Skip to page content

Study links childhood trauma, emotional abuse to sex addiction in men

  |   Kathryn Kao   |   Permalink   |   News Release,   Research

Emotional baggage is often viewed as a minor inconvenience, but a new study out of the University of Georgia suggests that emotional trauma may play a bigger role in the development of addictive behaviors in men.

Conducted by associate professor Amanda Giordano, the study found that early sexual and emotional abuse were significant predictors of sex addiction in men.

These findings widen the lens on how childhood trauma may contribute to future addiction pathways, while supporting a more trauma-informed lens for clinical work with sex addiction.

“We know that childhood trauma is linked to a variety of addictive behaviors like gaming disorder, gambling disorder, social media addiction, and substance use, so we wanted to see if trauma has the same association with sex addiction among men,” said Giordano. “Our study shows that, along with sexual abuse, childhood emotional abuse is an important predictor of sex addiction among adult men. This relationship may be driven by attachment wounds and insecure attachment styles, as well as difficulties in emotion regulation.”

Childhood trauma and emotional abuse

Sex addiction is a type of behavioral addiction that can become compulsive and uncontrollable despite negative consequences. As a naturally rewarding behavior, it becomes the primary means for individuals to change how they feel.

Of the 149 participants in the study, more than a quarter of men (25.5%) screened positive for sex addiction. This number is higher than previous studies and may serve as evidence of the growing prevalence of sex addiction.

“There are several possible reasons for the prevalence rate we found,” said Giordano. “One of the things that sex addiction researchers have known for a long time is that childhood trauma and attachment issues are risk factors for sex addiction. However, early exposure to sexually graphic materials is as well, and as internet pornography becomes more available and accessible, we could see sex addiction rates continue to rise.”

The study focuses on the impact of four dimensions of early trauma—general trauma, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse—to determine whether any of these categories play a role in predicting sex addiction among adult men.

Researchers found that sexual abuse (68.56%) and emotional abuse (60.22%) were primarily responsible for the variance, or the model’s ability to differentiate between men who screened positive for sex addiction and men who did not, followed by physical abuse (39.82%), and to a lesser extent, general trauma (27.67%).

“Previous scholars have noted that childhood sexual abuse could correlate with either sexual avoidance in adulthood or hypersexual behavior in adulthood,” said Giordano. “But an additive feature of this study is the significant role of emotional abuse. Trauma can be so diverse, and emotional abuse may be overlooked or less understood than other adverse childhood experiences. But this study illuminates the potential relationship between emotional abuse and later addictive behaviors, calling for counselors to screen for emotional abuse and ensure we really understand it.”

Overall, the study confirms the link between childhood trauma and adult sex addiction, while highlighting the significant role of sexual and emotional abuse, specifically, as predictors of sex addiction in men.

Clinical interventions to address addiction and trauma

Given the prevalence of early trauma, counselors who work with adult male clients should be prepared to respond effectively with trauma-informed care, according to Giordano.

Additionally, because of the predictive nature of early trauma and sex addiction in men, counselors providing trauma-informed care to children who have experienced trauma may, in fact, be engaging in preventative work against future sex addiction.

“There is a robust relationship between early trauma and later addictive behaviors,” said Giordano. “When you’re working with a client who meets the criteria for sex addiction, we need to be assessing for early trauma, providing trauma-informed care when necessary, and addressing the trauma and sex addiction simultaneously in an integrated way.”

Counselors working with adult male clients with sex addiction should consider the potential impact of early trauma, especially sexual and emotional abuse. This consideration is important for assessment and treatment planning.

Interventions can then be tailored to clients with counselors paying special attention to the physical and emotional impacts of their therapeutic relationship.

“Trauma-informed care is intentional about not only the relationship between the counselor and the client, but the setting and making sure that individuals feel safe,” said Giordano. “The trustworthiness of the counselor and peer support are also key features of trauma-informed care, as well as working collaboratively with clients to give them control over some of the decisions in counseling and empowering them, so we can offer a corrective experience in terms of a healthy, secure attachment style.”

© University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602