Help for Sex Addicts: Understanding Symbolic Sex


So, how’s your sex life going? Are you even supposed to be having a sex life right now? Most sex addicts are not. When you are addicted to sex, you can’t scrape up the self-control needed to fuss around with things like real love and marital commitment. You feel an overwhelming need to keep that intercourse coming, which is why so many sex addicts are plowing their way through a long list of sexual partners. They’re not in it for the relationship, they’re in it for the sex. Some addicts will put just enough effort into the relationship in order to make it last so that they can postpone the trouble of having to find a new partner. But others addicts couldn’t care less about the relationship.

Let’s talk about your sexual style. Perhaps you are the woman who just can’t wait to tear her clothes off and thrust herself into any available pair of male arms. Or perhaps you are the guy who is addicted to rape. Your favorite prowling ground is party scenes where you can get your victims looped on drugs and then have your way with them. Sexual addictions come in a wide variety of forms, and yet the irony is that when we’re this crazed for sex, it’s really not about the sex anymore. For sex addicts, sex has become a symbol of something else, and that something else is what they’re really after. The first step in healing from your addiction is to identify what it is that sex symbolizes for you.


So how do you figure out what your real target is? Well, your desperate need to keep having sexual encounters is your first clue. For you, sex has become a symbol for something that you are unable to attain directly. You’re essentially playing a triangulation game with yourself. You feel a desperate need for A, but A in its true form is unavailable. So you psych yourself into viewing sex as a symbol for A, then you aggressively pursue sexual encounters in an attempt to satisfy your desperate craving for A. People do this all the time. When people call their dogs their children and dress them up in human clothes, they’re playing a similar kind of game. Adults who invent imaginary friends and fantasy worlds for themselves are also doing this.

God has equipped humans with amazing imaginations and some very impressive psychological skills. We’re very good at self-deception, and when we practice it long enough, we end up buying our own cover story, even though it’s totally phony. Let’s now run through some common sexual addiction scenarios to see how this works out.


Tom thinks he’s just into sex. But when I start talking to Tom about his approach to intercourse, I learn that he’s a violent rapist who gets off on seeing his victims cowering and hurting. Tom isn’t after sex, he’s after power, and knocking girls up gives him a sense of that power. Now that I have figured out what sex symbolizes for Tom, the next question is: why does Tom feel so short on power?

When humans chase after symbolic sex, they’re always chasing after something that they feel is inaccessible to them in regular life. Tom’s obsession with power demonstrates a fear of not having any power, and this leads me to ask Tom why he thinks not having any power is such a frightening thing. What happens to people who have no power? What happens to people who allow themselves to be dominated by others? Well, Tom’s father is a brute of a man who gets very sadistic when he loses his temper. He enjoys making Tom cower in fear before he lashes out, and Tom has spent a lot of nights lying on the ground in too much pain to move after one of his father’s beatings. After years of this kind of bullying, Tom is terrified of ever letting anyone gain physical supremacy over him again. His mind has formed a very strong and logical association between being dominated and being severely crippled. So to Tom, being the guy on top is not just a pride trip: it’s a matter of life or death.

Too many years with his father has left Tom feeling deeply ravaged and terrifyingly vulnerable. He’s haunted by all of the memories of himself cowering helplessly in a corner, and he feels extremely threatened by the reality of his own frailness. He feels an urgent need to morph into someone who is very different than who he is. He needs to be an invincible, indifferent guy who can’t be overcome and who can’t be stopped. Tom isn’t this person in real life, but when he’s in the middle of a rape session, his fictional persona becomes more real. In short, Tom ends up treating girls like his father treated him. As is often the way in cases of abuse, Tom is imitating his own abuser. Tom ravages women because they are easily accessible victims. He doesn’t have a child of his own to beat up, but he does walk around feeling totally freaked out by his own vulnerability. Raping women gives him temporary relief from his intense fears and it helps him maintain an illusion of distance from his own frailty. Because relationships require emotional engagement and some degree of vulnerability, Tom finds them much too threatening. So he doesn’t form relationships, he just looks for more victims he can assault because he’s desperate to keep getting relief from his oppressive fears.

But then there’s Wendy. Growing up in a house full of domineering males, Wendy has been called a weak, incapable female her whole childhood, and her alpha personality deeply resents it. Now that she’s an adult, Wendy harbors a deep hatred for men, yet she’s always sleeping with them. Why? It’s a game of domination to her. She enjoys using her sexual allure to bait weak willed men and then control the way that they interact with her in bed. Wendy uses sex to assert herself over the whole male gender, which she views as a symbol of her domineering family members. Sex gives her access to the domination and power she’s craved her whole life. As she’s bossing her sexual partners around, she gets a taste of the power that her brothers and father never let her have with their constant mocking. Like Tom, Wendy is using sex to  strengthen the illusion that she is someone quite different than who she actually is—a stronger, invincible Wendy who treats men like disposable toys.


All children feel a deep need for their parents to affirm them. But for Maria and Ben, this just didn’t happen. Maria’s father abandoned her when she was five years old and Ben’s mother totally ignored him while she favored Ben’s older brother. Now Maria and Ben are in their early twenties and they’re both finding it impossible to stay out of the beds of strangers. Desperate to attract male attention, Maria walks around with low cut shirts, crotch high skirts, and does everything possible to make herself look sexually alluring. Men are definitely attracted to her, but most of them are just interested in sampling the free goods. This upsets Maria because every time another man walks out on her, she feels rejected by her father all over again. When she’s in bed with a man, she tries desperately to please him so that he’ll say affirming things to her. She craves male touch, which is why she never leaves any breathing room between her and her dates. Men find Maria’s style to be suffocating and overbearing, which is why they never stick around for long. Not recognizing how she is sabotaging her relationships by being so needy, Maria keeps becoming more aggressive in her attempts to get men to touch her and pay attention to her.

Meanwhile, Ben is in hot pursuit of girls who will gush all over him with the affirmation that his mom has always withheld. Starry eyed girls are easy to come by, and Ben just can’t get enough of physical intimacy with them. Intercourse, petting, hugging, kissing—he’ll take it all. He’s a very physical guy and he can be seen hanging all over his dates when they’re waiting in line in public. Desperate to please and win more affirmation, Ben serves his women hand and foot. The fact that he does so much for them leaves him feeling confused about why they keep dumping him. The ladies Ben dates simply get tired of him always having to be the center of attention. They weary of his neediness and of how jealous he becomes whenever they look at another man. Ben doesn’t understand why he can’t keep a woman when he is trying so hard to do everything right. To him, his long string of failed relationships just keeps piling up more evidence to prove the painful fear that he’s just not good enough for any woman to want. And yet in real life, Ben has plenty of potential to experience positive relationships, but he needs to learn to separate his mother issues from his romantic targets and stop trying to get his women to fix his past for him.


So what does sex mean for you? What non-sexual need are you trying to satisfy with your constant romps in bed? Why can’t you fill that need directly? These are important questions that you need to be asking God for insight on. The frustrating reality of symbolic sex is that it never satisfies. Sexual symbols get created as a means of trying to cope with internal wounds that we acquired through past experiences, and this is like trying to use duct tape to fix a hole in a damn. The enormous pressure of all of that water that’s piled up on the other side of that wall is going to keep forcing water through that hole no matter how much tape you use.

Having a ton of sex just isn’t going to help you heal from the fact that you’ve been deeply wounded by other people in the past. Sex is a physical thing, and it can’t fix emotional wounds or psychological traumas. To get unchained from symbolic sex, we have to seek God’s help with recovering from the past. If Maria would stop throwing herself at men, she could find a guy who would treat her well. If Ben would stop being so boundaryless in his relationships, he could find a woman who would respect him far more than his current girlfriend does. If Tom was to process the abuse his father dished out and learn how to make peace with his own vulnerability, he could stop ravaging women and start building a better life for himself. When we’re hurting, we resort to desperate measures to cope, and so often those measures turn out to be useless. God is the One we need to be looking to for help in healing, and God will help us, because He’s the One who put us through those wounding experiences in the first place.

God wounds us for one main reason: to change us in ways that will help us form a deeper bond with Him. God is supposed to be our primary focus in life. He created us for the purpose of relating to Him, and as long as we’re avoiding Him and trying to make humans our all in all, we’re going to stay very miserable. No human can heal your core wounds or satisfy your soul’s needs. The most humans can do is temporarily distract you from having to face how miserable you are, but the longer you avoid dealing with yourself, the more intense your misery becomes until even your best coping games don’t work. At some point, you hit burnout with the sexual flings and then what do you have? A long list of partners who have no use for you, the feeling that you’re a worn out rag, and new wounds that are compounding the misery of your original problems.

Sexual symbols don’t work, they just put off the day that we pursue help from the only One who can give it to us, and that is God. So if you’re seeing a pattern of sexual addiction in your life, ask God to help you face the tough issues. With God, there is always hope, and He’s more than able to help even the most hardcore sex addict find freedom and peace.

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