According to the traumagenic dynamics model (Finkelhor and Browne), severe and protracted childhood interpersonal childhood trauma (interpersonal trauma refers to types of trauma that occur between the child and significant others e,g, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and witnessing domestic violence) can give rise to pervasive feelings of betrayal, powerlessness, stigmatization and traumatic sexualization, which in turn, can have extremely adverse effects upon self-image, one’s view of the world and one’s emotional responses.
This can then lead to two contrasting negative effects upon the individual’s sexuality :
- some may respond by becoming sexually compulsive
- others may respond by becoming sexually avoidant
Sexual compulsion is sometimes referred to as hypersexuality and involves the individual being preoccupied (to the extent that it causes the individual distress and/or negatively impacts important parts of his / her life such as physical health, vocation and relationships) with urges, fantasies and/or activities that are hard to keep under control; these may include excessive promiscuity, risky sex, masturbation, paying for prostitutes, pornography and cybersex.
The term ‘sexual avoidance,’ on the other hand, refers to chronic lack of sexual desire which has serious adverse effects upon the individual’s quality of life; if the extent of sexual avoidance and related symptoms meet a certain threshold, it can be diagnosed as sexual aversion disorder. A person suffering from this disorder may avoid sex due to feelings of fear, revulsion and disgust in relation to sexual activity and suffer panic attacks at the thought of participating in it; this, in turn, can, of course, seriously damage intimate relationships.
Both sexual avoidance and sexual compulsion are thought to be defence mechanisms (albeit dysfunctional ones) serving to protect the individual from intrusive, traumatic memories and flashbacks, or to reduce feelings of low self-esteem related to the devastating effects of the original childhood, interpersonal trauma. For example, a person with very low self-esteem may compulsively try to attract sexual partners to help him/her feel ‘desired’, ‘wanted’ or ‘loved’, however illusory, fleeting and superficial such faux-feelings may be.
Such promiscuity undertaken in a (futile) attempt to bolster self-esteem can, of course, ultimately serve only exacerbate feelings of loneliness, emptiness, guilt and shame; indeed, it should be noted that some individuals alternate between periods of sexual compulsion and periods of avoidance. This ambivalence towards the concept of sexual activity reflects how individuals can be prone to switch between sexually compulsive behaviour – in a desperate attempt to feel better – and sexually avoidant behaviour – when they realize such behaviour has left them feeling even worse).
Finally, it should be stated that research suggests sexual dysfunctional behaviour not only can affect those who have experienced interpersonal trauma through sexual abuse but also through physical and psychological abuse, as well.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).