There’s a part of my fundamentalist upbringing that has taken me a long time to overcome. For the first 25 years of my life, I was told that I can’t look at women. Heaven help me if I should see too much skin! The female body is a temptation! If I see it, I’ll be defiled because I’ll lust after it! Those women need to cover up! Cover the bodies! Cover the bodies!
It’s what I thought.
I’m left to wonder how I was able to operate if my moral state was so vulnerable. If the sight of a woman who wasn’t completely “put together” was enough to make me sin, how could I have operated in most social circles? I certainly had no business trying to minister to any women if that was the case. How could I be in leadership? How could I work with CHILDREN?
Even during the months of my courtship and engagement, my mindset was one of confusion. This was the girl I was going to be having sex with in less than a year. Was it seriously a sin for me to enjoy seeing her? Really? I’m not supposed to be “lusting” after her?
It strikes me as odd that I was so afraid of the desires inside of me. These are desires that lead to natural acts, that I believe God intended for me. Why would God put a desire or an instinct in me that was sinful? Why would He do that?
The Nature of Desire vs. Lust
My life left me thinking that this want or need for the sexual experience was wrong. The very act of liking the way a woman’s body looked was sin.
But here’s the thing… Nobody gets to choose what it is they want. I don’t get to decide that I like chocolate. It’s automatic. You can call chocolate immoral until you’re blue in the face, and I can refrain from eating it for the rest of my life, but no one – not you, not me, not my parents, not my pastor, not my YMCA trainer – will ever be able to stop me from noticing a Hershey bar and wanting it.
Why do we assume, then, that we can do this with the natural, healthy drive a man or woman has for the sexual experience? I cannot simply shut off the desires I have, nor do I want to. This is an instinct given to men¹ by God! God created this urge. He designed it. How is that a sin?
Now, Scripture does speak to us about lust. Is one left to basically try to start hating something one’s body was designed to want? It all boils down to taking an autonomous action of the human body and soul and calling it a sin. However, if a person didn’t choose to do something, how can it be a sin?
If we’re going to create out of whole cloth a sin that a man can commit without knowing it or without choosing, we have to assign responsibility and blame. If the man didn’t choose it, he cannot be responsible for it. Therefore the blame lies with another person who made him do it, and that is the woman he desired. Therein lies the foundation of modesty culture.
Do you see how nuts this is? We’ve taken a normal part of the human experience and called it bad and dirty. Sinful even. And because we call it a sin we have to assign blame. Because a man cannot control these desires, it must be the woman’s fault.
On the other hand, Jesus himself told us that if a man lusts after a woman in his heart he has had sex with her in his heart. It is a pretty serious thing for someone who believes God calls us to a lifelong monogamous relationship. What are we to do if we cannot help this feeling of lust? How do we overcome this problem?
The answer is: we don’t. Or at least we can’t, because our basic premise is faulty. Our understanding of lust needs to change.
I struggled to explain my thoughts on this until I read fellow blogger Kendra Wood’s article on modesty in Christian culture on her site You Said; I Thought. In it she lists various synonyms of “lustful” and synonyms for “attraction”, commenting that there is very little overlap between them. She points out that Scripture itself tells us that a man is tempted when “he is lured and enticed by his own desire“. She illustrates the distinction that James draws between desire and temptation in a way that is wonderfully fitting to this discussion.
I say all of this to say, I don’t think it’s bad to feel attraction. Attraction may be an emotion or feeling that could lead to lust, but that doesn’t mean attraction itself is wrong. This would be like saying hunger is wrong because it could lead to obesity. Hunger and attraction are both good things. We could look at them as signals designed by God to tell us something about our bodies.
I do not believe anyone would consider a hungry person a glutton. Needing food – or even desiring food – is not the same as consuming food to excess. This feeling of our body is no more a sin than any other body function, until we act and make a choice. Just as James says, lust goes beyond a simple desire, allowing that desire to evolve into something more. It is an act of entertaining thoughts and dwelling on fantasies. It is more than just a simple desire.
Yet there is a difference between gluttony and lust, in that lust is still very much an act of the mind. This same level of thought concerning food wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, of course. Why is lust different? The reason for this lies in the fact that the object of hunger is a plant or an animal (in all but the rarest cases), but the object of a lustful thought pattern is a fellow human being. Lust takes another human being and lowers her to the status of an object or a commodity. This frame of mind is destructive and sinful in ways that food fantasies could never be.
This is the fundamental problem with the Church’s current understanding of modesty. There is desire, there is lust and there is a difference between the two. A man can see something that triggers his sex drive or arouses him, but that does not amount to lust. Lust is when that man allows that desire or arousal to evolve into an objectification of a woman’s body. A man lusts when he brushes aside a woman’s humanity and her soul and begins to see her as an object that satisfies his desires.
This is not the woman’s fault. This is a heart and mind problem for the man. This is a choice that the man has made, and this is what I believe Christ was talking about when he used the word “Lust”.
Making my Problem Your Problem
This is such a widespread misunderstanding of the issue, I believe. How many men in the church have been led to believe that a simple awakening of their sex drive is sin? This line of thought leads them to demand that the women around them dress “appropriately”. However, these women are under no obligation to do this. They cannot make him sin. The only thing they can do is make him aware of his own desires. What he does with those desires is his choice.
Now, we are called as Christians to give consideration to weaker brothers and sisters. This is a perfectly valid reason to adjust one’s dress in certain circumstances. If a man seriously has trouble keeping his desires from becoming a lustful and objectifying thought pattern, then consideration should definitely be given. However, this is a case of a weaker brother. This is an issue in his life that needs work, much like alcoholism, gluttony or any addiction. This is something that needs to have a handle on it.
Let me be clear: This is an abnormal state of the mind or spirit, and it is rare. This is not simply turning yourself over to your desires and claiming you can’t resist them. Refusing to distinguish between desire and lust in your life is a cop out. Honestly, a person with this attitude is pretending to have a condition that should disqualify a man from marriage, leadership, teaching (especially of children) and certainly from any Pastoral role.
Let’s look at this from another angle for a moment. Most readers will say they agree that a woman’s body is more than its sexual appeal. However, some self-inspection might reveal some ugly attitudes.
In order to truly appreciate a woman, one must start with the focus on her as a human being. She has standing before God equal to my own. She has rights. She has personal agency. She is a person.
Since she is a person, she has a body. That body has several purposes, such as housing her consciousness, allowing her to perform work and communicate with others, caring for other people and various other functions necessary to life.
One of those functions – just one among many, many functions – is sex. Her body is designed not only to offer her a pleasurable experience during sex², but to appeal to the desires and sexual drive of her partner. The sexual and child-bearing properties of her body are but a small part of her purpose, her life and her human experience.
However, the tendency in most conservative circles is to short-circuit all this and think of women primarily in the context of sex, sex, sex. According to most Christian thinking, the purpose of a woman’s body is primarily sex appeal. The other things, her humanity, her work for the Kingdom, her wants and her needs are an after-thought. All other things her body could be doing are subject to the one over-arching purpose of sex.
In other words, she isn’t nursing her child. She’s displaying her breasts.
In other words, she isn’t dressing comfortably in warm weather. She’s dressing provocatively to attract attention.
In other words, she isn’t accentuating the beautiful creation that she is, looking beautiful because she is beautiful. She’s showing off her body to try to get a man.
In other words, she isn’t allowed to think about anything – ANYTHING – but sex, sex, sex when she gets dressed, because that is the primary function of her body.
In other words, she’s a sex toy. Not a person.
The church really needs to stop looking at women this way.
It is a terrible mindset, one that plunges both men and women into darkness. We need to draw the line between simple sex drive and lust. We need to recognize the difference between a natural desire and the act of dehumanizing women with the mind. We need to recognize that conflating the two is in itself a dehumanizing act toward women.
We need to stop treating women like sex toys.
¹For purposes of this post, I am simply writing about a heterosexual cis male’s desire for sex with a woman, since that is where the focus of modesty culture is. I’m not meaning to leave everybody else out, really. However, I feel as though most of the people who need to hear this message think solely in this context. If you’ve encountered this mindset outside this context please enlighten us in the comment section. I personally would appreciate the education.
²A fact that is lost on most Christians who speak about sex. Christians love to talk about male sex drive, but conveniently ignore the fact that sex is pleasurable for women too.