in Sexuality

Men and the "Naturalness" of Lust (a rant)

I recently spent a week visiting a friend who was house-sitting for a family from her church and I noticed a copy of Every Young Man’s Battle: Strategies for Victory in the Real World of Sexual Temptation on one of the bookshelves. Given the popularity of the “Every Man’s Battle” movement in Evangelical circles I thought I’d take a look at it to see what all the fuss was about. So, over the course of the week, I skimmed my way through the whole book.
What a complete waste of time. Every Young Man’s Battle is absolute drivel that, at times, drifted into insanity (for example, as proof of the dangers of watching what basically amounted to anything other than a Disney Cartoon, the authors share a “testimony” from a fellow who gave into the temptation to look at more explicit things. This fellow ends up watching TV with his sister-in-law one night, and she falls asleep laying on the floor in front of the TV… wearing a pair of short shorts. So what does this guy, who has already “opened himself to temptation,” end up doing? He masturbates right then and there while looking at his sister-in-law’s ass! Let me be clear: this is not the result of watching movies that are rated PG-13, hell, it’s not even the result of flipping through a dirty magazine — this guy needs serious professional help, and cutting down on his TV and movies isn’t going to do the trick. The fact that the authors suggest that there is a natural progression from watching such movies to lusting uncontrollably after family members is nuts — and the fact that so many Evangelicals are probably nodding their heads as they read through this is just as nuts). How is it that so many awful books end up becoming so popular with Christians? Just look at the reviews that this book got at (and don’t get me started on things like The Prayer of Jabez or the Left Behind series!).
However, the thing that probably upset me the most from my skim through this book was found in the Section entitled “How We Got Here” in the Chapter entitled “Just By Being Male.” Basically this chapter argues that the reason why so many Christian men struggle with sexual issues is because it is natural for men to struggle with those things — it is a part of their maleness. Now, this argument is pretty common in Christian circles (even beyond Evangelical circles) and it’s about time we did away with it.
You see, struggling with sexual issues is not just part of being male. “Lust” is not an ontological issue, it is a cultural one — it is not related to our being, but to the way in which we are shaped and formed by our society. The truth is that there have been cultures where lust and sexually related crimes hardly existed at all. I think, for example, of the early encounters of Christian missionaries with some of the tribes in the South Pacific. Very little, if any, clothes were worn by the members of these tribes but people were not viewed as objects to be lusted after, and so things like sexual crimes were basically nonexistent. It was only after the missionaries began demanding that these people wear clothes — thereby imposing the idea that the female body is ever always an object of male lust — that sexual crimes came into being.
Indeed, there still are cultures today where lust is, by and large, not an issue. I think of the experiences of a woman I know who has spent several years living in the United Arab Emirates. One of the things that has most impressed her there is the fact that the men have never made her feel like they were seeing her, or treating her, as a sexual object. Far from it, she has feels like she has been treated with respect by all the men she has met there.
Therefore, we need to realise that the reason why lust seems so universal in men (Christian or otherwise) in our society is because we are culturally conditioned to view women as sexual objects — as objects that exist for the gratification of whatever desires men might have. This has nothing to do with the nature of masculinity, and a lot to do with patriarchy, advertising, and capitalism. Thus, to argue that such a “battle” is “natural,” is to simply reinforce the structures that perpetuate the sexual objectification of women. Basically, Christian men are fighting the wrong battle. Instead of learning how to deal with something that is said to be a part of who they are as men, they need to learn how to resist the Powers that have led them to believe that something so unnatural is natural.
Furthermore, when we learn that this is a cultural battle, we also realise that this popular way of thinking continues to be a veiled excuse for the way in which men sexually objectify women. When we deny the “naturalness” of this perspective, we set a necessarily higher standard for ourselves. One way leads us to say “This is just a part of who I am and so I’ve got to keep struggling with it” whereas the second way says, “This is not a part of who you are so you better get to a place where you don’t struggle with it.” (Of course, if Christian men are to get to a place where they don’t struggle with these things then the Church needs to learn to reform our desires in a way that overcomes the Powers of patriarchy, advertising, and capitalism.)
Finally, what also upsets me about this way of thinking is that it is so androcentric. It presents men as the casualties in this war — it is the purity of the male mind that is at stake. However, in reality, it is the wholeness of the female person that is most at stake, and it is usually the female body that pays the greatest, and most painful, price in all of this. Consequently, I have learned that encounters with women who have found the strength to share their stories — stories of the ways in which the have suffered because of the lust of men — are the most effective way of transforming the way in which Christian men relate to women. Unfortunately, for as long as we see our lust as “natural” we guarantee that such stories will not be shared with us. Such a way of thinking marks us as an unsafe audience — who wants to talk about being raped with a fellow who thinks that the desire to rape is a natural part of being a man? And so, even though one out of every three women in North America has been sexually assaulted, most Christian men don’t seem to know any who have been.

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  1. Wow. Right on target. Not sure why this nearly 4-year-old post showed up in my RSS feed a couple of days ago, but I’m glad it did. Will share this on my own blog if you don’t mind, as I recently brought up this issue in the context of what it means to tell a women she must be “biblical” and cannot let herself go, lest her husband wander elsewhere.
    Thanks for such a thoughtful deconstruction of this issue.