Smokin’ Hot Conversations: I’m Attracted to You. All of You.

All summer long, I’ll be running a series of guest posts here on the blog called “Smokin’ Hot Conversations.” These will be posts about gender, relationships, power, and the church, meant to move us to deeper reflection and conversation about the often distracting or harmful messages in Christian culture. Unfortunately, this isn’t a guest post – because I wrote it! Sorry ’bout that. (But trust me, it’s an awesome post.)

And if you’d like to contribute to this series, drop me a line.

I have something I need to tell you. I’m attracted to you.

Zach Hoag

You might have noticed that this Smokin’ Hot Conversations series has, up to this point, featured only women contributors.

And that’s awesome.

Because if any message could possibly get through to you via this illustrious blog series, it ought to be the message that men have dominated the conversation about sexuality and gender in the church, which has perpetuated all kinds of horrible power dynamics, AND THIS HAS TO STOP. I am in awe of the women whose voices are currently changing this reality in the church and contributing to a more just and equal future. Truly, if the church is going to flourish in the next few hundred years, it will be because it finally welcomes the voices it once marginalized.

But I’ll add my voice today because, honestly, I have something to say from a dude’s perspective to other dudes in this conversation. And, it’s a response to some things I’ve been hearing these last few months from guys who are, by their own claims, feminists. It has to do with the topic of attraction.

Namely, it’s clear that we dudes need to stop equating and conflating physical attraction with the sin that the church commonly calls lust. These are not the same. Amy Martin eloquently proved this in an earlier smokin’ hot post:

The marriage of attraction and lust, controlled by shame and mixed with entrenched gender expectations, causes a perpetuation of heartbreak, misunderstanding, and less-than-ideal gender relations… [S]hame doesn’t allow us to see that the root of attraction isn’t lust. In a sex-hyped culture, we’ve narrowed attraction down to simplistic terms, but the truth is we wouldn’t reach out to anyone, friend, lover or otherwise, if we weren’t ‘attracted’ to them in some way. Physically, emotionally, and more, attraction is simply a fundamental part of the human need to see and be seen. To connect. If humans are wired to do anything, it’s to recognize beauty and connect with other humans.

From a straight man’s perspective, attraction is, firstly, a simple biological/psychological response to a woman’s physical appearance. Moreover, attraction may involve a higher aesthetic and emotional function – a celebration of beauty or a magnetic draw to personality. Much digital ink has been spilled on this, so I won’t belabor it, but when Jesus talked about committing adultery in your heart when you lust after another woman (probably in his context, another man’s wife), he was referring to an act of the will to desire possession and ownership of something that God has not granted (which is what lust is). He was not describing the simple experience of attraction.

Recently I tweeted, “2013: The Year of the Romper.” I did so because I was sitting in Starbucks working and pretty much every woman between the ages of 18 and 25 seemed to be wearing a one-piece shorts n’ top getup (typically with a micro floral print or something like that). Simultaneously, I realized how much I dislike this fashion trend (because toddler clothes) and how I was physically attracted to a couple of the women wearing them (because sheerness and shortness and yeah). This realization didn’t take any time whatsoever, and a glance was enough for the attraction part of the response to take place. It’s biology, stupid.

However, the tendency I am noticing in the dude discourse on this topic is that something more than what I’ve described is perfectly fine and natural – or at least unavoidable – in situations like this. Namely, a hairpin left turn into detailed, explicit, erotic thought, which then leads to detailed, explicit, erotic writing and blogging on the experience. All under the banner of attraction. Which then just makes attraction feel downright icky. Again.

And it feels icky because it begins to justify, if not what Christians call lust, at least what feminists call the male gaze. A moral male human being in a patriarchal culture, if not an outright rape culture, has a clear decision to make. Will he override the turn towards diving into the explicit and the erotic by holding to a standard of respect for women as equal human beings and not objects? Will he manage his gaze and find a way to channel his thoughts and actions toward respecting the other instead of demeaning the other?

In short, will he love his neighbor, the lady in the romper at Starbucks?

We all make mistakes, and I’m not trying to shame anyone here. But to suggest that this is impossible is, I think, a destructive dudebro farce. Even in a “sexualized culture” it is possible to retrain and override, to keep thoughts and actions moving in the right direction. It takes decision and discipline and patience, but it’s possible. Even moreso if we are yielding to the work of the Spirit as followers of Jesus. And again, God is patient with us when we screw up.

I love how Amy ends her piece:

But attraction doesn’t have to lead to an uncontrollable vortex of possession/lust in mind or reality, and that’s why this whole mess is maddening to me. By binding two fundamentally different experiences together and controlling them with shame, we risk teaching people to disengage from the experience of beauty altogether.

I wonder what would happen if we truly latched on to a higher appreciation for beauty in all of life. I wonder how cultivating that might even sanctify our feelings of attraction. I wonder how it might expand attraction to that place of human connection that Amy wrote about, so that, really, we would be attracted to all of the human beings in our life, whether we felt a kneejerk physical response or not.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that vortex, that hairpin left turn into lust, sucks.

But I’m still attracted to you.

All of you.

About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • suzannah | smitten word

    love how you challenge the male gaze perspective which continues to hang on so doggedly even as folks begin to challenge the Church’s conflation of attraction with lust. yes to beauty. yes to honoring one another. hear hear.

    • zachhoag

      Thanks Suzannah :).

  • Amy Thedinga

    In the same way in which women are demeaned by unbridled male lust, men are demeaned by the suggestion that they are mere animals and have no ability to control their impulses.  You have done an excellent job of delineating between the “knee jerk reaction” to physical beauty (which is a right and godly appreciation for his good creation) and the CHOICE (which men have – however difficult it may prove to be) to take that feeling/appreciation beyond its natural state into something sinful and ugly.

  • MelindaCadwallader

    Love this, and I think the “latching on of a higher appreciation for beauty in all of life” may actually be a letting go and release of it. A healthy acknowledgment of beauty perceived expresses itself in habits such as: paying sincere and intentional compliments(given away), a smile to consciously recognize the warmth beauty bestows(outwardly expressed), or possibly an unleashing of inspiration with beauty as a muse(released in another form). If we could practice giving it(beauty) away more often, we wouldn’t be so consumed with analyzing and controlling our own self-inflicted fear of it. And rompers…totally toddler, totally.

  • Amy M

    You know, this post made me think that the ‘”expected” experience of men’s attraction/lust, (the specific experience that you speak of being normalized/justified, the male gaze, etc) is simply an experience of attraction from the position of the privileged. I say this because that particular left hairpin turn definitely starts turning towards ownership, and ownership is a turn someone in a privileged position would have an easier time making. And, of course, when you get into outright rape-culture issues, then we’ve definitely moved into ownership issues, where you clearly have the privileged and the marginalized.

    So perhaps men can learn from women’s experience of attraction, just as all privileged people can learn from the experience of the marginalized. Maybe the male gaze, isn’t “male”, maybe it’s the privileged gaze. I know it is when that gaze turns to a cat call, or comment on my appearance when I’m minding my own business. I experience attraction too, even lust, (most women I know do) but never in a million years would I think I had the right to comment on another human beings appearance, in any way, or claim any kind of ownership, or feel angry about what someone was wearing. What I find as a vigilant-from-childhood woman who feels she has to “read” men’s intentions at all times, is that somehow this experience of men’s attraction can quickly turn to ownership, and that’s what get’s scary. The way they look at you, the things they say. The anger they throw your way if you ignore them or don’t respond favorably, (which would be a reaction to thwarted privilege). It all points to entitlement, and entitlement points to privilege. 

    There is a qualitative difference when a man doesn’t make attraction – or even his lust – your problem, even IF he’s finding it a problem for him, but perhaps we ever-so-slightly continue to perpetuate the idea that men’s attraction/lust is a woman’s problem with some of these justifications you reference. 
    It kind of all makes me sad. I know many beautiful men, and I think there’s a lot of confusion and shame surrounding both attraction and lust in men precisely because we so often see the hairpin turn morph into manifestations of rape culture. I hate the shame. Men feel guilty by association of being male, or something like that, especially if they experience attraction. But I think you’re right on regarding consecrating the experience of attraction, though. This is key. I think it does take a kind of personal integration, integrity, that is harder to find when sucked into the privileges, (and expectations!) of being in a position of power.

    • zachhoag

      @Amy M good stuff, amy. yeah, privilege is central in this conversation, for sure.

    • RyanThomasNeace

      @Amy M Wonderfully-said.

  • Chris Attaway

    Great post, Zach! Having Googled “romper,” I am very glad that these have not caught on around here to any great extent. Also, you’re absolutely right about lust being an additional moral action on top of attraction.
    I still wonder about “modesty,” though. I wouldn’t want to police it, but somewhere between a floor-length dress with headcovering and string bikini with boob implants seems to be something we may be missing now in trying to overcome the old modesty narrative. I’m not sure.
    Perhaps it is our Americanness. In European countries, seeing a few boobs a day is totally normal, and it doesn’t result in a hormone explosion (or at least I would assume that it doesn’t). Perhaps our concern over “wardrobe malfunctions” and so forth and our deeply-entrenched desire to keep the body, particularly the female body, out of sight is causing us to have serious issues with blurring attraction and lust.

    • zachhoag

      Chris Attaway Chris, I think the best thing with regards to modesty – because it’s typically dudes like us telling women what’s modest and what’s not – is for us to shut up and listen. That’s the approach I’m taking. You’ll notice that my post wasn’t criticizing rompers as immodest – in fact, it wasn’t about modesty at all – just saying they are not my favorite fashion trend and yet some women are attractive who wear them. See the difference? 
      I recently asked women about modesty rules here: Emily Maynard and Suzannah Paul are authorities on the topic, imo. Anyway, that’s my approach. Even as a dad to two little girls, I am listening to my wife and I will listen to them as they navigate appropriate/expressive clothing from the perspective of their faith, personality, etc. And I’m not going to lay the trip on them that they are responsible for men’s lust, etc.

      • Chris Attaway

        I was just criticizing rompers from a fashion perspective haha. But perhaps we are framing the issue wrongly in our attempt to rectify the problems of the past. There seem to be two sides to modesty.
        The problem we tend to criticize on the new conversation on modesty is that we tend to blame women in the event that men are imbalanced and prone to objectify women no matter what they wear.
        The other issue seems to be how we handle ourselves. The same clothes worn on two separate people could be modest or immodest. It’s about what you are trying to do. If you’re a guy wearing tight shirts and flaunting your body with intent to provoke,that’s more immodest than a woman with a slight plunging neckline just going about her business.

  • RyanThomasNeace

    Question re “Will he override the turn towards diving into the explicit and the erotic by holding to a standard of respect for women as equal human beings and not objects?”  
    Why do you uniliterally equivocate explicit and erotic as dehumanizing and objectifying?  This is where we have  disconnect.  
    I understand the potential, kinetic connection – that it is possible.  But I don’t get the automatic response, and fail to see  how is this not “equating and conflating physical attraction with the sin that the church commonly calls lust,” simply because you are uncomfortable with the perspicuous nature of an interaction, a description, an appearance.
    Again, why does explicit and erotic = dehumanized and objectified?

    • zachhoag

      RyanThomasNeace I think I’m relying on common sense in drawing a line between explicit/erotic/etc and physical attraction. So it might be subjective, but I’m hoping it’s “common.” Sometimes I think our rationales and attempts at “realness” begin to assume the absence of will and the ignoring of common sense respect, etc.
      But as I mentioned to other commenters, I’m more interested in how women feel about this than how dudes like us feel. And I think I’m hearing that, yes, there is disrespect in this kind of thinking/describing.
      Also, this post is obviously talking about experiences outside of a romantic relationship, primarily with strangers, etc.

      • RyanThomasNeace

        zachhoag Yes, there is a common sense difference between the “explicit”, as in the label we place on porn or gangsta rap, and “attraction.” I’m not suggesting otherwise.  What I am suggesting is that in the context of day to day interactions, much less ministry, it’s hard to understand your appeal to some sort of overarching definition both in light of post-modernity and the real-life litmus test – isn’t the partial existence of this blog precisely because there is (apparently) a lack of agreement regarding the line in more nuanced interactions with strangers or familiars on what might constitute the turn toward “rape culture”?  Suggesting a grand meta-narrative about terms like explicit and erotic doesn’t follow in that sense and a number of others – variances in cultural underpinnings, for starters.  I don’t think you’re really speaking to my question.  To restate – why is that that an explicit discussion of sexuality – for example, one’s perceived sexual attraction to another – must automatically imply the objectification or dehumanization of women?  It would seem to me it only does if it does, and while there are certainly some bounds we could all agree upon (porn), there are many more that a good number of educated men and women seem to disagree upon.  You’re piece doesn’t seem to provide a place for them.

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