Let me set the stage . . .
I’d like to role-play a couple scenes for you from a conversation that began in my mind after I saw a naked man in a movie. There will be a + symbol before my thoughts, and a – symbol before the sexually intrusive thoughts, followed by the “play-by-play” tactics.
Scene One: The Inciting Incident
I forgot this film had a lengthy nude scene in it: he’s jumping around, standing on tables, fighting off a demon-man. Watching alone, late at night on my computer, I was instantly assaulted by all the thoughts which often lead me to porn. Not wanting to go down that road, I paused the movie and turned away from the screen to process what I was feeling:
+ I want to see male nudity, completely separated from sex.
– But you really want to see his penis.
+ I do . . .
– That’s the only reason you’re here.
I have to consciously catch myself so I don’t just passively agree.
+ No, it’s not. I already told you my conscious wants.
– All your reasons are lies. You want to see his erect penis. It’s not even worth it if you don’t see it.
I pause for a moment and think about whether this is true.
+ I do want to see his penis, but not erect. I have barely ever seen a penis outside of sexual content. I believe that is what I want. In the film, he is fighting. He’s a wild warrior-man. I am drawn to that because I want to be like that.
– Okay, fine, yeah, but this is the first step. You see a naked man, you want more naked men, you eventually watch porn. That’s how it goes. That’s how it’s always gone. You can’t break that cycle.
+ That is not how it “always goes.” There was a time when it didn’t. I can’t remember exactly when it started, but it had to start somewhere. This is not who I have to be. I would like to choose my own thoughts right now. You have to leave now, in Jesus’ name.
– I’ll come back later — and you’ll be too weak to resist.
The intrusive thoughts ceased, and I unpaused the movie to watch the rest of the scene in peace.
Scene Two: The Second Attack
Later that night I lay down in my bed, cozied up beneath the covers. My mind began to linger on a couple instances of non-sexual nudity I had experienced with my close friends. I thought about their bodies, their penises, and soon I felt those sexually intrusive thoughts twisting the memories.
I announced my conscious choice:
+ These were wonderful times with friends that were all non-sexual. Times of brotherly affection. I am starved for brotherhood right now. That is my longing. I do not want to taint these memories by turning them sexual.
– Yes, you do. Yes, you do.
+ No, I don’t.
– Think about how much better it would have been if you had touched one of them sexually.
+ I don’t need to touch him like that.
– Yeah, but you want to.
+ I don’t need to touch him like that.
– It would fulfill you.
+ These experiences fulfilled me. I felt no sexual wants after them. These are some of the most fulfilling memories I have. A sexual experience would have been too much.
I remind myself of a time when I felt “manned out” by too much physical contact.
+ I’m so thankful I had that naked experience with my brothers and that it remained completely non-sexual. I understand male nudity now in a way I never thought I could! I looked at them, they looked at me. We ran around like dorks in the snow. I didn’t want anything more.
– Liar. Yes, you did.
The thought of the half-boner I got at the start of the experience comes to mind.
+ It only lasted for a few seconds! I had never been near naked men before in a non-sexual way; of course my body got excited.
– Speaking of boners, hey, do you want one?
I quickly adjust myself under the covers to avoid it.
+ Nah, bro. I just want to lie here and consider how thankful I am for the vulnerability I shared with my brothers, how it’s impacted me. It was such a big step in my journey.
– Okay, fine — but I’m gonna come back in the morning, and then we’re gonna jerk off while we think about them.
+ When you come back, I will speak to you exactly how I have spoken to you right now. I haven’t recognized your voice until now. I thought it was my own voice, but it’s not. When you come back, you have permission to try and convince me again, but understand that this is an open conversation now. You can no longer tell me what I think without my permission; I’m going to tell you what I think as well.
– You’ll be weak in the morning. You’ll do it.
Once again, the voice stopped. I felt my mind clear and my body temperature go back down. I felt free to linger on those healing memories without the sexually intrusive thoughts until I drifted to sleep, content.
Scene Three: The Morning After
I usually feel more sexual in the mornings, but not this particular morning. I didn’t even have morning wood. Because of this, I chose to engage with the sexually intrusive thoughts because I knew they were likely to come again as they had promised.
I consciously lingered on those instances of male nudity again, including that scene from the movie. I played back the whole previous night — every mental argument.
Remembering everything I had thought the night before, I didn’t feel a pull to go back again and rehash anything. The conclusions felt final. I consciously let my thoughts change to other subjects.
What was profound about this was that for the first time I could remember, I had intentionally shepherded my thoughts. No half-thoughts or deeply-rooted brain patterns took over. Which is really saying something for someone like me who struggles so heavily with ADHD, PTSD, and a whole lot o’ D.
Ever since that night I have begun to recognize a change in my thought patterns. For so many years I thought I was just dirty, lustful, and awful for thinking all these terrible sexual thoughts. I was filled with constant shame because the sexually intrusive thoughts kept coming. The realization that I can actually, with practice, redirect my own thoughts, is more freeing than I can write.
Whether you believe it is an actual demon speaking to you, a psychological effect of pornography, internalized shame brought on by the Church, or anything else, I think the important thing is that you engage sexually intrusive thoughts consciously, not passively, with intention and focus.
This is why it’s so much harder to withstand intrusive thoughts when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired — the HALT awareness. In the previous scenario I happened to be clear-minded enough to consciously engage, recognizing my loneliness as my most depleted, unstable source at the time.
After engaging my sexually intrusive thoughts, I now always try to do these three things:
First Tactic: Pause and Listen
I pause what I’m doing and listen to the whole thought. I choose not to suppress it, agree with it, or deny it. I simply listen to the entire thing. Sometimes it isn’t a verbal thought, but a sexual fantasy, a memory, an image, a lingering look I gave someone.
Whatever the sexual thought is, I let it play all the way out, not lingering on it lustfully but analytically. That part is tough; I know.
It’s taken much mental training, along with many failures to get there. Seeing the whole thought, I remove myself personally from the situation and hold the thought away from me, like evidence presented in a court case.
The sexually intrusive thought then has to be proven, true or false.
Second Tactic: Test the Evidence
I carefully go through all the evidence presented by the plaintiff (the sexually intrusive thought) and the defendant (myself). I test the thoughts against the facts.
Does it hold up? Is it completely true? Half-true? True on a Monday morning, but not a Tuesday?
Some thoughts are easy to determine at this point, but others can be less conclusive. However, the inconclusive thoughts often seem much less dramatic. I find that almost all of the “knockout” arguments, the “aces in the hole” end up being easily labeled false simply because many of them use inflammatory language that exaggerates in order to make me feel completely corrupt.
These arguments use words and phrases like always, never, can’t, don’t ever, and the infamous (as in Eden) not really.
Some examples: “You always do this”; “You never say no”; “You can’t stop now”; “You don’t ever say no to this”; “You don’t really feel that way”; “Do you really want to go your whole life without . . . ?”
The easy thing about these arguments is that even if only one instance exists contrary to any of these statements, the whole statement turns untrue.
I then find the next tactic by the sexually intrusive thoughts are often words or phrases like almost always or most of the time. Those arguments are trickier to reason with, but they actually often lead my mind to the third tactic.
Third Tactic: Proclaim a Verdict
I speak the truth. Having listened to the accusation, testing it against the facts, I can now proclaim a verdict. Sometimes the verdict isn’t what I would like. I often have to plead guilty — like realizing my intentions are wrong and I should leave the situation quickly or be compromised.
But taking these steps means that I am now an active participant in my mental conversations, instead of passively allowing them to happen. I’m no longer letting sexual thoughts build up throughout the day, allowing them to become either a “forbidden fruit” or a source of constant guilt, denial, and shame that beats me down until I succumb to the identity that the intrusive thoughts proclaim over me again and again.
Now that I’ve consciously engaged, I have to acknowledge the sexually intrusive thoughts and choose whether to allow them to decide my actions. They can not decide for me!
Many times I’ve stayed in unhealthy situations thinking, “I can handle this, I only want this or that.” But after using these three tactics I’m confronted with my intentions, which weren’t as pure as I once thought they were.
Conversely, as in the earlier example of shared nudity, I also often come to conclusions that have shown me my intentions are not sexual, and I should lean into the situation as a step in my journey of sexual healing.
All in all, nothing this side of heaven will completely guarantee that we’ll never sin again. We are fleshly bodies tied to fleshly minds.
But we can fight, and we can change chemical patterns.
I’m in awe of the number of mental pathways the Lord has rewired in me over the past several years. It’s been a slow, tedious, painful process. But healing is possible, and this is coming from a fifteen-year porn addict.
I love you, my friend. I hope this helps. It’s a hard road, and you’re not alone.
What strategies do you take when temptation strikes? How have you seen progress, growth, and even healing in your struggle with sexually intrusive thoughts and temptation?
Wow! I really needed to read this. Thank you so much for posting it. Oftentimes, I just feel the need to give in to my temptations without questioning them. Personally, I get hung up on the lonely part of HALT. I have learned that my brain is doing what it was taught to do: try to find something to heal a past hurt or wound. I should interact more with my lust when it comes to the door, not shut it out or give in to it. Thank you, Christopher, for sharing something so personal with the rest of us!
In a somewhat related way, clearer thinking has helped me to be all but over my porn addiction. By the grace of God one day it finally clicked that the promised intimacy of porn was all a lie, and in fact was ruining the opportunities for relationship that I DID have.
So even when I’m tempted and lonely, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s empty and I’ve been able to stay away.
I’ve also been blessed to have some outside friends that are able to stand in as defense counsel. They can sometimes help me to cut myself some slack.
My church always encourages us to use the phrase “Get thee behind me Satan!” Sometimes it’s even verbal.
When I first started my repentance, a brother said, “You’re going to get to know who Jesus is now, but you’re also going to get to know the devil.” I was stunned. Why would this be the case? But he was right. Just like you said, that voice sounds like my own, but it’s just a little too sickly sweet. The enemy is real, and the battle is real, but a way of escape is promised. God desires our success, and we’re never alone.
Let me add some advice to the struggling brother who might fallter in the face of temptation:
1. Immediately go to God and the Word. I’m serious. Wipe yourself off and kneel down. Hesitating will only bring more pain.
2. If you feel like you’ve asked for forgiveness a thousand times, then ask to be changed so that you can be free. Ask God to heal you and open your eyes to deception.
3. Always learn from the failure. Take time to walk back through what happened. What were your triggers? Identify the exact moment when you subconsciously gave in. Identify the lie(s) you chose to believe. Identify where and how you could have changed course.
4. Take radical responsibility. The Accuser will mock our failures. I always pray as soon as this happens, “God, I did that, and I’m sorry. Please, forgive me. If this memory is to chasten me and make me cautious – help me to accept it. If it’s just to discourage me – take it away and help me to guard my mind.” As long as you admit you chose to sin, that means you can choose not to. If you believe it was inevitable that you would fail, you are already losing.
5. Share this journey. We suffer in silence against this abominable drug. Our community is especially vulnerable because we want intimacy. Practice vulnerability. Start by being a little more honest the next time someone asks, “How are you?” Don’t just say, “Good.” God will put people in your life who will celebrate with you. Practice asking for help/intimacy instead of hoping you’ll feel better. Confess your faults one to another.
I can testify that this will work. You can be free. You are loved. God wants to help you. You are not alone.
I love this notion of intentionally interacting with myself rather than letting temptation automatically sweep us up (yeah, easier said than done). In our (Ennea-nerdy) Discord community, we’ve recently discussed the notion of ascribing an Enneagram personality to our sexuality as a way of better understanding him, his motivations, and his passions. I’m in therapy as well, and this practice of pause is constantly preached (much to my angst). Thanks for sharing some of your journey, brother. Sounds like you’ve come a long way.