Study links early life stressors and religiosity to sexually compulsive behaviors

Early life stressors and religiosity are both linked to an unhealthy obsession with sexual behaviors, according to research published in the journal Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity.

The study of 802 adults examined if sexually compulsive behaviors were linked to early life stressors, attachment styles, frequency of religious service attendance, and age.

The study found that attachment anxiety was positively related to sexually compulsive behaviors, but attachment avoidance was not. Those who experienced early life stressors (such as abuse, bullying, familial separation, and health concerns) were more likely to report engaging in sexually compulsive behaviors. Younger adults were more likely to report more sexually compulsive behaviors than older adults.

Religiosity also showed a weak link to sexually compulsive behaviors. The more frequently an individual attended a religious service, the more likely they were to report engaging in sexually compulsive behaviors.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Dixie Meyer of Saint Louis University. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Meyer: My interest in the topic grew out of the struggles I saw clients facing in therapy. As a therapist, I counseled clients struggling with their sexual behaviors. In this subset of clientele, many individuals reported feeling sexually addicted. As I worked with this population common themes emerged: a history of early life traumas, difficulty connecting with others, and the conflicting role of religion in understanding their sexuality.

What should the average person take away from your study?

It could be that individuals with early life traumas may not feel secure in their relationships or may not feel interpersonally connected. Sexual behaviors may be used as a coping mechanism to alleviate the unwanted mental health distress experienced more frequently with those individuals who faced early life traumas. Perhaps, sexual behaviors creates a sense of intimacy.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Sampling bias is a concern with this study. The sample largely identified as Christian. I’m not sure how the role of understanding sexuality by religious affiliation plays a role in sexual behaviors. We found an increase in religious attendance was associated with more sexually compulsive behaviors, but we do not understand the cause and effect relationship or whether other research would support this finding.

It could be that interpretation of religious beliefs leads individuals to feel guilty about engaging in sexual behaviors or perhaps individuals attend church because they want to change their behaviors. More research is needed to clarify the roles and influences of interpersonal relationships, religion, trauma, and sexually compulsive behaviors.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Social scientists are becoming more concerned with the replication of research. As many well-known research studies have failed to show consistent findings, any implications of this research should not be made until these findings have been replicated.

Acknowledging that concern, I think the research may speak to how healthy relationships across the lifespan can help individuals, when they experience trauma, to reduce any adverse reactions and experiences later in life.

The study, “Sexually Compulsive Behaviors: Implications for Attachment, Early Life Stressors, and Religiosity“, was also co-authored by Darla Timberlake, Dixie Meyer, Sarah Hitchings, Ashley Oakley, Lauri Stoltzfus, Sharon Aguirre, and Amanda Plumb.