This last Saturday, Rachel Held Evans tweeted out a link to an older blog post of mine, and quoted the line “Lust is not about sexuality, but about power and control.” Evidently, this struck a chord with a whole lot of cisgendered, heterosexual men in her audience, because no fewer than six of them decided to explain to me what lust ACTUALLY is about. Three of them even wrote blog posts (one of which called me a Mrs. and said in no uncertain terms that I want men to burn in hell, which was fun). Needless to say, since this one sentence is getting me called an apostate, repulsive, and proselytized to (evidently one’s doctrine on lust is salvation issue, who knew?), I’m guessing it needs a little clarification.
It's important to remember context here. The line about lust came from my friend Emily Maynard's article about modesty, which prompted the whole discussion. Maynard says:
Don’t get me wrong. Lust is serious, and lust is a sin. But lust is about control, not just sex.
Lust dehumanizes a person in your own heart and mind.
It is the ritual taking, obsessing and using someone else for your own benefit rather than valuing that person as an equal image-bearer of God.
Lust is forming people in your own image, for your own purposes, whether for sexual pleasure, emotional security or moral superiority.
In lusting, you are creating a world where every other person exists for your approval or dismissal. Lust reduces the complexity of each individual and their story to something you get to manage.
Lust – sexual lust, financial lust, emotional lust, whatever kind of lust one has – is about the desire to use and control other people for your own benefit. That is what I meant, plain and simple. When you make someone else an unwilling participant in your ongoing fantasies, that’s much more about using another person so you can get off than it is about “unbridled sexual attraction.”
The problem – and this is where modesty codes and church teaching enter the conversation – is when men view the world as a minefield in which a bodily reaction to an attractive person is mistaken for lust, rather than the normal biological reaction it is.
Are you taking the memory of that fleeting glimpse and filing it away for a spank bank later? That’s lust.
Are you just getting a boner when you see an attractive lady? That’s a biological reaction.
Lust is a deliberate act, a deliberate desire to use another person for one’s own benefit, to dehumanize them so that – even if in your fantasies they are consenting - they are still existing for your pleasure, to, yes, overpower and control them for your own satisfaction. It is this desire that Jesus is speaking to, not your boner.
No matter the source of this desire to dehumanize through sexual lust – whether it’s social conditioning or cultural training or “sex sells” advertising – the sin is still fundamentally your responsibility. And it is your responsibility because no one else can control or speak to your thought life.
This is why we say that modesty codes objectify in the same way hyper sexualization does – it is the mindset that says “other people exist for me” that is the problem. Is the fight a bit harder because of cultural norms? Yes, but that’s no excuse for it. And the fight isn’t a struggle only men have, and it isn’t a solely sexual desire. We are a culture of users, yes, but that doesn’t mean we lack the ability to see each other as human.
And this is why modesty codes don’t work. Because asking me to cover up so you don’t make me a player in your sexual fantasy doesn’t even begin to get the root of the issue, which is that you don’t view me as fully human.
I’m going to get real with you: lust isn’t a solely male issue and the idea that men struggle with it more because they’re more “visually stimulated” (or “prone to polygamy,” which is apparently a thing now) is utter, complete bollocks. Male fantasy is both expected and sanctioned in culture – it’s also called “the male gaze” in feminist theory.
But, your friendly neighborhood Christian feminist struggles with it too, and is hella visually stimulated. And you know how I stop myself? I remind myself that that person is a human being, not an object for my consumption. And I recognize that some reactions are perfectly normal biological process.
That’s why we need to shift the conversation about lust away from solely sexual behavior and attraction, because it blurs the bright line between unhealthy dehumanization and healthy sexual attraction.
The discussion about the commodification of women’s bodies in culture is an important one to have, but we need to recognize the nature of what lust is and why it is important before we can tackle that problem. Until we do that – until we recognize that lust is about the desire to use another person and that modesty codes actually reinforce this commodification of female bodies – we will forever be treading the waters of a rape culture in which a man can rail against the porn industry and then ask women not to wear spaghetti straps in his presence. They are two parts of the same objectification standard, and it is the objectification that causes us to see other people as things rather than human beings that is the problem.
Thus, making lust about a problem that is sexual in nature is intensely problematic and cannot begin to cover the issue. The issue is not the sex. The issue is the commodification of bodies for our own uses – the issue is power and control.
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