What are Sexualized Attachments?
When attachment drives become fused with sexual drives, it’s called sexualized attachment. Everyone has legitimate needs for bonding and attachment that are inherent from birth. Our craving for connection is a survival mechanism wired into our genetics. These needs cannot be avoided, but are often wounded or neglected. In that scenario, a person becomes more vulnerable to having their legitimate needs for attachment become sexual in nature. Similarly, it’s common for other emotions to become sexualized when they are related to attachment wounds or deficits. Abuse, abandonment or neglect are common examples of situations that generate attachment wounds. They might leave a victim feeling intense fear, anger or confusion which then also becomes part of the sexualized attachment issue.
Sexualized attachments are easily observed in more severe scenarios. For example, a child who is sexually abused may find themself as an adult seeking out sexual activity that mimics the abuse. This is called trauma re-enactments. Another example could be a child who is abused by an older adult, then later in life seeks out sexual partners who mirror the personae of the adult who abused them. This type of behavior stems from what we understand to be a trauma bond. A third example could include a young teen who is abused in forceful ways that incite high levels of fear, then finds themself as an adult looking for sexual activity that is dangerous, sadistic or masochistic in some ways.
Why does this happen?
Attachment drive and sexual drive have a very similar objective: connection and union. Attachment drives are all about emotional bonds and intimacy; connecting on psychological levels for survival of the species. Sexual drives are all about physical bonds and intimacy; connecting on physical levels for survival of the species. Essentially, they both have the same goal but with a different angle of approach. Understanding this makes it easier to see how the two drives can easily become fused together.
Every child is born with innate attachment needs. Essentially this means that everyone instinctively needs connection with other humans. Attachment and bonding are part of our human existence. We are biologically wired for attachment. The attention and nurture provided to infants and children is essential for healthy development and to meet their attachment needs.
Attachment drives are the longings we experience toward bonding. This means every child yearns for connection with adult caregivers and peers. It’s a survival mechanism. As such, the longing for attachment will persist throughout the lifespan. We have a genetic hunger for deep connection and a sense of belonging.
When ignored or neglected, the need for bonding and connection does not disappear. When attachment needs are left unmet or unfulfilled it creates emotional challenges. The deficit leaves an emotional void within the child. The unmet needs will persist until they are reconciled. You notice the strength of the attachment drive when mothers take their young children to daycare. Kids often cry due to separation anxiety. They’ve bonded with mom, not the childcare provider. It requires time and attention from the provider to generate a sense of bonding that ultimately reduces anxiety.
Sometimes children cannot attach due to medical or emotional issues. For example, kids with severe anxiety will have a more difficult time with attachment. Similarly, kids with Autism or RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder) will have difficulty with attachment. Regardless of obstacles impeding the attachment process, the longing for connection will continue.
It’s also important to consider that children have moments throughout the lifespan requiring safe attachment beyond their parents. Boys have general attachment needs to belong with friend-groups. They look for bonding opportunities with same-sex peers; to fit into a group of buddies. Boys desire attachment with mentors: coaches, teachers, etc. Attachment has a larger implication than simply bonding with mom and dad, and includes a sense of belonging.
As children and youth strive toward attachment bonds, they will sometimes experience wounding. Legitimate needs for connection are wounded with experiences such as abuse – physical, emotional, or sexual. Emotional neglect can have a devastating impact. Wounds and deficits involving attachment leave a child vulnerable to emotional struggles and confusion. One author wrote that beyond actual abuse or cruelty, parenting styles that disrupt the attachment process contribute to mental health issues later in life.
Attachment needs and wounds can become “sexualized” when sexuality is introduced into the equation. For example, if a young boy longs for friendship, his attachment needs will be stronger. His legitimate need for connection makes him vulnerable. Perhaps a teenage boy senses this vulnerability and molests him. The abuse hijacks legitimate needs and interjects sexuality. The boy’s deep desire for friendship and attention has now been connected to sexuality.
Trauma Reenactment is a more serious form of sexualized attachment. This is when a boy repeats the trauma of what happened to him. For example, the young boy who was abused finds himself as an adult sexually fantasizing in ways that seem to repeat the abuse. His behavior and attractions seem to run parallel to what happened as a child.
Trauma Bonding is a similar form of sexualized attachment. This is when a person becomes bonded to the event, or to the person initiating the trauma. For example, the young boy who was abused finds himself as an adult sexually behaving or fantasizing in ways with men or women who are like the person who abused him.
Eroticized (Sexualized) Emotions
Some individuals find they have eroticized emotional experiences. Emotions can become sexualized as the energy festers. Strong emotion doesn’t have to be traumatic. Strong emotion and attachment drives are like magnets attracting themselves to sexual energy.
Eroticized Rage has been a way to describe how anger becomes sexualized. Like when someone is acting out in angry ways, perhaps fantasizing about rape or manipulation. Sometimes strippers or exhibitionists report that they sexualized an ongoing need to be “seen” by significant people in their lives. A peeping Tom (voyeur) might report how he sexualized an ongoing need to see into other’s lives – that others would let him into their private world. Someone who cross-dresses might report how he sexualized the ongoing need for feminine nurture and affection.
Usually, these emotional dynamics start in childhood. The emotional climate is strong, feelings are compounded with attachment needs, and the whole pattern becomes sexualized. Not everyone will sexualize these dynamics, but people struggling with sexual confusion often find that it resonates: the rapist sexualized his emotional need for control, the stripper sexualized her emotional need to be seen, the Peeping Tom sexualized his emotional need to see, and the cross-dresser sexualized his emotional need for feminine affection.
Sexualized Attachments – Enlarged Definition
For my workbook, I enlarged the definition of sexualized attachments to include various forms of eroticized emotion. After working with hundreds of clients on these issues, I cannot ignore the observation that people experience both. Sometimes traumatic scenarios disrupted healthy attachment, and other times emotional experiences were the culprit. Often, they are both happening simultaneously.
In summary, both emotional and attachment dynamics can become sexualized. The stronger the dynamic, and the longer it festers, the stronger its attraction will be toward sexual impulse. Like a magnet, the sexual impulse gets attracted to the emotional or attachment impulse. And once connected, it’s difficult to separate.
Does everyone with emotional or attachment wounds sexualize those dynamics? Certainly not. People have emotional struggles and attachment wounds as children but still grow up without sexualized attachment issues or confusion. But those who have experienced sexualized attachments will easily recognize these dynamics.
Arousal Patterns and Templates
As children, we develop behavior patterns to cope with difficulty and stress. We respond to our circumstances without much control over most situations. We do the best we can to manage.
As an illustration, imagine a young boy who lacks attention from his family, and becomes the “class-clown” at school. He learns to gain attention by joking and making classmates laugh. Even when he gets into trouble, the class-clown role helps him to cope with lack of attention at home. Other factors reinforce the cycle. Perhaps he is bullied by older boys, left out of group games.
Now suppose this same boy receives an invitation to hang out with an older, teenage boy. The friendship helps him feel important and valuable. The teenager is meeting his need for friendship, attachment, and connection.
One day while hanging out, the teenager pulls up some online pornography and convinces the boy that its cool. At first the boy was hesitant but certainly didn’t want to lose the relationship. He admitted some curiosity and agreed to the games to avoid rejection.
In this illustration, new emotions and urges enter the pattern. The boy’s legitimate need for attachment gets hijacked. His deep hunger for time and attention becomes sexualized. His innate need for mentoring and friendship has been confused, and new sexual feelings are introduced.
To learn more about arousal patterns and templates, watch this video wherein Dr. Godfrey further clarifies and discusses this coping pattern.
Healing Attachments Wounds
I’ve worked as a professional therapist with hundreds of men, women, and youth who have sexualized attachments. Usually these clients came to my office expressing pain, conflict, and confusion. They often struggled with childhood difficulties that seemed relevant to their confusion. They shared private and sometimes traumatic stories of events they insisted had contributed to their pain. My fear is that adults and youth label themselves as abnormal or broken when they are actually experiencing symptoms of sexualized attachments.
After several years collaborating with other professionals – some who felt strongly about environmental influence and some who felt strongly about genetic influence. In some instances, these professionals had intensely political or religious beliefs. I listened and learned from both positions and after more research, decided to write a workbook, “Healing and Recovery”.
In this scenario, clients are labeled based on attraction. People who experience sexualized attachments, may be completely uneducated about emotional deficits or attachment wounds. They may be living without any awareness of their own unaddressed attachment needs or wounds. Regardless of the direction a person takes in their lives and the identity they take on themselves, to be a whole person you’re going to want to address healing and recovery aspects of the sexualized attachment issues, help them understand themselves, satiate attachment deficits, heal those attachment wounds that may have occurred. We can’t overlook those things if we really want to help people.