Reclaiming Negative Emotions: Lust and the Prohibition Effect


It’s one of the seven deadly sins.

Depending on which religion or denomination you ask, lust is anything from mere sexual desire (i.e. all sexuality) to “wrongfully directed sexual desire” (Christianity Today’s “Understanding Lust” by Jim Vander Spek)

There’s no denying it gets a bad rap.

At first in my own journey, I separated “lust” (the wrong version of passion and attraction) from sexuality (a healthy version of attraction and love). It worked at a time when I was trying to reclaim my right to experience sexual pleasure. Being able to say that lust was what someone experienced when they objectified and dehumanized another person or longed to have sex with someone who wasn’t “theirs” to have sex with helped me to separate it from my own feelings of desire and find ways to embrace them, love myself, and love my partner.

I stopped actively thinking about it years ago, and my journey towards sex-positivity hasn’t really missed the equivocation of definitions. I didn’t consciously reclaim lust as a “negative emotion.” But I did consciously reclaim sexuality, and now I think it’s time to wed the two.

Here’s my definition of lust: sexual desire. That’s it.

Wherever you find a demonization of lust, you are guaranteed to find a group of people trying to dictate and control the sexual desires of another. It’s okay in “this” context, but not in “that” context. It’s okay with “this” person, but not with “that” person. It’s sacred and holy in “this” way, but it’s an abomination in “that” way.

But what happens when you stop placing value judgments on internal feelings and desires? What happens when you just let them be?

For one thing, they lose the stigma of shame.

As with most “negative emotions,” lust gets ingrained in our minds as a destructive thing to experience because the only time it is brought to the forefront of our minds is when we see its destructive expression. Just as anger is associated with violence, lust is associated with sexual impropriety, sexual violation, and sexual obsession.

Mostly because we’ve been conditioned to label it “lust” only if it’s problematic.

But sexual desire does not come with the mandate to cheat on your partner, sexually assault a person, or lose all sense of balance. Many of us experience sexual desire frequently as humans without those elements being present.

But society, especially religion, would have us believe that if we just accepted lust as a benign feeling, that all hell would break loose. We need the “this” but not “that” controls in place to prevent all manner of harm and evil.

But do we?

My partner and I were chatting the other night about what we’ve termed the “prohibition effect”—the phenomenon where something relatively benign becomes destructive as a result of prohibition, thus creating a false sense of the need for that prohibition.

For example, how many times have we heard a similar story to the following? A gay man is taught that he is sinful in his attractions to other men and is promised that if he gets married to a woman he will be cured of his sin. He doesn’t come out. He gets married to an unsuspecting wife. He struggles with trying to suppress his natural attraction, but eventually gives in to a one-night, anonymous encounter in a dark room.

He returns to his wife, distraught by the destructive power of his desire. He “repents” and tries to once again suppress his desire. A few months later it happens again.

At some point, his wife and church find out about him being gay, maybe because he contracts a sexually transmitted disease, maybe because he’s caught in the act of cheating, maybe because he just can’t handle lying about who he is anymore.

His marriage is destroyed. His and her health are both at risk. He is despised in his community. And everyone points to the “sin” of homosexuality being at the root of all of this destruction.

But his attraction isn’t the root!

Had he been given accurate information about his orientation when he was younger, had his attraction not been portrayed as deviant or abominable, had he not been talked into marrying someone he couldn’t love, had he been taught how to have safe sex, and had he not been driven into desperation and secrecy, he might never have lived out that vicious cycle.

He could have easily gone on to have a normal, happy, healthy life with relationships that were honest and with partners with whom he could be open.

It wasn’t the fact that he was gay that created the problem. It was the prohibition of his natural, normal, innocent desires.

That is the power of the prohibition effect, and its fingerprints are all over our sexual ethics. Those who wish to control the sexual behavior of others conveniently attach the label of “lust” to anything sexually prohibited. Then when people step outside the lines of prohibition, everything from eternal damnation to name-calling (slut) is rained down on them in an attempt to shame or scare them back into the confines of approved sexual expression.

But there are those of us out there who are tired of being shamed and punished for something that is arbitrarily decided to be bad. There is a movement of sluts, feminists, and queer activists who are redefining sexual ethics to be not about what others think of what you do in the bedroom or with whom you do it but about what is right and good for you and your partner/s on an individual basis, even if it’s taboo for another.

We free ourselves from the negative connotation surrounding lust. And we return to a far more basic version of good vs. bad sexual ethics. It’s easy to remember. It leaves room for everyone to be themselves.

It’s called consent.

In the world of The Ethical Slut, the only right or wrong about sexual desire is whether each person is consenting to the actions that follow.



2 thoughts on “Reclaiming Negative Emotions: Lust and the Prohibition Effect

  1. sunawake says:

    I have been reading your blog all day – I found it this morning and the post on forgiveness blew my mind. Your post on iron made me cry. Youre a brilliant writter and a breath of fresh air in the intellectual department. I’m learning a lot from your perspective and I thank you on behalf of humanity for having this information here. Your work is reaching people’s lives 🙂

    On that note, I had to comment here because I think that you will be interested in learning from my perspective on the peticulular point this post ends on. Consent.

    I very much appriciated how you called out common fuck-ups in New Age ideologies fed to our peer group at this time. I have witnessed these but I have not witnessed a defender for the truth speak out against them. Thank you. Another common ideology that has saturated our peer group at this time that I am calling into question is the idea that consent equals ethical.

    After all, people can (and often do) consent to a majority of the evils they experience. That’s kind of allows evil to continue in the first place. After all… evil only occurs when good people fail to stop it. Not when they fail to consent to it. There are many other hidden victim-blaming and power-playing mentalities in the dogmatic belief of consent as the highest good. I hope you can spotlight these and write a post on it maybe!

    Its funny, because I come from a fundamentalist/cultesque background like you and I was and am still prone to unconciously adopting this belief because it is precicely the opposite of what the ultra-christians cry, “no one knows whats best for themselves, only god/the pastor/i do!” We recognize that early on in childhood as obviously flawed but dont realize that it also has some truth inside of it.

    Its not that people always know whats best for themselves and so unbridled human choice is an end-all virtue. No. Thats obviously flawed too. I think its way more accurate to believe that \sometimes\ humans know whats best for themselves and \sometimes\ they do not, the majority of their lives choosing relatively harmless desicions but a minority choosing deliberately and exceptionally self-harmful decisions.

    I also read your post on cutting and the effects of bad habits and how they serve you (also made me cry a lil – good post!) and I get it that even if its a self-harmful decision it could still be a healing option. But in my logical mind: when the self-harmful decisions are heavily persistant, heavily disturbing to the individual, or increasingly extreme, those are the times Action overrides Consent in the ethical department.

    If some poor kid is about to blow his head off because he thinks hes worthless, you better damn bet anyone who stops him is a hero. Even if force is used. Even if consent is ignored.

    Similarly, if I am in a BDSM relationship and consent to all of my beatings, and even enjoy and find relief in it, yet am worsening in condition… You better bet anyone who stops me is a hero. Dispite what consent I give, the higher ethical system will have a higher value for life… and that is the one that is logical to act from. Even if it isnt politically correct.

    Thanks for reading.
    And thank you again for all the reading you gave me!

    • I’m so glad that you’ve been enjoying my blog and quite flattered with the compliments.

      I think you might have misunderstood my post in this instance though. I’m not talking about New Age ideologies in regard to lust and sex. Rather the Judeo-Christian (largely Puritanical) ideologies and the way they pervade society’s current understanding of sex. I reread what I wrote and can’t find a single reference to New Age spirituality or the like–at least not one that I intended to make in my discussion of the way that lust is demonized.

      I also feel the need to clarify that I don’t agree with you on the consent issue. When it comes to adults, I don’t think it’s more ethical to override consent, even if you think you’re doing it for someone’s good. Expressing concern or trying to reason with someone about whether their choices are healthy for them is one thing, but I stand in a place where interfering in someone’s autonomy is one of the most egregious and unethical things someone else can do. And yes, I would hold to that even in the case of suicide. In my profession, I don’t have the luxury of being able to act on that particular ethical value. Legally, I’m held to a different standard. But I’m very open and vocal about my belief that violating someone’s autonomy in order to “save” them from suicide is a violation of basic human rights, and I hope to see the U.S. government eventually legalize the right to die for everyone, not just for terminally ill individuals. I think you’re right that sometimes people don’t know what’s best for themselves, but it’s not my place to decide that for them.

      Anyway, thanks for your comment. I hope you keep reading and keep enjoying. 🙂

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