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.