Hypersexuality has been referred to by such terms as “hypersexual disorder,” “sex addiction,” “nymphomania,” or the term that is in the most recent International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), “Compulsive Sexual Behaviour Disorder.” In clinical discussion it is often given many possible causes, with little focus on (or even outright exclusion of) a very important cause - trauma. The idea that hypersexuality and trauma are connected is nothing new. And yet, it is rarely discussed. Today, we have a greater understanding of trauma and its effects on people than ever before. The connection deserves to be talked about more than it has been.
In much discussion of hypersexuality, it is defined by having repetitive and intense urges for sexual activity. These are defined to be well above “normal” levels of sexual activity, and some but not all definitions require it to cause significant problems in other areas of life and/or personal distress. The hypersexual person may get little or no pleasure from the sexual activity. Even if this is the case, they may continue to actively seek out sex and may also engage in a lot of self exploration.
In a person with trauma, there are many reasons for this activity. Some of these reasons may, unfortunately, cause them harm. They may feel that sex is “all they are good for”. They may feel a desire to retraumatize themselves. Going along with this, they may seek out rougher and more traumatizing sexual activity. Sex may become a part of how they define themselves - including that they may see themself as an object. If they were traumatized by someone who they believe cared about them, they may feel that sex is the best (or only) way to feel cared for again. They may believe that pleasing someone else sexually is the best way for them to feel loved or valued. Some people may dissociate during sexual activity. Hypersexuality may cause them to deny parts of who they are.
Some hypersexuality may be motivated by other purposes as well. The person may be attempting to undo their trauma, or redo it with changes (such as a more “positive” ending). They may feel their actions give them a sense of control. They may find it extremely satisfying to be able to give active consent to sexual partners. Even with healthier seeming motivations, hypersexuality can be harmful. Some people may feel a huge amount of control when they are making arrangements to have sex, but then feel a loss of control during their activity. With that said, some people may find hypersexuality can help to heal from trauma. And avoiding sex can have issues of its own.
Another sexual issue that is connected with trauma is sex repulsion. Stigma around discussion of sex can make it difficult to discuss it even with a therapist. But this is also an issue that needs to be discussed openly.
Sex repulsion occurs when someone feels disgust at sexual activity, often even at speaking or thinking about sexual activity. This can be related to an extreme level of anxiety about sex. A person may not consciously feel “nervous” about sex, but may feel physical symptoms of anxiety such as an increased heart beat or stomach issues. This may be related to a feeling of a lack of control in sexual activity. The person may be worried that they could be triggered during sex, especially if it has happened in the past. They may be unsure what they should tell a potential partner, which adds to their anxiety.
Sex repulsion may be caused by other emotions as well, a frequent one being shame. This can occur on a subconscious level, especially if the person was traumatized as a child. Sexual arousal as a child can cause the pathways in the brain which relate to arousal to become associated with emotions like shame or fear, bringing these emotions back whenever the person thinks about sex. These emotions may also be related to more conscious thought. A sex repulsed person may feel like allowing themselves to have or enjoy sex is saying that their abuse was “okay.” These type of thoughts may make them get disgusted at the very idea of sexual activity, because they feel it is “wrong” to enjoy sex. If they do enjoy sexual activity, they may feel a huge amount of guilt, which can then feed into their repulsion.
While hypersexuality and sex repulsion are often related to sexual trauma, they can be caused by trauma that is completely unrelated to sex, as well. The chemicals and hormones that are more active in the brain and body during trauma than at other times can cause associations that create a compulsive need for sexual activity. Alternatively, they may cause the body to be unable to feel the level of safety necessary to relax and enjoy sex, causing it to become anxiety-inducing and repulsive.
Hypersexuality and sex repulsion may sound like opposite experiences, however, many people may find they experience both hypersexuality and sex repulsion at different times. This can occur in the same month, day or hour, etc. They may even experience both at same time - for instance, they may feel compelled to have sex with someone even though the idea also disgusts them. These responses to trauma are valid, and more common than you might think. If you feel your sexual appetite is extremely high, or the very idea of sex is awful and disgusting, or even both, you are not alone. And you are valid.