What Causes Sexual Addiction?

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The first question anyone diagnosed with sexual addiction typically asks is pretty much the same: “How did I get this way?” Rather than focusing on the fact that they are sexually addicted and what they are going to do about it, these individuals want to know if there is some external influence they can blame for their problems.

There is actually a considerable amount of research into the causes of addiction, with scientists identifying two main categories of risk: nature and nurture. Most of these studies focus on alcoholism, but it is not unreasonable to extend the findings to other addictions, including sexual addiction.

Nature (Genetics)

Dozens of studies have shown a link between genetic factors and susceptibility to addiction. For starters, various genetic mutations can either directly increase or decrease the risk for addiction, usually by altering the ways in which a substance or behavior is experienced and processed in the body and brain.

In one study, scientists found that people who naturally have less reactivity to alcohol (as measured by body sway) are more likely to become alcoholic. In other words, people who are genetically less susceptible to the potential side effects of alcohol can consume more (get higher) without falling, getting sick, or passing out, and they are, as a result, more likely to drink alcoholically. Another study links a specific genetic variation affecting D2 dopamine receptors, which are part of the rewards center in the brain, to addiction. This genetic mutation, which essentially magnifies the pleasurable effects of addictive substances and behaviors, increases the risk not just for alcoholism, but other addictions.

Genetic variations can also reduce the risk for addiction. For instance, it has long been known that people of East Asian ancestry are much less likely than other groups to become alcoholic. And scientists now know why, having identified a genetic mutation prevalent in East Asian cultures that causes a deficiency of the aldehyde dehydrogenase enzyme, which is critical to the metabolism of alcohol. When alcohol is consumed by people with this genetic mutation, classic hangover symptoms (headache, dehydration, nerve and tissue sensitivity, rapid heartbeat, nausea, and the like) occur almost immediately. Alcohol makes these folks physically ill instead of getting them high. Thus, alcoholism is incredibly rare among people with this genetic makeup.

Genetic factors can also contribute to addiction indirectly. For instance, genetics are a factor with numerous psychiatric disorders (depression, anxiety, attention deficits, panic disorders, bipolar disorder, social phobia, etc.) Not surprisingly, many people living with these disorders choose to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, and/or an addictive behavior. Over time this can become compulsive. The same is true with certain heritable personality traits, like impulsivity, risk-taking, and novelty seeking. In such cases, what is genetically inherited is not a unique response to a potentially addictive substance or behavior, but the propensity for an underlying neurobiological vulnerability that may, over time, lead to addiction.

Nurture

Research tells us that we can’t blame addiction entirely on genetic susceptibility; environmental factors also play a significant role. But how big a role is this, and how can we measure it? One way scientists have separated nature from nurture in addiction causation studies is by studying the incidence of addiction among adopted children and twins (especially identical twins who were separated at birth and raised by different sets of parents). In this way, the relative influence of genetic risk factors versus environmental risk factors can be measured.

Studies of twins and the abuse of alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, and opiates have all produced remarkably similar results, leading scientists to conclude that approximately half of the risk for addiction is genetic, with the other half environmental. It does, however, appear that nurture can usurp nature. For instance, abused and/or neglected children are incredibly at risk for addiction (and other adult-life psychological issues) regardless of genetic influences. And the more times a child is traumatized, the greater the likelihood of adverse reactions, such as addiction, later in life. One study found that survivors of chronic childhood trauma (four or more significant trauma experiences prior to age 18) are:

  • 8 times as likely to smoke cigarettes
  • 9 times as likely to become obese
  • 4 times as likely to experience ongoing anxiety
  • 6 times as likely to be depressed
  • 6 times as likely to qualify as promiscuous
  • 2 times as likely to become alcoholic
  • 1 times as likely to become an intravenous drug user.

Thus, we see an undeniable link between childhood trauma and numerous adult-life symptoms and disorders, including addiction.

Another relatively common environmental risk factor is early exposure to an addictive substance or behavior. Numerous studies tell us that the lower the age of first use, the higher the likelihood of addiction. This is true with all forms of addiction, including sexual addiction. Whether sex was vilified or glorified, a large percentage of sex addicts were exposed to it at an unusually early age.

Sexual Addiction: The Perfect Storm

At the end of the day, sex addicts, like all other addicts, are subject to a combination of genetic and environmental risk factors. Thus, any discussion about the causes of sexual addiction is not so much an argument of nature vs. nurture as an examination of how the two factors come together to influence individual behavior and response. Sure, addictive disorders can be driven by either genetics or environmental factors alone, but far more often they are influenced by both.