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.