By Fr Sean Kilcawley
One of the common challenges for men in recovery is to figure out “what is normal” and distinguish that from the effects of past pornography consumption. While it is true that pornography consumption leads to the objectification of others, preoccupation with sexual thoughts and fantasies, a darkened intellect, and weakness of the will; it is also true that we are created for communion, captivated by beauty, and moved by that attractiveness of others. So, it shouldn’t surprise us that it is difficult to sort out the difference between the natural desires for communion and love that we experience each day and the effects of lust in our hearts.
For example, a young man once came to me and said, “Father, when I’m kneeling at mass I always seem to find myself staring at the girl in front of me. Is that because I used to look at pornography?” My answer was, “Maybe….Or it might be because you are a normal 19 year old.” The following distinctions might be helpful in discerning the difference:
Invasive thoughts: Invasive thoughts just happen. Many times they come into our brains in a way that is out of context. We don’t choose them, they just show up. These invasive thoughts can simply be memories that get triggered in a particular context. For instance, if a young person uses pornography as a way of escaping the stress of a fight between his parents, he may find that in adulthood whenever he is around people who are arguing, he starts to think about looking at pornography. In this case, his memory is signaling that the usual response to this kind of stress in the past was looking at porn. These kinds of thoughts can also be likened to “flashbacks”, especially if there was very early exposure to pornography. When a child sees pornography, it can be shocking, confusing, and cause feelings of arousal that they are not ready to process yet. In an effort to understand what was seen, the memory continues to present the images in an attempt to figure out what happened. The same thing applies to the person who had a car accident and his body tenses up whenever he is driving in the neighborhood in which the accident occurred. Invasive thoughts are morally neutral.
Arousal: Sexual arousal is oftentimes an occasion for relapse, especially when a person has seen pornography before puberty. In and of itself, sexual arousal is morally neutral and can happen aside from sexual thoughts and fantasy. In normal sexual development, a young man would experience sexual arousal frequently, particularly in the morning after waking from sleep. He would also experience the fact that the arousal calms down after a short period of time. When there is a history of pornography viewing, however, sexual arousal is paired with memories of pornography and sexual fantasy, which can be difficult to sort through for a young person. It becomes an occasion of temptation when there has been a long-standing habit of masturbation, so it is important to be on guard and remember that periodic sexual arousal happens regardless of a person’s history with sexual sin.
Temptation: Temptation may take many forms, but at its root, there is always a lie. We oftentimes use a kind of shorthand and call our invasive thoughts temptations, but the thoughts are simply thoughts. The temptation that is presented usually takes the form of an identity lie. If you were a good Christian, you wouldn’t be having these thoughts. You should be over this by now. If you go back to looking at pornography, you will feel better. You deserve to look at pornography because you have had a bad day and are all alone, or just looking won’t hurt anybody are all temptations that can lead to fantasy.
Fantasy: Fantasy is when we consent to sexual thoughts and purposefully entertain them. It is here that we find “looking with lust.” John Paul II gave a precise definition of looking with Lust in the Theology of the Body:
“It must be deduced from this that the “adultery in the heart,” committed by the man when he “looks at a woman lustfully,” means a quite definite interior act. It concerns a desire directed, in this case, by the man toward the woman who is not his wife, in order to unite with her as if she were his wife. Using the words of Genesis 2:24 again, it means uniting in such a way that “they become one flesh.” This desire, as an interior act, is expressed by means of the sense of sight, that is, with looks.”
-General Audience, April 23, 1980
In other words, noticing a woman, experiencing arousal, or being captivated by beauty are normal aspects of life that point to the fact that we are created for love and connection. Looking at someone and fantasizing about sexual activity with that person constitutes looking with lust.
One technique to move forward: C.O.A.L.
COAL is an acronym, invented by Dr. Dan Siegel, which can help us to sort out our thoughts and feelings. It can slow us down and help us to use our reason to interpret our emotional responses in the midst of temptation. Then we can make a decision that breaks us out of the cycle.
C-Curiosity. Notice your experience and ask some curious questions. I find myself staring at this woman: I wonder why this is happening right now. Does she remind me of someone? I’m thinking about looking at pornography right now? Why am I considering this? What else has been going on today? Am I lonely? Am I stressed? Is there something that I am avoiding?
O-Openness. Be open to whatever your experience is. If we try to close off those thoughts or feelings—if we try to shut them down we may miss out on the answers to the questions above. We may have to recognize that we are lonely, grieving, or bored and this is where our memory is telling us to go back to sexual fantasy to fill the empty space in our lives.
A-Acceptance. Accept whatever is happening in the present moment. I’m fantasizing. I want to look at pornography right now. I’m really lonely. I miss my friends, or I miss my old girlfriend.
L-Loving kindness. Treat yourself with loving kindness. You don’t have control over the automatic thoughts that come into your head. You can, however, decide what to do with them. Of course I’m thinking about looking at pornography—my boss yelled at me today and I felt ashamed. That girl reminds me of someone from my past, and my memory is stirring up old thoughts and feelings. I haven’t had enough sleep this week and my brain is used to looking at pornography for stimulation.
After taking some time to look at your thoughts in the present moment, call a friend, sponsor, or accountability partner to talk through things. In prayer, bring all of these reflections to Jesus, relating to him exactly what is on your heart, and ask Him to enter into your mind, bringing light where there is darkness, clarity where there is confusion, and truth where there are lies. Over time you will find this to be easier. The residue of past sins and memories will fade, and you will find yourself living the “new normal.”