People cope with trauma in different ways, and sometimes you may not even realize your behavior is linked to your past. One way might be through hypersexual behavior, which can look like obsessing over sex, practicing unsafe sex practices and/or feeling unhappy after sex.
A 2021 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that hypersexual behavior may be a reaction to past trauma, and that it’s linked to post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. So what you thought was simply a high sex drive could actually be your way of dealing with the past if you experienced a traumatic event.
“A person with PTSD might find regulating sexual desires more challenging or more arousing because their parameters have been altered by trauma,” Allison Kent, a therapist at Favored Wellness Counseling in Pennsylvania, told HuffPost.
Wanting a lot of sex is not always due to trauma, however. Having sex every day, having sex with multiple partners, having fantasies or fetishes, masturbating, enjoying pornography, going to strip clubs or hiring a sex worker is not considered unhealthy sexual behavior when it’s not interfering with your life, according to Kent.
So how do you know if your sex drive is linked to trauma? Here are some red flags to look out for.
You’re putting sex first.
“Prioritizing sex over other things, like maintaining day-to-day life, is a red flag for unhealthy sexuality,” Kent said.
Omar Ruiz, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of TalkThinkThrive, said this can include “difficulty with controlling thoughts, actions, or conversations about sex, or compulsively acting on the desire for sex, which gets in the way of everyday functioning.”
You’re feeling bad about yourself after sex.
Regretting your sexual encounters often can be a sign of trauma.
“People with trauma histories will often use sex as a way of dealing with their sense of emotional insecurity,” Jacob Brown, a psychotherapist based in San Francisco, told HuffPost. “One of the red flags includes feeling unhappy or upset shortly after sex.”
Of course, this isn’t always the case. Kent suggested asking yourself several questions about sex to determine how you’re feeling and where those feelings are coming from: Do you feel empty or worthless if you don’t have sex? Do you feel empty or worthless after having sex? Do you equate sex with love, and is feeling loved contingent on having sex? If you answer yes to any of the above, it could be a sign your high sex drive is linked to trauma.
You’re engaging in risky behavior.
Having risky or dangerous sex ― for example, not using protection or not knowing the status of multiple new partners ― could be another sign.
“Survivors — who are merely trying to feel embodied, connected to others and escape the felt sense of chronic stress — may turn to hypersexuality,” said Gillian O’Shea Brown, a complex trauma therapist, the author of ”Healing Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” and an adjunct professor of trauma at New York University. “The urgency to soothe these trauma-related psychological and physiological symptoms can lead to risky behaviors, a lack of discernment around choice of partners, and a dismissal of your own needs for safety and respect.”
You’re using sex to control your thoughts or others’ actions.
People with past trauma may use sex as a form of control over their own thoughts or over others’ actions instead of as a way to promote intimacy.
“Some people want to feel a sense of control and ownership over their bodies,” Kent said. “Some people use sex to feel loved and validated. Some people use sex for manipulation. Sex offers some people a way to connect with others in a way that they might not be able to connect emotionally or mentally. It can also be an escape.”
Hypersexual behavior could also look like “using sex to solve problems, such as calming your partner down, making an apology or getting something you want,” Jacob Brown added.
You’re feeling addicted to sex.
There is a difference between enjoying sex and feeling addicted to sex. The latter might involve seeking sex “as a way to get your next hit, similar to a drug or alcohol addiction; yet, you feel no real pleasure from the sexual encounter,” Ruiz said.
Marisa Peer, a therapist and the founder of Rapid Transformational Therapy, said hypersexuality “is associated with a sudden or extremely frequent increase in libido that is difficult to control.”
This could look like “an insatiable need to watch porn or a focus on sexual fantasies and urges that you have to act upon, such as excessive masturbation or having unprotected sex with endless strangers,” said Peer, who is also the author of “Tell Yourself a Better Lie.”
Sometimes an addiction to sex comes from trauma that leads survivors to feel unsafe in their bodies.
“Among survivors of childhood trauma, an impulse to ritualistically and compulsively seek comfort is common and leads to a higher prevalence of addiction,” Gillian O’Shea Brown said. “Sexuality as a source of ritualistic, compulsive comfort seeking, just like other addictions, can lead to even deeper feelings of shame, regret, despair and re-traumatization.”
You may be disassociating from your body during sex.
“Individuals who have experienced repeated sexual abuse often learn to dissociate from their bodies,” said Randy Brazzel, a therapist and CEO of New Dimensions Day Treatment Centers. “This is a process where they become emotionally numb in order to cope with the repeated trauma. Their mind and body become disconnected.”
Disassociating during sex can also be a way to protect yourself from negative feelings.
“Are you engaging in sex to distract from intrusive thoughts or pervasive feelings of guilt, shame and despair?” Gillian O’Shea Brown asked. “If so, sexuality could be masking deeper painful emotions coming from unresolved trauma.” She added that this could make your body feel like “a source of pain, intrusion and shame” that leads to a disconnection from your body.
You’re struggling to form meaningful relationships.
“Separating sex from emotional intimacy could indicate past sexual abuse,” Brazzel said. “For example, becoming hypersexual with a stranger but being unable to enjoy sex with someone you feel emotionally close to.”
Peer said those who have experienced trauma might struggle to form meaningful relationships.
“You will be thinking about where you are going to find your next sexual high rather than being in the moment with your current partner,” she said.
How to cope
“Healing hypersexuality is not a linear process and will require understanding the root cause and motivation behind the behavior,” Kent said.
The first step is to talk to a licensed mental health professional who is trained in sexuality and trauma. Common treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, sensate focus and eye movement desensitization reprocessing.
Some people may benefit from taking medication and/or working with a therapist or psychiatrist. Additionally, it’s wise to reach out to a primary physician, as medical issues (such as traumatic brain injuries, endocrine disorders and thyroid conditions) can sometimes cause hypersexuality, Kent said. She also suggested getting screening for sexually transmitted infections and diseases regularly and creating boundaries with sexual partners “to ensure emotional and physical safety.”
“The foundation of trauma healing begins with enhancing the survivor’s awareness and knowledge about the body’s responses to trauma, with the ultimate goal of locating a sense of safety within the body,” Gillian O’Shea Brown added.
You deserve to find pleasure and intimacy from sex — without sex taking over your thoughts or dominating your life. With a little help, discovering a healthy sex life after trauma is possible.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.