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.