The “Problem” of Lust

Note: I am defining lust as “a feeling of sexual desire” and lustful thoughts as “sexual thoughts or fantasies.”  This is actually the dictionary definition, when devoid of all the shame talk religion gives the word “lust.”

Just recently I tried to show some of my brothers a movie I really enjoy. After watching the beginning, they told me they could watch no more. Why? Because it included some nudity. This has made me realize how hard it must be to be my brothers. They have been raised to believe that any time they think about sex they are committing the sin of fornication just as if they were actually having sex. The problem here is that my brothers are red blooded American males. How can they not think about sex? In fact, they are hard wired to think about sex! What an internal conflict they must face!

My brothers likely cannot walk across the street or through a grocery store without seeing something, a neckline or a hip movement, that makes them think about sex, and when they do, they in all likelihood beat himself up for committing the sin of fornication. They must wonder why is so unable to stop himself from sinning in this way. They must wonder what is wrong with them. I would be surprised if they wish that women wore more clothing, so that they  would not be forced so helplessly to sin. It’s really no wonder they refused to watch a movie that included some nudity! Think, for example, of the title of Joshua Harris’s book Sex Is Not the Problem, Lust Is.

It’s really no wonder people who see lust as a sin emphasize modesty the way they do. If you believe that every lustful thought a man has is a sin, you’ll do anything you can to stop those lustful thoughts. Unfortunately the only way to stop those lustful thoughts is to cover up female bodies with layers of clothing. Yet I would guess that even that enough. Even then a man can be tempted to think lustful thoughts. It’s no wonder some Muslims have gone to the extreme of requiring their women to wear literal tents of clothing.

The problem is that lust is, to put it simply, natural. It’s actually an evolutionary phenomenon. Mating (i.e. sex) leads to children. Those individuals with more impulse to mate are more likely to have children, and therefore more likely to pass their genes on. Those with less impulse to mate are less likely to procreate and pass their genes on. After hundreds of thousands of years and more, the impulse to mate is naturally very strong. After all, the impulse to mate ensures that genes are passed on, and among those genes is the impulse to mate. This makes sense. My brothers, then, in the prime of their lives, feel this natural impulse. Unfortunately, they have been taught to interpret this natural impulse as a sin.

I also used to think like my brothers, and it almost ruined my marriage. I have to ask, who the heck thought that teaching me first that every time a man thinks a lustful though he is committing “fornication” or “adultery” in his heart and second that men think about sex all the time and practically can’t help it was a good idea? The combination is noxious!

After I first married I naturally believed that my husband was cheating on me numerous times every day. I was overcome by jealousy, and I didn’t let the issue be. I watched my husband closely when we were out, and felt sick to my stomach every time we would pass an attractive woman. When he would get home from work, I would grill him, asking if he had seen any attractive women that day or whether he had had sexual thoughts about anyone other than me. When he was honest, I would feel hurt and sometimes even cry. The pain I felt in my heart, the jealousy – how unnecessary they were! I was missing how completely enamored my husband was with me by focusing on jealously guarding his thoughts! I look back and shake my head at the pain I felt and the pain I caused my husband.

After about a year of marriage I came to my senses and realized that there is nothing wrong with lust. Nothing. There is a problem of course if lust leads one to do things that hurt others, but that problem is not inherent to lust itself. Today, I have no problem with the fact that my husband thinks sexual thoughts when he sees attractive women; this is, after all, only natural. I have realized that asking my husband not to have these thoughts is asking him to go against his very nature as a human male. In contrast, if my husband were to allow lustful thoughts to take over his life and get in the way of his work, or if he were to act on those feelings and have sex with another woman, or if he were to allow thoughts of other women to make him dissatisfied with me, that would be a problem. His natural lustful thoughts, however, are not a problem. And with that realization I have seen more every day how completely in love with me my husband is, and how much he absolutely adores me.

Now that I have realized that lust is not a problem, my relationship with my husband has improved drastically. Today my husband and I talk openly about who we think is hot. We’ll be walking down the street together and he’ll gesture to a guy a ten yards away. “What do you think of him?” he’ll ask. Or we’ll pass a bodacious woman and then I’ll turn to my husband: “You were looking at her boobs, weren’t you?” “Yeah. But apparently so were you.” And then we smile. We talk about which actors or actresses we think are the sexiest. He prefers Angelina Jolie, and I go for Brad Pitt. But then he’ll tell me that he likes Angelina Jolie in part because she and I share some features, and I’ll tell him that I see him as a slightly less hunky version of Brad Pitt with highly superior brains. Our sexuality has become something we can bond over, rather than something I have to jealously guard.

I think the biggest thing that has changed, though, is that I now trust my husband. I am not bothered by knowing that my husband is sexually attracted to other women. It may seem counterintuitive, but now that I realize that lust is not a problem I can finally trust my husband in a way I couldn’t before. I trust him to not let his thoughts lead to adultery or or make him discontented with me, but I also don’t worry about those things anymore, because I know that just because he thinks other women are hot doesn’t mean he’s not totally crazy about me. Somehow, I missed that before. Somehow, my husband being attracted to other women meant that I wasn’t enough, that I was inferior, that he was on the lookout for something more. And now I’ve realized that that’s not the case at all.

I wish my brothers could realize this. I wish they could see their lustful thoughts as normal and simply seek to deal with them in a healthy manner instead of trying to eradicate them and then feeling guilty and sinful when they find that they cannot. I wish they could stop torturing themselves. I wish they could realize that, well, lust is no big deal. Maybe then they could enjoy watching the movie I thought they’d like so much.

The reality is that these teachings about the sinfulness of lust are destructive, both to young men and young women, and also to marriages. It’s time to say that enough is enough.

What Courtship Was for Me
Nine-Year-Old Sluts and Masturbating Dinner Guests
The Cold, Unforgiving World of Geoffrey Botkin
The Modesty Rules---Not So Simple, Really
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Incongruous Circumspection

    Who says more clothes helps anyway? Like all red blooded males, I think through them threads.

  • bluebleakember

    Very honest and well articulated post, Libby. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important topic. I think I agree with pretty much everything you said. Living it out can get tricky sometimes, though, as a wife who wants to do what she can to protect her relationship with her husband and minimize any potential problems. An example! How should I have reacted to the idea of a *very* skimpily clad, sexy 18 year old wanting to come live in my house with myself and my husband for a week? I'm not a legalist (I don't think so, anyway) but I wanted her to wear some clothes, damn it! :)

  • Anonymous

    I believe it's not the thoughts that make a person sin, but what they do with them (their actions). I guess actions are usually thoughts played out, but with actions you have a choice. I don't believe you have much choice about all the thoughts that go through your head, just what you do with them. Which is why i don't think you should go beat yourself up over some thought that ran through your mind. If you don't like/believe in it, don't act on it!I guess what i'm trying to say is, that to me lust isn't a thought, it is an action.~Lisa

  • Libby Anne

    Lisa – My parents used to say that it wasn't the first glance that was the problem, it was the second. You seem to be saying something like that too (unless I'm misreading it). In contrast, I have no problem with my husband dwelling on sexual thoughts after noticing a woman walking down the street or watching a movie with a hot actress. I sometimes enjoy doing the same! So it's not just the first thought I think is okay, it's subsequent thoughts too. Like you say, though, the problem is when it turns from thought into action: for example, if my husband sacrificed his work to spend time thinking lustful thoughts, had sex with some other woman, or ended up being discontented with how I look physically. So I think we would agree, I just wanted to clarify that I don't just not mind the first sexual thought my husband might have, I also don't mind him dwelling on those thoughts. :)

  • Beth

    Very well put. I know that what I was taught about sex, lust, and love has often been confusing and guilt-inducing for me. We are naturally attracted to people and this attraction is ultimatly good. As you say it also depends what we do with it. I have often wondered how to teach my own children about such things. I do think that lust can be something negative when we start to think of others as things for our own gratification rather than people with minds and hearts. Peoples' minds and hearts are half of their sexiness anyway.

  • shadowspring

    I am not usually unsettled by the way people use words, but I am this time. I think it is because we define lust differently.What you seem to be calling lust, I call appreciation and attraction. I define more on the lines of obsession, objectifying another person in a way that dehumanizes them and is only about your personal gratification.Noticing a guy is hot is not lust, in my definitions. Fantasizing about him in such a way that reduces him as a human being to merely a sexual toy I play with in my mind, that would be lust.But I am an artist. How can you not appreciate and be attracted to the beautiful people in this world on some level? If there is a creator (and you know I think there is) how could the creator NOT appreciate you noticing his stunning handiwork? ;-)On the other hand, creepy ick to think anyone would fantasize about me. Notice I'm beautiful or that I have a nice body? Thank you. But decent people let it go at that.So, I agree with everything except your using the word "lust" when I would use the word "attraction" or "appreciation". I think lust goes way beyond that, and I am not comfortable with endorsing what I call lust as no big deal.But to each his own. Other people disagree with me and actually watch porn with their partners, and seem to be normal, law-abiding citizens. What do I know? :p

    • skywalker

      exactly my point!!!! i had posted something earlier saying that the word ‘lust’ is not the right word to use, why i am saying this is because it is very possible for a man to ‘lust’ after a woman with the purpose of objectifying in thought but is afraid to carry out the action because of the fear of being caught. I will prefer to say that the man finding a woman beautiful is very natural and is a form of appreciation and honouring her because she is created in God’s image!!!

  • Libby Anne

    SS – I just added a definitional note to the end of this piece. I am defining lust as "a feeling of sexual desire" and lustful thoughts as "sexual thoughts." So it's not just appreciation, it's sexual thoughts and fantasizing that I think is natural and not a problem. "Noticing a guy is hot is not lust, in my definitions. Fantasizing about him in such a way that reduces him as a human being to merely a sexual toy I play with in my mind, that would be lust."And see, I'm fine with the fantasizing – so long as it is coupled with an awareness that the opposite sex is human and equal and that the object of lust is also a person with thoughts and feelings, I don't see a problem with it. Heck, I do it too! I think I may just be a lot more open about this than most. To each his own.

  • shadowspring

    Yeah, I agree with you. Fantasizing is NOT a sin. I'm pretty sure every person on the planet has at one time or another.Dehumanizing people is the problem. I didn't grow up QF. I grew up in the Free Love 70s. It is easy to tell when a man is looking at you with appreciation versus looking at you with lust. I was a barmaid with a rocking rack, so that's where I'm coming from. =D

  • Libby Anne

    SS – Okay, then I think we agree! See, I was taught that lust and fantasizing are ALWAYS dehumanizing and always turn someone into a "sex object." I don't think this is true. I think you can fantasize about someone, and appreciate their body, and think sexual thoughts about them, without necessarily "dehumanizing" them.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Great post! I will never understand the big fuss in religious fundamentalism over people having sexual thoughts. I mean, of all things to make a big deal over…Also, I find that obsessing over lust (and I'm going with your definition) really just backfires and makes people see sex absolutely everywhere. I know that's a cliche, but it's true. Here's an example: As a folk musician, I meet a lot of really different people–from hardcore feminist, tattooed lesbians to conservative Mormon family bands. For a while I was hanging out and playing with a really good fiddler who was also a conservative Christian (we tried not to talk about religion or politics…) I really loved making music with him–he was a great musician–but eventually I had to let the friendship die because, unfortunately, he also found me attractive and could not stop obsessing about it. He was constantly (in that sort of joking-but-serious way) accusing me of trying to lead him into temptation every time I did such shamelessly brazen things as lean over while wearing a tank top, stretch, or even simply sit in a position that he deemed "seductive"–things that my male friends with healthier, more relaxed attitudes towards their own sexuality wouldn't even have noticed. And it made me feel really, REALLY uncomfortable and dirty. There was always an undercurrent of hostility in his attitude–as if he were blaming me for his attraction, which, no doubt he was. He also had no sense of boundaries–sometimes he's say really sexually inappropriate things to me out of nowhere. I guess if you believe that ALL sexual feelings are some how evil and deviant, you never actually develop a sense of what's actually appropriate behavior and what isn't.When I think about guys like him, it's easy for me to see how negative attitudes towards sex lead to negative attitudes towards women. After all, in a societies where men call the shots (you know, like all of 'em) women and their bodies become nothing but snags in men's attempts to remain virtuous. What else is there to do, then, but control their every move?

  • Anonymous

    Actually I think I would be insulted if my boyfriend told me he thinks other women are "hot" and fantasizes about it. I mean we both recognize that other people in this world are attracted but neither of us are attracted to them, at least not now. If anything if I see a shirtless guy it gets me thinking about my boyfriend shirtless. And I never see him ogle other women and we're both more physical than visual any way. Any sexual image that I see arouses passion in me which I then channel to him, and I'm reasonably certain that he feels the same way!

  • Anonymous

    Wow, I have the exact same problem you had about my boyfriend thinking about other women. I was raised Independend Fundamental Baptist with all that sexual repression and "defrauding" crap. Like you had, I literally get sick to my stomach if a pretty woman is around my boyfriend and part of me wants to constantly have him blindfolded permanantly. My "smart" side knows that his thoughts are natural and they dont' mean he loves me or desires me less. I'm constantly telling myself to be rational and not let the little bits of me that are still brainwashed to get in the way. I've definitely improved and now I don't mind when he comments on how hot a woman is. :) It's going to take a while to completely get rid of the jealousy and insecurity, but any baby steps are a good thing! You're post was definitely a help. :)

  • SEO Company

    crazy stuff. you have drifted a long way from where you were.bob

  • Anonymous

    My experience has been almost exactly the same as the OP's. Luckily, the longer I've been with my amazing husband the more I've been able to relax. Now we can openly check out other people together, and it's actually decreased my jealousy. There is no reason for us to keep secrets from each other because it is safe for us to tell each other who and what we are attracted to. Variety is essential to keeping a long-term sexual relationship satisfying, and a few fun fantasies go a long way.

  • natalie

    You emphasized in other posts that you were taught that all that men think about is sex, but that is not true.

    You were angry because fundamentalist girls were told not to think about/have sex, but boys were not told this.

    In this post, you feel sorry for your brother because everyone knows that all men think about is sex, and fundamentalists tell him not to.


    • Libby Anne

      “You were angry because fundamentalist girls were told not to think about/have sex, but boys were not told this.”

      This isn’t true. I didn’t say this in my post at all.

      What you are missing is that there is a healthy medium between “OMG all men are sex crazed maniacs who can’t control themselves” and “men must NEVER EVER EVER think about sex unless they’re married and thinking about their wives.” Neither is healthy, and neither is true. Men do think about sex, and it’s healthy and natural for them to do so, but they don’t think about sex all the time. Same for women.

  • skywalker

    I would not call a man finding a woman attractive as ‘lust’, i wish there was another word to use but i will say it in this phrase; it is completely natural for man to find a woman beautiful, it can be likened to when a person finds a rose beautiful. I came to realize a few years ago that a person has a choice on how he or she views another, whether the person is fully clothed, half clothed or even naked!!!. A person chooses to rejoice in the Lord for the beauty of another and for having feelings or can choose to dishonor the person’s body by committing ‘lust’; desiring to possess her mentally or in some followed up by one’s actions.

  • Jill

    There is everything wrong with lusting after other woman, first of all a marriage between husband and wife
    is considered sacred along with passionate and intimate. When you have a husband, partner, etc. lusting all the time then their is a problem within the marriage or with morals and values in general. men look at woman, however its not habitual as decent men do only on occasions, thats what seperates them from the creeps. My view is, if a man is lusting for other woman then why would he not take it a step futher. Its a questions of morals and values regarding the person. If a man and wife have a great loving,passionate and intimate relationship, why would the guy tear that apart with his lustsing or desire for other woman.


    • Azel

      First of all, you say that marriage is considered sacred, passionate and intimate. One, it doesn’t have to be: marriage is a social construct, basically a bundle of contracts between the spouses and the State, amongst them rights of attorney in case of hospitalisation, automatic recognition of children, fiscal advantages and sharing of property. Two, it wasn’t sacred and all that jazz for a long time: marriage was made for patrimonial and status purposes, there was few notions of love or spousal fidelity amongst the elites. And, of course, it was the wife who had to uphold spousal fidelity, under threat of death; mistresses were fair game for the husband.
      Two, why would a partner lusting be a problem ? Self-control do exist, so as long as it doesn’t act on that lust, I fail to see where is the problem.
      Three, there are even cases where a partner acting on that lust may very well not be a problem: open relationships. People don’t always enter a marriage because they want an monopoly on their partner’s intimity…Hell, at times, they enter principally, nay only, for the contracts I talked about above. Because they are difficult to impossible, and in any case it’s less hassle, to obtain without marriage.

      • Steve

        Never mind that merely looking at someone else is NOT “lusting”. It doesn’t really have to mean anything beyond appreciating that someone else is attractive. There is nothing wrong with that.

    • ELEN

      “There is everything wrong with lusting after other woman, first of all a marriage between husband and wife….”
      This was the best and most intelligent (not that some other weren’t) reply I read in regards to the problem that most men have with lust…

  • Jill

    I like to add, that a man is committing adultry in his heart if he lusting sexually after woman. that is per God. Any decent man usually will not display this kind of behavior towards woman in general. Like I said, not many decent men left in this world.

    Men look, YES, but lusting is another ball-game.


    • Azel

      You’re preaching to the choir with that argument…How does that argument convince non-Christians ? And why in the nine hells would an appeal to any god convince an atheist as is the host and a good chunk of this blog’s readers ?

    • Nathaniel

      “Like I said, not many decent men left in this world.”

      And people say feminists are man-hating. A feminist has never reduced me to my penis.

      • Iris (not the same as the Iris below)

        Old post, I know but I just have to say: Best. Comment. Ever. Thank you sir, you just made my day.

  • Iris

    Very well-written. I was one of those conservative evangelicals for a long time, and you know, it’s very stressful having to police your thoughts twenty-four seven. I’m not even talking about lust at this point. This policing happens with thoughts about other gods and goddesses, lust, magic, etc. You’re literally confined to the Bible’s paradigm of right thinking, and you can’t even find safety or openness of expression even in your own mind.

    While you guys have made amends with your husbands’ lustful thoughts, how about pornography? Does that apply? Does that still fall under lust, or is it an act or activity which leads to dissatisfaction with the marriage?

    • Rosie

      I can’t speak for anybody else, but porn is acceptable in my marriage. In fact, it’s kind of a relief that he’s able to take care of himself when I’m not in the mood. It lets me off the hook; I’m not responsible for fulfilling his every desire (as if that were even possible for any one person to do for another). I’m afraid that seeing sex as my “wifely duty”, a la the bible, isn’t much of a turn-on for me. Also, vice versa: I can take care of myself if he’s not in the mood.

      And sometimes we look at porn together, and talk about what we like and don’t like, what we find attractive and what we don’t. In this way, we can expand our repertoire of “things to try”, and keep things lively between us.

      In general, I’d guess that the issue is less whether or not porn is consumed, but *how* it’s done. Sneaking, lying, or using it to guilt the other party will cause disruption and dissatisfaction. A more matter-of-fact approach that acknowledges the feelings and needs of both people can enhance the relationship.

  • Ryan

    God bless your brothers for practicing righteousness. It’s a lost virtue.

    • smrnda

      Because beating yourself up over the slightest sexual thoughts or feelings accomplishes so much good in the real world.

  • Ronnie

    I pray for those of you who settled on thinking that it’s ok for your partner to fantasize sexually about others. Clearly, you’re not following the Christ who clearly said that we are not to lust. Coveting (desiring what is not yours) leads to divorce and despair. Jesus Christ won the battle on lust….we need to live believing this….this is where we get the power to overcome sin.

    • Anat

      And why should an atheist care what the alleged Jesus allegedly said?