Psychological factors in sexual acting out

Part 2/3 (to see other parts of the article, click on the pages at the bottom)

Below are some excerpts from a fascinating article by the religious psychologist and therapist, Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin. The article is called "Psychological Factors in Sexual Acting Out" and it is vital in helping those who struggle with intense sexual desire and unhealthy addictions to understand the roots of the subconscious needs they are trying to fill. Once a person understands this, they can fight it better, both on their own and through therapy (see our Therapy Page for Therapy Options).

by Sorotzkin, Dr. Benzion (See all authors)

What are the early emotional traumas that may make it more likely for someone to develop an addiction to sexual acting out? There are many different possibilities, of course, but the following is a small sampling. A young child in an emotionally supportive home, when dealing with frustration, anxiety, alarm, fear, or dread will feel comfortable turning to his parents for comfort and support. They will protect, reassure, sooth and guide him, thus teaching him by their reactions that; 1) The world is not such a frightening place; 2) Most problems have solutions; 3) Sharing problems with others makes problems easier to deal with. The child will have been soothed by his parents and will learn that comfort is achieved in an interpersonal venue.

In a less emotionally supportive home, parents are sometimes the source of the pressure the child is experiencing and even if the pressure is from external sources, the child doesn't feel comfortable sharing the problem with his parents. Since he cannot address the problem interpersonally he seeks solitary solutions for self-soothing which often involve acting out in a sexual manner. Besides the release experienced via the pleasurable experience itself, there is the additional benefit that he is not dependent on (unreliable) others for relief.

Later in life, even if the person's life becomes more manageable (perhaps as the result of therapy), there is still a feeling that without constant vigilance things will go bad again, so there is often chronic "low voltage" stress which provokes the old "solitary solution." For example, someone who has been hyper-sensitized by chronic emotional abuse early in life may feel pressure to be extra nice to his wife to ensure that she does the same for him since he cannot tolerate even mild criticism. This person may, in fact, have a good marriage with no discernable stress, but the effort to avoid the slightest bit of disharmony (rather than communicating openly and calmly about differences) can exact a tremendous emotional toll. The habituated response to this chronic strain may very well be solitary self-soothing.

A person who had suffered from years of parental rejection will likely remain overly sensitized to being rebuffed for any reason and to any degree. Even if he's happily married and his wife is usually very affectionate, if she, on rare occasions, is not in the mood for relations, he will likely feel overwhelmingly rejected and deprived, and this may also provoke the old "solitary solution."

The emotional functions of sexual acting out

Sexual acting out is often motivated by a (subconscious) attempt to contain and transform [painful emotions] - such as depression, anxiety, aggression, shame, and fear - by turning them into feelings of excitement and aliveness, rather than allowing them to be overwhelming and depleting. The sexual encounter [usually] takes place during periods in which the integrity of the self is threatened by some disappointment, some frustration. The aim of the sexual encounter is for both a soothing and an obtaining a compensation for what they had to put up with or what they have been through.

In my clinical experience, I have found another factor that often serves to maintain the overwhelming impulse to act out sexually. Someone who has been emotionally deprived, severely criticized and/or abused throughout his childhood will often feel that he is not deserving of pleasure. When he attempts to partake in a pleasurable experience, feelings of guilt will cancel out the pleasure. Only the intense sensations involved in sexual acting out can override the inhibitions to pleasure. This causes the child to become interested in sexuality prematurely and eventually this can lead to a sexual addiction.


Pornography, on a superficial level, simply serves the purpose of ensuring a more intense, momentarily self-soothing, physical experience. However, there often seems to be another level of emotional need being addressed.

A lack of affectionate intimacy in childhood often results in a frustrated need for intimacy without the tools to achieve it in a healthy way. (Like someone who did not get sufficient attention as a child, who now needs intense attention that can only be achieved by acting immaturely). This is often the appeal of pornography. In ordinary circumstances a person wouldn't see someone else unclothed unless they had an intimate relationship. Therefore, seeing someone unclothed via pornography creates the illusion of intimacy.

For some people, standard pornography is not intimate enough because everyone knows that the person they are viewing in a supposedly intimate moment is really an actress who is forgoing her privacy for the sake of money or drugs. They therefore, find it difficult to attain the illusion of intimacy with standard pornography. They prefer voyeurism where they believe they are "sharing" a truly private, intimate moment. They, of course, have to block out the fact that the person being observed did not consent to this "intimacy." (In the case of voyeurism via pornography they also have to accept the illusion that the observed are not aware of the fact that they are being filmed). An added emotional "benefit" of voyeurism is the feeling of power in forcing the "intimacy" on the other person. This is especially appealing to someone who was made to feel powerless in his early family environment.

Interestingly, many people suffering from voyeurism have no desire to see friends in intimate situations because when there is a real relationship there is no need for the illusion of a relationship.

For some people, the act of viewing someone unclothed is sufficient to achieve a satisfaction of the emotional need for intimacy. For others, the eventual sexual release adds a necessary intensity to the emotional experience (like an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence).

After the fact, there is usually a double disappointment: First there is the guilt and shame over the act itself. Then there is the painful disappointment that the hoped for emotional comfort (i.e., the illusion beyond the pleasure - as described above) was not achieved beyond the momentary illusion. It is like when a failed dieter eats cake to alleviate loneliness. The loneliness is alleviated for only a few moments while the shame and feeling of failure linger on. One wonders why the inevitable disappointment doesn't eventually undermine the illusion. I believe there are a few possible explanations.

Firstly, As Rav Dessler explains, Hashem gave the yetzer horah the power to create illusions that resist the lessons of experience. Otherwise, it would be virtually powerless. When faced with an acute or chronic frustration of a basic need (such as the need for intimacy, attention, acceptance, etc.) the power of the illusion intensifies in proportion to the frustration. One finds this with a person dying of thirst in a desert who imagines seeing an oasis up ahead.

Secondly, there is a little bit of truth in every illusion. When one is desperate this little bit becomes enormously appealing. For example, a shipwreck survivor on a raft in the ocean who, after days of unbearable thirst, will finally break down and drink the ocean salt water even though he resisted it for days because he knows it will kill him. None-the-less, since it contains the illusion of water, at some point, it feels like it's worth it to get that temporary relief. Likewise, someone desperate for intimacy may feel, at some point, that the illusion of intimacy is all he can hope to get and that may be better than nothing.