Lust, patriarchy, and capitalism: a response to Dianna Anderson

I had an interesting twitter conversation today with a Christian feminist blogger named Dianna Anderson about lust. Rachel Held Evans had tweeted a link from Anderson with the quote, “Lust is not about sexuality, but about power and control.” I wrote to Anderson to express some disagreement, because power and control are volitional words, and it isn’t honest to my first-hand experience as a man to describe lust as a willed act. Anderson wanted to make a distinction between sexual attraction and lust, whereas I see a very fuzzy line between the two. To me, avoiding lust is about avoiding stimuli. But here’s the problem. Conservative evangelical men use a similar argument to say they can’t help being lustful, so women should have some sympathy and burka up. And that’s a bunch of crap!

When I was taking graduate English classes 8 years ago, I encountered a French psychologist named Jacques Lacan who wrote about the power of “the gaze,” the way that the simple act of watching creates a power differential between the watcher and the watched. Michel Foucault wrote similarly about a 19th century prison design called the panopticon in which the cells of the prison were built in a circle around a central guard tower that was lit in such a way so that none of the inmates could see where the guard was looking. I used Foucault’s panopticon as a metaphor for lust in a sermon I preached two years ago:

On the one side, there are those of us who are imprisoned by the pressure of always feeling watched and having our bodies evaluated, which causes us to spend far too much time and money on our appearance and even develop eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia. On the other side are those of us who sit in the dark and obsessively watch other peoples’ bodies, whether this happens at the gym, on the subway, or on our laptop screens late at night.

The problem I have with the line that Dianna Anderson is understandably trying to draw between sexual attraction and lust is that watching another body sexually is already being a predator, at least if I accept Lacan’s concept of the gaze, which I somewhat do. It’s very hard to draw a line between noticing someone’s body and watching it. As a man, I want to be faithful to my wife and not become part of the oppressive gaze of society that contributes to eating disorders, sexual violence, and other evils. This means I have to be disciplined about what I look at if I’m walking around in a place like a college campus during warm weather seasons.

It just isn’t honest to my experience to say that indoctrination with paranoid uber-conservative teachings about sexuality is the problem (other Christian men have this background more than I do). Certainly taboo plays a role in any kind of fetish. But bourgeois sexual prudishness is only part of a larger system of forces. I can’t speak for women obviously, but I don’t think that it’s possible for a man growing up in the hyper-eroticized capitalist culture of 21st century America to experience “natural” sexual attraction. We are bombarded with female bodies that are used by dozens of industries to sell products and are presented to us as objects to be consumed. You cannot talk about American sexuality without considering whether the use of female bodies in marketing shapes men to be predators at least with our eyes.

I realize this is a dangerous road to go down. But to talk about sin individualistically is a modernist myth that we need to abandon. Sin is always the product of a messy sea of wrath in which it’s impossible to assign blame perfectly, even when it’s a sin as evil and horrible as rape. It’s utterly abominable to blame the victims of rape at all, but I don’t think we can let the demonic system which makes bodies into commodities off the hook for its rule in manufacturing a culture of sexual violence. I realize there’s something more sinister and diabolical going on in the mind of a rapist than unbridled lust. I cannot begin to imagine it. All I’m saying is that evil choices aren’t made in a vacuum; people are conditioned and desensitized into becoming capable of evil.

I’m never going to advocate burkas. Women shouldn’t be criticized for wearing clothing that is comfortable in hot weather or even clothing that is aesthetically pleasing. I do think there is such a thing as being deliberately seductive, though I recognize that men often make false presumptions about women’s motives for what they wear. We’re not called to be Platonist haters of the physical world; we’re called to enjoy God in each others’ beauty. The boundaries we need to set are for the purpose of avoiding thoughts and behaviors that lead to violence or idolatry. But I’m convinced that we can live as fully physical, spiritual beings in a way that preserves our hospitality to neighbor and worship of God.

I know that many Christian women who grew up in very repressive, fundamentalist communities are now experiencing an outburst of emancipation that is finding expression in the blogosphere. You are having to deprogram yourselves from a lot of manipulative, oppressive ideas that were held over you. I rejoice to see your liberation. Just realize that Christian men have our own unique battle regarding sexuality. We don’t want to live in patriarchal paranoia. We also don’t want to be the disgusting hyper-eroticized freaks that the market tries to hypnotize us into being. We just want to be your brothers, and we need the safety to share our perspective truthfully so we can figure out how.

18 thoughts on “Lust, patriarchy, and capitalism: a response to Dianna Anderson

  1. I recently found your blog through another and have enjoyed and been challenged by what I’ve read. This topic is always close to my heart due to being raised in fundamental circles. I’m protestant, but one of the things that slowly started to change how I approached the whole lust/sexuality topic was John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Beautiful, life-giving stuff!

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  3. Umm, yes. The only thing I’d add, is that this isn’t just a male problem anymore (if it ever fully was.) We need non-reductionistic accounts of this stuff and I think this strikes a good balance while not blaming the victims.

  4. Once again, Morgan, you have amazed me. Your enlightened response to a very difficult topic gives me great hope for the church today! I didn’t bother reading all the comments…i just wanted to encourage you, brother!

  5. Lust is a complicated topic, both from a Scriptural and a psychological perspective. While women’s liberation and emancipation do have something to say about it, it is flat out sensationalist, paranoid, and irresponsibly to attribute the category of ‘predator’ to ‘gazing.’ it would likewise be sensationalist, paranoid, and irresponsible to attribute women’s sensitivity to men’s status and wealth as’ gold-digging.’ And if men are being sterotyped with physical sex-gazing, then it is also appropriate for women to be stereo-typed with social status-gazing, although in reality women also succumb to the sexual lust gaze and men succumb to the wealth-seeking status-gaze.

    The issue boils down to this, we as humans are biologically programmed to be sensitive to various things, food, water, sex, status, comfort, etc., etc. Short the rare individual exceptions, these sensitivities are UNIVERSAL, across individuals, cultures, and gender. What varies across individuals, cultures, and gender is the average frequency, intensity, and behavioral responses we have to those things.

    This is important because a predator (for food, sex, status) is not one who gazes, but one whose gaze will lead then them to dominate/destroy the object of their attention. The predator has such frequent and intense cravings for something, whether it be food, sex, status, etc. that they go after the target without any regard for the object of their attention. But many others may gaze and control their behaviors. Looking at a woman is no more being a sexual predator than a woman who wants the status a male has is a predator of status: the question comes down to how one responds to the desire. If the male will go to great lengths of manipulation and dominance to control the object of their sexual desire, they are predators. And if a women go to great lengths of manipulation and dominance to tear down and take the status from the object of their gaze, they are predators. Furthermore, when ones looks at the epidemiology of stalkers (many of whom can be classic predators, whether male or female), what distinguishes them from non-stalkers isn’t desire or ‘gaze’, but the inability to move on from their desires being fulfilled (whether it is a desire for love, sex, revenge, etc.).

    Which leads me to the point of Scripture and lust: when Jesus talks about adultery of the heart in Matthew 5:27-28, Western Christianity has gone to a near repressive type view of sexual view: to think about sex is lust and thus should be avoided. But this is not what Jesus means, as Jesus is referring to a married woman: the Greek word for gune is typically translated as woman but often times means wife. Furthermore, Jesus is not talking about simply our conscious thoughts: the ‘heart’ is not referring to our inner conscious thoughts, but it is referring to something that is largely synonymous with our modern notion of the unconscious. To think sexually about another person’s spouse means that one’s heart/unconscious (the source of evil thought as in Matthew 15:19) has little regards for the boundaries of others; the spouse of the desired person is considered and treated as an enemy to not love, which goes with what Jesus sums up chapter 5 with. Fantasies of what is sexual adultery is adultery at a deeper level. But not every male has that type of deep sexual urge that would willingly disregard another person, but some do. It is that select group who, if not treated or transformed by God, will become predators. But then, it is not the problem of men as a whole (or women for status), but a select group whose heart is particuarly dark in that area.

    The main point is this: people can control how they respond to their gaze, but it is incredibly difficult to control what immediately grabs ones attention (and impossible to control all the time). The former is a result of controlled thinking, the latter is automatic. But if you keep doing something that triggers people’s automatic attention and with great intensity, the reality is, you are going to eventually trigger predatory behaviors in certain mentally unstable groups of people. As women’s display of their bodies occur more repeatedly and are more revealing, it will repeatedly trigger those automatic cravings and with greater intensity. For those people’s whose hearts are already darkened, it will increase sexual predatory type behavior. Plus, a predator will target the first thing that grabs their attention: if a male rapist sees a female dressed in a way that grabs their attention, they will prey upon them. This isn’t to blame women for the evil in those people’s hearts, but it is to speak to what is actually reality, which isn’t always good and just (we don’t have the luxury of forming reality according to the rules of justice, we have to adapt and cope with injustice and evil being a given in our present world). And while I am not advocating women should be wearing clothing that entirely hides the body, there was a reason ‘patriarchal’ societies did that: it wasn’t simply to control women but it was also a way to control the desire of other men, a selection of whom once repeatedly exposed would become destructive. The present trends in female clothing, particularly in the media, is entirely too extreme. And trying to place responsibility for change only on men for the present fusion of sex and power (with increasing rates of rape and sexual assault) in American society is a) unrealistic and b) foreign to Christian teaching that recognizes mutual responsibility, not simply one way.

    In the end, the attribution of ‘lust as power’ is an argument more concerned with status and ideology that itself is more conducive to predatory behavior. I would suggest even a small level of psychoanalytic projection in some people, with the exception of some women who themselves have to live with the post-trauma stress of rape and sexual brutality (their trauma, as any trauma can, creates a somewhat exaggerated picture of the world). But for others many others, it can also be more manipulative than it is genuinely repairing the wounds and scars for everyone, female or male.

    • Thanks for your perspective. I think you have a good point about predators being categorized by the “inability to move on from their desires being fulfilled.” But I do think that our experience of sexual desire is unique in the image-saturated context in which we live. I don’t think that men would look at women the way we do if we lived a hundred years ago even if they were dressed exactly the same. There really is something demonic about the hypnosis of advertising and the way that female bodies are packaged for men as a consumer good. This does not have to do with whether or not women on the street wear ankle-length dresses. There are plenty of indigenous cultures were women wear a lot less than they do in our culture and the men are not inherently crazed as a result of it. It’s rather because of how women are sold to us in advertising that men will whistle at women on the sidewalk no matter how long or short their dresses are.

  6. I do think there is a fine line between sexual attraction and lust. I read or heard somewhere recently that the first look is sexual attraction, but when someone then goes back for a second look is when it turns to lust. I also think it’s hard to say what it going on in the mind of another person regarding how/why the person is looking and what he or she is doing with those looks. What types of thoughts are they turning into? And the context also seemed to be male lust. Is it also only about power and control if a female lusts? Let’s take the stereotypical idea of a woman reading a romance novel–if she imagines herself as the heroine, is she trying to control something or is she just having a sexual fantasy?

  7. You may not be intending it to sound this way, so you may want to re-examine this part: “We are bombarded with female bodies that are used by dozens of industries to sell products and are presented to us as objects to be consumed. You cannot talk about American sexuality without considering whether the use of female bodies in marketing shapes men to be predators at least with our eyes.”

    And: “Sin is always the product of a messy sea of wrath in which it’s impossible to assign blame perfectly, even when it’s a sin as evil and horrible as rape. It’s utterly abominable to blame the victims of rape at all, but I don’t think we can let the demonic system which makes bodies into commodities off the hook for its rule in manufacturing a culture of sexual violence.”

    It sounds like you are blaming sexual violence on the prevalence of images of women’s bodies, which appears to be blaming women for rape culture. Not to mention, it relegates your fellow men to animals. You wouldn’t say that the prevalence of young boys around the priests in the Catholic church all the time were in part to blame for the molestation of the kids.

    The creation of sexual violence does not come with the prevalence of bodies. It’s what we tell men and boys (and females because female against men sexual violence occurs a lot more than we like to talk about) to DO with the bodies.

    I realize you probably aren’t intending to make those kinds of statements, so I wanted to speak up. This video explains more about what I’m talking about and is much more succint than I could be: http://www.upworthy.com/a-horrifying-thing-happened-in-ohio-not-being-creepy-could-prevent-it-from-happe

    • “It sounds like you are blaming sexual violence on the prevalence of images of women’s bodies… The creation of sexual violence does not come with the prevalence of bodies. It’s what we tell men and boys (and females because female against men sexual violence occurs a lot more than we like to talk about) to DO with the bodies.” Capitalism tells men what to do with female bodies by presenting them through marketing as objects of consumption. I’m a little bit floored that that dimension of what I’m saying did not come through. It’s very strange that feminists appear to be taking a modernist individualist view of ethics that is more typically found in law and order conservatism.

  8. Thanks for this balanced analysis, Morgan – at least, it certainly seems that way to me. Saying that “lust is about power and control” is a remarkable over-simplification.

  9. Thanks for this article!

    Lust is, as any desire of the flesh, strengthened as it is fed and given into. As such, by the same standard, gluttony is “control”, greed is “control”, pride is “control” and so on. But it’s also more complicated than “just sort yourself out”. They are real desires of our fallen flesh, which we cannot redeem on our own. The world around us encourages and feeds our desires, giving us all kinds of opportunities to feed it. Just one impulse and click away, lies the beginning of satisfaction of the desires.

    So the flesh tries to keep us in lack of control, and while we are in that state, hunger/proper enjoyment of food, sound sexuality and being proud in a good way, is not easily disentangled from the various fallen images, associations and connections we have made in our brain to these things.

    That being said, the real joys of life can also help repair and work against the fleshly substitutes.

    Desires and proper ascesis need to be center-stage in this discussion – “Lust is control” sounds like “Homosexuality is a choice, so stop choosing wrong!”

    • Thanks Peter. I think what needs to be named is that sin rather than being a willful activity is an abdication of our will to our urges. This fact doesn’t mean that we somehow “can’t help it.” Losing control of yourself is the opposite of intentional, but that doesn’t make you unaccountable for your lack of responsibility.

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  11. I do not find the ‘lust is control’ paradigm to be very helpful, and I find it very unbalanced and reducing…
    I would say lust can exist without power and control too, ‘between consenting adults’, like in hookups or adultery. The power problem if there is one here is more a lack of self-control (maybe partly because of the myth of the irresistible sex drive) than anything about controlling others…

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