The Purity Culture and “Lust”

Growing up, “lust” was a big no no. No lusting allowed! Absolutely none! Lust was sinful, shameful, evil. It was the kind of word that was whispered. And what exactly was lust? Joshua Harris, the man who single handedly normalized the term “courtship” in evangelicalism, wrote a book called Sex Is Not the Problem (Lust Is) in which he offered the following definition:

Lust is craving sexually what God has forbidden.

In other words, conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists generally define “lust” as sexual desire for any sort of sex other than marital sex. And again, in evangelical and fundamentalists circles it is constantly emphasized that lust is bad bad bad bad. Like, really bad.

Thing is, we as humans are wired to feel sexual desire. It’s how we operate. The result of evangelical and fundamentalist teachings on lust is to induce a state of shame for feelings that are natural. And this state of shame doesn’t end with marriage, either. Rather, any time a married evangelical or fundamentlist man feels attracted to any woman other than his wife, the guilt begins. And, of course, vice versa, though evangelicals and fundamentalists focus much more on men’s sex drives than women’s.

Why is lust so very bad? Well, two reasons, really. First, there is this idea that lust will lead to a man (or woman) having premarital sex or committing adultery. The problem is that rather than instructing men on how to control and channel their sexual feelings and desires in a healthy way, evangelical and fundamentalist teachings on lust instead tell men that those feelings and desires themselves are sinful and must be avoided at all costs. In some sense, then, this collapses the differences between thoughts and actions (which, by the way, is bad).

And this brings me to the second reason: evangelicals and fundamentalists frequently argue that thoughts and actions are judged equally, basing this argument on a Bible verse that seems to state that. In other words, many evangelicals and fundamentalists hold that if a person feels lust, aka sexual desire for anything besides marital sex, that individual is judged as if he or she has actually committed that sexual act.

Now I don’t want to be unfair, so I’ll point out that evangelicals and fundamentalists generally state that it’s the second glance, not the first glance, that is the problem. In other words, if you’re walking behind a woman and in passing notice her shame and start to be sexually aroused, that’s not a problem. The problem is if you dwell on that thought, or look at the woman again, rather than immediately pushing that thought out of your head.

I think this creates a problem, though. You see, the more time you spend trying not to think about something, the more you end up thinking about it. Here, let me give you an example: Don’t think about purple elephants. You hear that? Don’t think about purple elephants. Now what are you thinking about? Purple elephants.

Or to give another example: Given that I’m the nursing mother of an infant, my milk sometimes starts to let down spontaneously. Thinking about my milk letting down, or about water flowing in general, is actually an excellent way to trigger it. So if I’m going about my daily routine and suddenly think about nursing or milk or flowing water, I immediately have to catch myself and think about something else or my milk will let down all over everything. Do you have any idea how hard that is? It doesn’t work. I try desperately not to think about milk or nursing or water, but suddenly all I can think about is my infant at my breast, or a waterfall, and there goes my milk.

Growing up, I spent years sublimating my sexual desires and feelings, pushing every one of them away as sinful and wrong, and I did a pretty good job of it – which, by the way, created some serious hangups. In addition, these teachings on lust created serious problems in my marriage early on. Today I am still in the process of rescuing my sexuality from the tomb to which I unwittingly confined it as a teen entrenched in the purity culture, but it’s amazingly freeing to know that having sexual thoughts, feelings, and desires is okay (and that my husband’s are too). The question is simply what I (and he) choose to do with those urges.

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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.

  • from two to one

    I read all of the Josh Harris books in high school and was quite disappointed that my relationships didn’t stack up to his regimented, holier-than-thou version of courtship. Looking back, those books and the “Every (Young) Man’s Battle” books were seriously damaging to many of my male Christian friends. By defining lust as desiring (sexually) what God has forbidden, it again goes back to your boxes of “forbidden” versus “not-forbidden” sexual acts. Rather, I think there is finally a shift happening in the church that lust is really about pride and selfishness. The new definition of lust is more along the lines of “thinking that the other person exists for your consumption and pleasure and therefore objectifying/dehumanizing them to do so.”

  • smrnda

    I never use the world “lust” just since I think the term is meaningless. People experience sexual attraction and you can’t shut it off, and ‘attraction’ covers a wide range of feelings that aren’t all the same.

    I think the teachings of sexual purity exist to drive a wedge between couples, and people like Joshua Harris love to be that wedge. They want people to feel shame so they can’t be honest and open in their relationships, and they benefit from the pain and frustration because they get to set themselves up as wise, holy men who can ‘fix’ you, when you aren’t even broken in the first place.

  • Jaimie

    I feel one of the biggest problems of Christianity can be tied to the lust problem. They make people feel ashamed for being human. That you have to fix being human. And you’re right about the lack of instruction on how to control and channel lust and you know, basically be responsible for yourself. Instead it shifts blame onto the person that created all those nasty, sinful feelings and voila! Now women are the problem!

    • kagekiri

      Yeah, Christianity, in retrospect, is distinctly anti-human. You’re not supposed to be happy with who you are, no matter how good you are; the only way to self-acceptance is to sacrifice it to God.

      And it really, really doesn’t work. I tried so hard for years as a Christian to stop all pride, stop all selfish thoughts, stop all lust, stop all anger, stop all judgment of others, and all it did was implode my sense of self. It creates a disdain for this life, for being human, for even considering yourself worthy of anything good at all.

      This helped increase feelings of gratitude to God as I grew to hate myself, leading to occasional euphoria in prayer or worship, but eventually, I felt so unworthy that I didn’t WANT God to forgive me. I wanted someone to be punished for my suffering, and *obviously*, the person most responsible was horrible, sinful me.

    • Steve

      This isn’t anything new either. It started at the very beginning with the guy who invented modern Christianity: Augustine of Hippo

      He hated his own sexuality and himself. His life-long struggle against “lust” is well documented. But then he went ahead and projected his hangups on the religion he made up and everyone else

      • Christine

        AND it was always the woman’s fault, too. Sometimes she was at fault just by walking past and smiling at him as I recall.

      • machintelligence

        Not only that, but by causing men to lust after them, they are making God angry so that he sends earthquakes to Iran. You can start here
        or just Google boobquake.

  • Christine

    If that’s the definition of lust, then of course lust is bad. The argument, at this point, becomes whether or not various actions/thoughts constitute “lust” or not. It’s like 1984 – win the debate by defining the terms.

    • Anat

      Huh? If ‘lust’ is to desire what God has forbidden it is only bad if one believes God exists and believes his forbidding something means anything per se. Only then we come to defining what God forbade or not. But if we take God out of the picture, we can ask ourselves which desires are harmful and which aren’t or whether any desire can be harmful in itself.

      • Christine

        But that definition only works if we keep God in the picture. And even with other definitions, “lust” is a fairly negative term. My point was that it’s a lot easier to tell people that “that is lust” than to have to argue that the desire they’re feeling is bad. Once you can classify something into a category which is wrong by definition you don’t have to try to make the tenuous argument that it’s bad in and of itself.

  • Kevin Alexander

    “Thing is, we as humans are wired to feel sexual desire. It’s how we operate”

    This is true. It’s equally true that we are also wired to try to prevent others from having that desire. The evolutionary pressure to prevent our offspring from having rivals is why we try to prevent our rivals from having offspring. It’s why almost every religion and culture teaches that sex is bad. Of course they can’t prevent all sex so they at least try to limit it as much as possible.

    • Rob F

      It’s equally true that we are also wired to try to prevent others from having that desire. The evolutionary pressure to prevent our offspring from having rivals is why we try to prevent our rivals from having offspring. It’s why almost every religion and culture teaches that sex is bad.

      I disagree. First, the idea that were are supposed to prevent other from having sexual desire and our offspring from having rivals disregards kin selection.

      I also disagree about the origin of sexual rules and standards. The sexual rules originated as cultural practices in the ethnic groups where the religions first arose, and which spread with the religion. The short explanation for why those cultural practices existed is that they ensure that paternity is known.

      The long explanation: many societies trace lineage and descent through only one parent. This can of course be only the mother (matrilineal) or father (patrilineal) (these are not the only possible ways of tracing descent and ancestry). In such a society, the parent you do not trace descent is (in social terms) not an ancestor but rather a member of some other family that lives as a permanent live-in in-law.

      In a matrilineal society, ancestry and descent go through the female line, is your mother, her mother (your grandmother), etc. If you are male, any property you will goes to your sisters’ children, and you inherit from maternal uncles. You cannot pass on your lineage. If you are female, your property goes to your children and you inherit from your mother. Patrilineal societies are like matrilineal societies but with genders reversed.

      Maternity is for the most always known in most societies. Even if the biological father is not the spouse of the woman, in a matrilineal society the child will still inherit from his/her mother and not his/her biological biological father. Hence, in terms of descent, premarital and extramarital sex do not affect lineage. No matter what, it’s always her child and he/she will always inherit from or through her.

      This is not the case in a patrilineal society. In a patrilineal society, a man cannot guarantee that the children his wife gives birth to are his (biologically). If (say) she had extramarital sex, the children are someone else’s and belong to someone else’s family and the husband will will his property out of his family. Hence, in order to ensure that paternity is known, restrictions on (especially women’s) sex lives are used, especially prohibitions and punishments/condemnations of pre and extramarital sex, insistence on virginity, etc. These all ensure that paternity is known. And since, in theory, such restrictions only need to apply to women, there is often a double standard where women are treated more harshly.

      Patrilineal societies often include other mechanisms, like levirate marriage (where a man whose married brother dies must take the widow as a wife), which also ensures that patrilineages remain intact. These exact structures appears in the Bible.

      The reason Abrahamic religions have similar sexual rules and double standards is that they originated in patrilineal societies.

  • smrnda

    It would be worth mentioning the Na in China, who live in a matrilineal society where marriages don’t even exist. I’m not sure whether they still live this way, but I recall reading about them in a sociology book that was pointing out that people don’t all form families by the same rules.

    Lust is an antiquated word. Objectification is a better way to label what people shouldn’t be doing, but I think the same process of objectification is going on in the head of a man who thinks women aren’t anything but something he either finds attractive or not, or in a guy who can’t see women as anything but whether they are modest or not. Either way, the guy is seeing a woman only in terms of his sexual reaction to her.

    It is quite possible to feel sexual attraction and still be a decent person, and shutting it off doesn’t sound like a necessary or even useful thing.

    I’ve also never been able to buy into the Christian self-loathing deal. Plenty of figures of the Christian religion spent their lives alternating between despair and elation, and it’s probably just flipping between “you are a horrible disgusting sinner but… God loves you anyway, but he hates everything about you, BUT..” (on and on.) I realize sometimes that when people are critical of themselves, it’s only to make themselves look better than everyone else for having such high standards.

  • Adele

    Just a little quibble/question: I always thought the main verse used to support the fundamentalist argument against lust was Matthew 5:28 –

    • Libby Anne

      Good catch – there are several verses, and I just picked the first I found. It’s the same idea, equating thoughts with actions. Fixed.

  • perfectnumber628

    This is so true- the church has some really screwed-up ideas about lust and sex. Like you said, sexual desires are totally normal (and, according to Christianity, God-given. Sex is a good thing!) and it’s not possible to just “don’t think about it.”

    I think “lust” should be defined as not just a sexual desire, but to disrespect someone (in thoughts or actions) by reducing them to just a sexual object for you to use.

  • ScottInOH

    Good stuff as always, Libby Anne, and I don’t think it can be pointed out often enough how this can screw up one’s sex life even in the Christian-storybook marriage of two virgins who only have eyes for each other.

    One of the reasons is because of the interaction of two definitions of lust you have given. The first is Harris’s: wanting something sexual that God doesn’t want you to have. For a Christian, that’s obviously bad–I shouldn’t want what God doesn’t want me to have. The second is the common understanding, which is also the dictionary definition, which you give in your second linked post: a feeling of sexual desire. I think this is also most Christians’ working definition of lust–it’s pretty much “horniness.”

    This means that feeling horny is a bad thing for Christians who take what they are taught growing up seriously. How can you have a sex life, even with your virgin-till-marriage spouse, if you feel bad about being turned on?

    This happens even when someone like John Paul II tries to dress it up in language about not objectifying one’s partner. Heck, you don’t even have to be a Christian to believe it’s Wrong to treat someone else as a tool for your own benefit. But if you read beyond that platitude, he seems to imply that people having sex solely for enjoyment are using each other as tools. So again, sexual enjoyment is highly suspect, even after you’re married.

    As I’ve said before, it all seems to stem from some powerful men’s fear and lack of understanding of both women and sex.

  • Matt

    I think the problem, which you point out is the understanding of what lust is. Lust simply means strong desire, and is itself not a bad thing. A better understanding of what the Bible warns against and what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 5:28ff is sexual covetousness (dictionary: excessively and culpably desirous of the possessions of another). Jesus said that if a man lusts (strongly desires) the wife (of another man), then he has already committed adultery in his heart. The problem is that Christians generalize Jesus’ statement. Most Christians also do that with Paul’s statements against prostitution by twisting his words into condemnations of the crazy vague “sexual immorality” of modern translations.

  • Bobbi

    another issue with treating sexuality as “something to be ashamed of”, it opens the doors wide open for abuse. There have been studies done, mainly on child sexual abuse, and findings that those raised to be ashamed of their bodies were more likely to be victimized, and for longer periods, because you make body parts shameful, and a child is ashamed to say “hey someone touched me”, instead the victim internalizes the shame, and the abuse continues.