The 13th Floor

The Bizarre Link Between Head Trauma and Nymphomania

In 2004, John Waters made his wholly underrated film A DIRTY SHAME — a film that, given Waters’ general difficulty in finding financing, may prove to be his last. In it, a prudish Baltimore everywoman named Sylvia Stickles (the inimitable Tracey Ullman) sustains a horrible blow to the head in a car accident, and as a result of the injury, immediately becomes a sex maniac.

She falls into the company of Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville) and a secret Baltimore enclave of sex maniacs who have also received blows to the head, and who use their kinks and perversions as superheroic means of loosening up the tightwads in their conservative neighborhood. It’s a pretty hilarious film, and deserves revisiting.

The premise is, of course, pretty silly; people becoming sex addicts as the result of cranial trauma is just as far-fetched as (and is certainly meant to be evocative of) the the sitcom conceit of people conveniently losing their memories after a blow to the head. It also sounds like something Waters may have just invented; any chance to revel in perversion and fringe sexuality will not be passed up by the notoriously puckish director. Waters’ mission statement with A DIRTY SHAME is the same as with most of his films: To confront the squares with the very things that make them the most uncomfortable. He wants the “better-behaved” to realize there may be joyous and horny compulsive masturbators in their midst.

But there’s the fun part: It’s based in fact.

This is not a new phenomenon, but it’s rarely reported… and it is real. Some people, after experiencing a severe brain injury, most often to their frontal lobe (a common spot of injury following a car accident), find that their reason has been impaired, and they they begin to experience a massive surge in sexual impulses. Like, super-duper massive. Like, sex becomes the single and only impulse guiding your life — and you see nothing wrong with pursuing any and all sexual impulses that happen to pass through your mind.

Image Credit: iStock/stockdevil

According to an article in Psychology Today, the trace between libidinal explosion and a bad bonk is very direct. The frontal lobe of the brain contains the cerebral cortex, associated with reasoning and self-control, and when that part is damaged, one can easily become a slave to their baser impulses. One can become preoccupied with sex and sexual thoughts — as was the case of a teenager who turned to sex work and pornography as a way to constantly fulfill herself following a car accident, or the married 43-year-old hemorrhage sufferer who began sleeping with men rather impulsively after her attack.

The extent of sexual obsession has been documented frequently in cognitive studies over the years, going back as far as 1988. Before that, the connection between head injuries and super-libidos had not yet been definitively made. According to the studies, the sufferers of said brain injuries experienced not just a sudden increase of sexual appetite, but also a sudden widening of sexual interests — people can become bisexual, and begin showing an interest in kinks they may not have had any interest in before.

There have been further reports of people “flipping” sexualities entirely, or suddenly developing unexpected fetishes. One man, following a head injury, suddenly became a voyeur; one heterosexual woman became a full-blown lesbian. One patient, oddly, became sexually attracted to safety pins.

This, of course, sounds like it may be a lot of fun for most people: Your libido suddenly surges? And you finally have the wherewithal to sleep with all the people you’ve ever wanted? And you’re a bisexual kinkster? Where do I sign up?

Hypersexuality, is of course, not nearly as fun as it sounds. The two women cited in Psychology Today both, as with most people who afflicted, have to resort to medication and therapy to keep their impulses at bay. Most sufferers indeed realize that their brains have been damaged, and their impulses may not be their own, so to speak.

Similar changes in brain chemistry following cranial injury are better known than the sexual variety: Some people report on feeling increasingly surly, frequently confused, or even overwhelmingly jealous following head trauma. Many people have vivid nightmares and trouble sleeping as a result. The wires of one’s emotions become crossed, and the brain begins unduly amplifying what’s already in there to a terrifying degree.

These head injuries may, according to clinical studies, shed some light on the behavior of impulsive sexual criminals. Certain people who have been arrested for molestation or indecent exposure have experienced brain trauma in the past, and may just be unable to control undiagnosed urges. Indeed, there have been reports of people who suddenly become sexually interested in illegal sexual activities following a brain injury. In such cases, the people seek help before they do anything criminal.

There has been some controversy in the psychological communities over the very existence of sexual addiction. The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM) does not list sexual addiction as part of its list of afflictions, nor does the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (or ICD). Others feel that a biochemical imbalance in the brain can cause one to engage in — and become “hooked” on — certain reward-reinforcement activities, and that addiction to non-chemical activities such as sex and gambling can indeed be considered real. As of this writing, however, hypersexuality is more closely linked with head injury than it is with addiction.

Hypersexuality, at any rate, is treatable through addiction recovery groups (and there are many out there), but also through therapy and medication. As much fun as it sounds — even if it’s just for one wild weekend in Las Vegas — it’s something that should be looked at. A DIRTY SHAME makes it look like a constant vacation and a tearing down of impulses, but John Waters was not writing a clinical study or a journal of psychology; he was merely making a darn funny NC-17-rated comedy that wanted to make sex seem fun and naughty again.

As for people who just have healthy, active sex lives, and know how to get what they want sexually… well, they just may be lucky, happy people.

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