possible, let’s make sure we’re speaking the same language. I’m going to use the word “trauma” as a catch-all for molestation, sexual abuse, and sexual assault; and I’m going to define “hypersexuality” as any type of compulsive sexual behavior. I’m not coming at this from a clinical or diagnostic perspective, nor do I believe in an addiction model for sexuality. (People can develop compulsive behavior around sex, relationships, and pornography, but I think that calling it an addiction is more harmful than helpful in addressing the behavior. Your mileage may vary.)
So, is there a link between the two? There can be. Humans respond to sexual trauma in a variety of ways. Some folks experience PTSD, often expressed through symptoms like flashbacks, hypervigilance, nightmares, anxiety, guilt or isolation. Trauma can absolutely lead to self-destructive behavior, whether that is substance abuse, self-harm, or unsafe sex. But just as some survivors will seek out sexual experiences to numb themselves from their trauma, others will avoid sex altogether, or find that their sex lives are not affected in any meaningful way. There is no way to determine how our bodies and minds will respond to traumatic experiences, just as there is no right or wrong way to react in the moment. Trauma usually elicits a fight, flight, or freeze response, but which one of those your body chooses is outside of your control.
What I want to make sure we don’t do is confuse hypersexuality with high libido, or assume a causal relationship between sexual trauma and an interest in unconventional sexual activities, like kink, sex work, or group sex. Women, especially in heterosexual relationships, are often assumed to have lower sex drives than their partners. When that’s not the case, uninformed partners and friends might try to determine why: “Is she acting out?” “Was she abused?” This line of questioning is inherently sex-negative and shaming. Remember Dr. Drew? One of my biggest complaints about his “work” on Loveline (and I have many) is that he would immediately go to molestation as a way to explain a woman’s sexual behavior. A twenty-something woman would call in and ask about threesomes, and he would counter with “who touched you when you were a kid?” This accusatory manner is harmful both to survivors and sexually adventurous folks, because it implies that someone would only be interested in a certain activity because of something that happened to them outside of their control.
So what about, for example, a rape survivor with a rape fantasy? Is there a correlation there? Maybe. Sex can be a lot of things, and it’s important to recognize that for some folks, it can be an immensely healing experience. Kink, especially, can be a way for trauma survivors to work through past experiences in a safe space. Sexual trauma often represents a loss of power or control, so finding a way to reclaim one’s erotic power or to give up control in a consensual way can be an amazing step in recovery.
Finally, a note on statistics: 64% of trans folks, one in six women, and one in 33 men will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes. So part of the reason there might seem to be a correlation between sexual trauma and hypersexuality, or sexual trauma and kink, or sex work, or any other sexual behavior is that sexual trauma is so pervasive. It’s important to remember that correlation does not equal causation, and that the best way to understand someone’s sexual history is to listen with an open heart.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, you can call the confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline anytime, at 800-656-HOPE, or visit https://www.rainn.org/.
If you have a sex or relationship question you would like me to answer (anonymously), please contact me.