Category Archives: Desire

I am bisexual for your amusement

Because, after all, that’s what bisexual means – just someone who’ll do anything.

It’s difficult to own to a label sometimes. I’ve been watching Big Brother 8 (UK) clips on Utube, cringing at the obviousness of it all whilst surreptitiously enjoying the permission to be a voyeur to a group of social exhibitionists. (Part of watching BB – and other reality TV shows – is this feeling of superiority. Everyone – the media, the viewers – tends to sneer at BB in Britain. The uglier side of this is sneering at the contestants: the banality and stupidity of their actions and conversations, the banality and stupidity of their identities. It’s rather worrying how easy it is to slip from the first type of sneering to the second. The metaphor of the stocks is hard to avoid.)

One of the most recent housemates is Seany, a man presented to us as so ‘wacky and weird’ that, on hearing his introduction by Davina, I wondered if he was made up. Although he probably isn’t, he has met both Hillary Clinton AND Wolf from Gladiators (not at the same time though, now that WOULD be weird.) Seany’s self-identification, in his VT, is that he has been gay “since last year.” After a day or so in the house, another male contestant was questioning him about whether he was gay or straight.* Seany didn’t answer this clearly enough for another housemate, so he was then asked whether he was bisexual. “I’m just Seany,” said Seany, which as anyfoolkno, is as good a way of ending that conversation as any.

Reader, I groaned. For I recognise the truth AND the inadequacy of that answer. Sometimes I have said it myself. Anyone who has desired more than one gender and been open about it will have experienced the question “WHAT are you?” on a sliding scale which goes from gently curious probing right down to vicious angry demanding.** Yet to answer “I’m just…me” is to avoid answering (and, I think, to imply that one is somehow above sexual identity; are all those gay- and straight-identified people not just ‘themselves’? Can Brian not just be Brian, does he have to be Gay Brian? Pah.)

I understand a little of Seany’s dilemma. He has already answered the question as to his sexual identity. That is, he used to be in heterosexual relationships, and now he is exclusively or mostly in homosexual ones. This is the most factual way to describe it: but just as the housemates’ reactions show, this is not considered an adequate answer. “Yes, but what ARE you?” – Modern western conceptions of sexuality demand that sexuality is an identity, not a behaviour. The identifying noun for Seany’s sexual behaviour is thus either gay (announcing an intention to solely desire men) or bisexual.

So what’s the problem with calling yourself bisexual? If it’s just a description of desires or sexual history….nothing. In fact, if it comes up in conversation, if someone asks, this is the term I use. I don’t want to have a conversation about queer theory and/or the problematically shifting nature of identity demarcation every time, especially if the person asking is just making (polite?) conversation… but I have to admit, I cannot get rid of some sort of shame about using that word. It feels like a defeat, a compromise, something inadequate. I know it doesn’t have to be. In fact, in a strange way, I would LOVE to be able to feel pride. But I can’t…too often I am painfully aware of the negative connotations of bisexuality. Female bisexuality as a spectacle. Male bisexuality as a dirty secret.

Programmes like BB reinscribe this stuff. Anyone remember Adele? She was bisexual, she was a black woman, she was painted in the media as devious, manipulative, questionable. I think this was largely due to the fact that we were all ‘told’ she was bisexual but she herself didn’t announce it, so much, in the house…nobody could ‘trust’ her, she got voted off. In Adele’s edited, public image, part of her “deviousness” was due to her bisexuality, part to her femaleness, part to her blackness (BB, by the way, has always been racist in the sense of the spectacle of the non-white housemates implicitly edited, reported on, talked about in terms of negative racial stereotypes. This has been going on way before the ‘racist row’ over Shilpa Shetty – remember Makosi? Remember Victor?)

Actually, the one to watch may not turn out to be Seany at all, but Gerry – the other male housemate who went in on the same night. A self-identified gay man, Gerry hinted in his intro vid that he fancies ‘a break from men’ whilst he is in the house. He might have just been flirting with the viewer. But it might also be his queer theory game plan! Oh – it’s too much to hope for, probably. But the idea of a camp-acting man like Gerry actually getting down with one of the women in the house – that would confuse the tabloids no end. I can see the headlines now…. “Gerry, what ARE you???” ***

* I’m not saying that only bisexuals get asked this. It’s often an occupational hazard for anyone even suspected of fancying the ‘wrong’ gender.

** This clip is also fascinating for Seany’s discussion of converting to Islam – the awkward tension and fading smiles (see: Chanelle) in response to THAT announcement was priceless.

*** Today’s summary of The Sun reveals a predictable ‘story‘ about Shabnam having “lesbian tendencies! That she isn’t totally honest about! Maybe even to herself!!!” A very odd blend of gay panic and prurient lechery, as usual. Plus, the tack they seem to be taking on Seany and Gerry at the moment is to describe the fact that they are both in the same house, plus platonically sharing a bed (hardly much of a choice BTW since this year, there IS only one single bed) as a “burgeoning romance”. This is actually hilarious.

Desire 3: Love, sex and the body

I was thinking a little about the axiom: women use sex to get love, and men use love to get sex. I don’t agree with this, so immutable and tied, for it confines us to our bodies, and is inaccurate, yet it is one of those pieces of folk wisdom which many people can find evidence for, if they observe men they know and women they know in their own lives. One can always find evidence for such blanket statements if one looks for it, especially statements such as this one which depends for its truthfulness on information about the inner lives of others; such inner lives cannot be fully known, only guessed at through the observation of actions, and such observation is narrowed by one’s own preconceptions of the meaning of any action. In short, we tend to judge others most fully by the way we might act in such and such a situation: nevermind that the conception we have of our own intentions is less than fully understood, we remain under the impression that we understand ourselves, and without thinking, by extension we become convinced that we understand others. When gender is involved, so many people become convinced that an absolute binary of difference exists that they assume the other to be simply a reversal of themselves. Indeed, most myths about love celebrate and exaggerate that distance, the mirror. Lovers self-consciously play the part, for it is thrilling to interact with one’s shadow; it teaches us things about ourselves that we didn’t know.

And what of the body, sex and the emotions? Here’s what I think. Love and sex are separate. They may be experienced separately, or together. Sex, or the desire for sex, is a desire for a basic physiological fact: orgasm. The body seeks pleasure for its own sake. If desire is thought of as a basic drive, an intimate aspect of one’s presence, then there is no imperative to fulfil this ‘need’ with another person – physically, the body can be satisfied by itself. One might believe that physically the experience is better with another person – sex better than masturbation, in qualitative terms – but in purely physical terms, it is the same. If a person is starving, any food will suffice to stop the hunger pangs.

The desire to have sex with another person is sometimes assumed to be simply the urge to reproduce. I disagree. Correlation is not causation: the reproductive aspect of sex is more accurately described as a byproduct. Certainly this knowledge is not a secret and is, I believe, a strong factor in the many laws, cultural and religious taboos surrounding sex. If the reproductive urge was all there was to sex, then it would not be so feared, or so regulated.

However, the very fact that the human race has not died out or that most people would disagree with the statement that masturbation is sufficient reveals something. Sex is not just purely physical. Actually, it is both physical and something else. The experience of orgasm is not simply felt through the body. It involves the mind. If you conceptualise the body and mind as separate, then this means both must be involved in orgasm. If you conceptualise the body and mind as two aspects of one source (or perhaps, something which is felt as two distinct aspects by us but which is essentially the same) then this fact will be evident anyway. But I am talking about how such things (mind/body) are described in our language, and they are described distinctly, separately, most of the time.

Most people describe sex as better than masturbation because there is something unusual – to the subjective experience of our conscious minds – about the way we experience orgasm. The dissolution of the conscious self has a profound effect on us, we who are not used to experiencing that. It is not the default of consciousness. Mysticism, and certain esoteric practices seek this same dissolution, which is also the experience of the dissolution of time; still, it seems that the average human is not born to this mode of thought, but must go towards it. One may speculate about those people who cannot communicate to us their experience; the mad, the senile, the comatose, the dumb; persons who we describe, perhaps erroneously, as locked into their bodies, their bodies a kind of prison.

One effect this dissolution of the self has on some is the radical opening of a more whole consciousness. I don’t mean that this effect is necessarily lasting, though it might be for individuals. I mean that if you consider one of the effects of civilisation as the repression of emotions – the socialisation of children teaches them to control their emotions – then such emotions are not always ‘experienced’ in the way that we are capable of experiencing them. Love is one such emotion. By repressing our feelings towards fellow humans, the diffuse love one might feel for all humankind becomes focused, and the more repressed it is, the more powerful it becomes in terms of intensity. I think this is why the love we might feel for one other person may be experienced as the most powerful emotion of our lives. The traditional themes of love have tended to recognise how close it is to destruction, how fearful it can be in terms of its uncontrollability, and yet, how enduring it might be if some semblance of control can be exercised on it’s force. Those who have not experienced the love they sense they contain are often suspicious, and careful, and guarded; trusting no-one, lest another person loose the potential within them. This sense of love paints it as finite, when in fact it is not; one need not guard it, one cannot lose it. In fact, if allowed free rein, love can only widen and deepen, encompassing more – more time, more people. Love is not actions, love is not an intention, love is an emotion only, though its effects on people’s behaviour may be seen daily.

As I said, sex may be experienced without love. To love another person, one must become vulnerable; the dissolution of the self can make one vulnerable; in this state two people may become intimate, and then they may experience love. It is not, however, a given, whether one longs for it with all one’s heart or despises the thought of it and disparages it openly. It might happen though; just as you cannot guard love, neither can you totally guard against it, although many try. In the case of sex, people can try and use hate to guard against love, if they are really afraid of it. Hate and love act in similar ways; both require an object, and both focus the consciousness. There isn’t so much a ‘fine line’ between them, I think the reason this is a common saying is because they are used is place of one another sometimes – hate is used for love, when the love becomes too painful.

But back to the dissolution of the self. Since sex makes one feel vulnerable, and so does love, many people feel that one thing should follow the other, so it often does. In fact, the experience of both the mind and the body being vulnerable together is an extremely powerful one, and there are long traditions tying sex or love to mystic states as a result. Does it ‘bond’ people? I don’t know. It is a rather extraordinary experience to have with another human being, in fact it seems to speak of a sense that humans are not so distinct from each other as we imagine. If one follows this thought (indeed, many religions such as Buddhism, and many philosophies or works of art are embued with a deep sense of the human race as collective, or the same consciousness) then it makes me wonder if the differences between humans did not become so emphatically marked in our culture in order that we might experience love as this radical return to another part of ourselves. The other transformed into self, and self into other.

One could argue alternatively that since sex is assumed to make a body vulnerable, and vulnerability is believed to be a state in which love might gain a foothold in one’s consciousness, that in fact it is the very FEAR of love that causes it to become so associated with sex, or rather one’s sexual partner. Let me explain. If you are commonly a person that does not ‘love’ many people that you meet, as are most people, since we do not tend to love strangers, you are actually used to defending your consciousness against that possibility. By love I mean the vulnerable, open heart towards another that causes you to empathise with them, to feel as you imagine they feel, and thus to want to protect them from pain etc. Obviously, the way our society and culture functions kind of depends on this very guardedness towards others, this mistrust, if you like, this wariness of strangers. We learn that each must first of all protect the bodily self from harm, and in a world which regulates itself with violence (directly or ultimately) this is a lesson every human being learns in early childhood, and rarely or never forgets. So one cannot go around loving strangers, indeed the survival of our own body, we are told, depends on it; and in a world where everyone believes this, it becomes true. To open oneself, bodily, mentally or spiritually, may result in harm, and pain, and in a world which also teaches us to cause harm and pain to the vulnerable as a method of protection then it is the foolish child who does not learn that it is very dangerous to be open, even a little.

So most people are guarded against love, to a greater or lesser extent. But I think part of us desires to experience it. I don’t know why, maybe because we all want to feel fully alive, maybe there is no other reason than that a person with limbs may desire to stretch them and use them. We have a sort of calling to feel all that it is we suspect ourselves to be capable of feeling; the calling within us is so strong that we may experience a disassociation with any strong emotion, as if the emotion came from without, and we were ‘taken over’ by it.

The two lessons – vulnerability as danger, love as a powerful outside force – coalesce in the human mind to produce the effect of falling in love with the person you have sex with. For some people, the very experience of being vulnerable might be enough to convince them they are in love…they say they’ve ‘never felt’ this way before etc etc yet love is undefinable, and there is a lot of confusion over what one is supposed to feel. For many, the very fact they are questioning their own experience is enough to convince them that they are ‘in love’ – and in fact, this allowance on their behalf may well result in them opening their heart to love. They have been vulnerable in the presence of another, and they have not been harmed; what does it mean? Of course, there are also many people who will not allow themselves to be vulnerable in the presence of another…depending on the degree of recognition of the way orgasm acts upon the mind, they react differently to sex. If they recognise its power, but are very resistant to the idea of being vulnerable, then they must use another emotion to block the possibility etc. So we see, with some, the conflagration of sex with violence (because strength must be used to counter vulnerability) or of love with hate (because one cannot love what one finds contemptible. To find someone contemptible, you must first close your heart to them, and block off all possiblilty of empathy.)

It might sound like I am saying that it is either love and sex together, or some sort of faulty sex. I am not. I am saying there are many variations and possibilities between people who have sex, but it is never purely physical, unless one absolutely blocks off the idea of the other as human. This is NOT in itself a necessarily damaging act – to either party. In a benign sense, it is like a more sensual form of masturbation. I believe two lovers might agree on this act beforehand – it goes on all the time, and if both people wish to simply focus on their own physical pleasure, it can be mutually satisfying and enjoyable. One can objectify another person in this way, it does not have to be inherently degrading, though admittedly it is difficult to be temporary about it, i.e. have sex with someone you have imagined as a body only, and afterwards regard them once again as equally sentient.

It does seem though, that this sort of sex is the sort which makes many people angry, or has the potential to cause harm. If both people are not cognisant of the type of experience, then it may be said to be exploitative. There are all sorts of things which people do which they may claim is simply objectification of the other, but in fact is more akin to the methods discussed above for protecting the self from harm. A person may wish to simply experience sex as physical, but in fact be secretly terrified of vulnerability, and so experience confusion, feelings of violence etc. Humans are multifarious.

(This is part 3 of a series of thoughts on desire: part 1 here, and part 2 here.

Desire (part 2 of a series of posts)

Warning: Long Post Ahead…!

For the first post on this topic – in which I looked at a conservative Christian view of desire – see here. Since I wrote that post, I’ve read some other blogs which discussed The Modesty Project (and the associated modesty movement in the US) from a feminist point of view.

I’ve been thinking about something humbition said in his comment: “we are fascinated by the idea that some people have desire that is wrong and can never be put right.” Christianity certainly has an ‘inclusive’ idea of what wrong desire is, but it is not the only religion or historical movement that has attempted to define what is good and what is bad when it comes to our sexual drive. Indeed, as long as there has been ‘civilisation’ there has been some attempt to define this. Ideas about a free sexual society have, historically, tended to arouse anxiety and anger amongst those who claim that the definition and regulation of desire is essential to an ordered lifestyle. Most arguments centre around what constitutes ‘correct’ desire, whether it is correct for oneself or correct for society: the anxiety is often focused on what is ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy.’ Egalitarian approaches have often voiced it as: healthy desire is desire which does not hurt another. There are some problems with this view, but before I look at those, I want to follow up by finishing off some of the thoughts I had previously.

Since in my first post, I demonstrated why the Christian view of desire is important to non-Christians, and informs and influences common western notions on the topic both explicitly and implicitly, in this post I’m going to continue looking at what The Modesty Project tells us about the nature of ‘desire’ and the problems I have with it.

The Modesty Project focuses on types of clothing, although it touches on related issues such as posture, movement etc. Desirous thoughts (which are a sin) are triggered by ‘stumbling blocks’ – the survey seems to suggest that a ‘stumbling block’ is a visual cue that a man feels he is receiving from a woman whenever she dresses immodestly. Certainly the comments indicate that the subjective experiences of sinful desire are visual in nature. So we can see that:

1. This frames Desire as almost purely visual. What about the other senses?

Or should I say – because this is how it is pretty much presented in the survey – MEN are described as purely visual creatures when it comes to desire. This is such a tired old trope, it seems so strange that lots of people seem to take it as real. The many blind men who have no libido are proof after all.

How about HUMANS as visual creatures? Except, we are creatures of all senses, working together; visual clues tend to be the fastest to process (neuroscience theorises right now) but are not dominant in affecting the brain, as far as I understand it. I believe there are different theories regarding the senses and sexual attraction – pheromones etc. My point being – these are THEORIES. There is SOME evidence for all of them, and no conclusive evidence, as far as I am aware, that one and only one sense creates sexual desire. We’re all (most of us) visual. We’re not ONLY visual.

Even if it were to be proved, beyond doubt, that men were more visual, then what about women? In such a biologically determined, heterocentric universe where we are prisoners to our differently-wired libidos, then what causes a woman’s desire? Hearing? Touch? Smell? If women are less predominantly visual, then that suggests a couple of possibilities. One of which is that women are predominantly aroused by another sense – so where are the edicts encouraging the Christian brothers to stop speaking immodestly, or to refrain from wearing a particularly stimulating fragrance or even – according to SOME biologists – sweating in an immodest manner around women? Whatever it is that’s supposed to cause women’s desires, I don’t see anything about curing men’s behaviour.

Oh wait – there is another possiblility. Women’s desires work similarly to men’s but are not so strong, easier to control…or women don’t actually have SEXUAL desires. Just the desire to have kids. Or get married. Or something. Those lesbians, queer and childfree women must be, well, wired a little differently. From actual women. I am saying nothing about the so-called science behind the quasi-evo-psych assumptions, or the ‘common-sense’ assumptions, or even the religious assumptions here. Any scientific theory which claims to tell me how men and women are different, naturally, is bullshit as soon as it assumes two categories. Gender is a continuum. And SO is biological sex. As you can tell, gender essentialist I am not.

2. As this survey kind of points out, it’s not ‘seeing’ something that’s the problem. It’s seeing something which causes you to ‘imagine what’s underneath.’ So, although the ‘trigger’ for desire is visual, the actual experience of desire is, in fact, mental and imaginative.

So…imagination is the problem. Not seeing – not the first look – the visualisation, the second look. This is where I have a problem with the whole ‘don’t trigger my desire’ thing. Nobody can control or stop you visualising but you. In Victorian times, ankles were considered immodest, to the point where table legs were thought so vulgar they needed cloth coverings. Take the modesty argument to it’s conclusion and it will result in some sort of burkha, if not complete restriction of movement for certain people, usually women. It’s an argument that makes no sense. If the sight of a forbidden area causes a man to have ‘immodest’ thoughts, then that woman should cover up, in order to ‘help’ him not have those thoughts. I can see the logic. It’s like an alcoholic asking that people are sensitive and not drink alcohol around him. Oh wait – it’s actually not. Because it’s more like an alcoholic asking everyone else in the world to stop drinking, now and forever, to close all the pubs and ban the drinking of alcohol altogether for all time, because it might be a little bit more difficult for him not to drink, especially if he knows that everyone else is drinking and having fun and it’s all just to spite HIM.

This sort of request is not reasonable. Not only that – it isn’t very feasible. Even with this survey’s narrow sample, there isn’t full agreement on exactly what constitutes immodest dress. Even the woman’s posture – innocently lying on the floor, ‘even when with her friends’ – i.e. the survey has made it explicit that she is NOT DOING IT FOR YOUR attention – some % think this is immodest. The question ‘what do you think of women who flaunt their attractiveness’ – all replied either pity, anger or hate. Not one pointed out that maybe, the purpose of a woman’s dress was nothing to do with them.

But back to ‘seeing’. What about nudists? Why aren’t they rampant sex maniacs? There’s an argument that desire is actually inflamed by the obstacles to it’s satisfaction. That ‘what’s hidden’ has more power than what is exposed. I don’t actually buy into this paradigm – it posits desire as a need or want to possess, consume; and while it may be that partially, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It’s one of many narratives of desire. With this one we’re back to a Victorian sensibility of titillation again. Whatever it is that is forbidden will become that which is desired – in a Foucauldian sense, the transgression is what excites us.

In some way the Christian ideology behind the Modesty Project acknowledges this – that the area, for example, of the breasts is created as sacred (for the husband) and it’s sacredness is due to it’s exclusivity and preservation. Naomi Wolf wrote on this type of desire narrative. I think it becomes true, to some extent, purely because it is a culturally created narrative. We can choose to believe in it, if we want, and it will excite us.

But it isn’t the truth. It might be ‘a’ truth. There are other societies, where showing the breasts is routine. Other areas – the tops of the thighs, the genitals usually, become sacred instead. Erogenous zones become that which a society agrees on; same with taboos. But, maybe, if you believe that the breasts truly are a sacred, sexual part of a woman’s body and should be covered due to the extreme reaction they might provoke in a man, you could argue that in other societies where they are not covered, men have simply seen so many breasts they become ‘devalued’. They lose their power. I return to this: are nudists doomed to never experience desire? Are they desexualised, desensitised through the traditional paradigm of over exposure?

No. In some strange way, desire becomes what we believe it to be. If we believe that seeing a woman’s breasts will inflame us, then it will. If we believe that we can become desensitised through ‘immodesty’ displays, then we will, if we believe that a woman can lose her ‘value’ through her actions sexually then we will cease to desire her for it.

And if, we believe that we are lustful, sinful monsters then maybe we allow ourselves to become so.

The Modesty Survey sends out the old, old message: women are culpable for the sin of men’s desires. (Actually, it sends out the message that teenage girls are responsible.) It purports to be a humble document, seeking to aid these young people in their spiritual celibacy and avoidance of lust. Most of the boys and men interviewed do acknowledge that ultimately, their success or failure at conquering this lust is their own burden. But the way the survey is set up – as questions ‘posed by Christian girls’ – and as results directed as advice towards Christian girls – reads as control.

One of the endorsements for the Modesty project comes from Nancy Leigh DeMoss, who writes on the site:

“The principle of ownership means that my body does not belong to me. It’s not mine. Now, in the last thirty years we’ve had a huge emphasis on a woman’s right to her own body. It’s your body, you do what you want to with it.

Some girls have taken that philosophy to the extreme and have abused their bodies with eating disorders, with substance abuse, with drugs and alcohol. It’s my body; I can wreck it. I can trash it. You know, how sad to think how cheaply some girls consider their bodies.

But to recognize the principle of ownership is to recognize that my body is not my own. It’s not mine; it doesn’t belong to me (1 Cor. 6:19).

You know what, it doesn’t make God happy when you and I take these bodies He’s given us and give them to somebody that they don’t belong to. An immodestly dressed woman is giving away something that doesn’t belong to her. This principle of ownership means that you and I are not free to dress in any way we please.” (Bolding mine).

As far as I understand it, the Corinthians quote is not gender-specific. It speaks to humanity. So why does it always seem to be girls and women who are targeted for these advisory talks?

I don’t actually have a problem with people who are religious, who believe in the bible as a tool for ethical living or as a real message from God. Life is hard and sometimes, I wonder whether spiritual direction isn’t needed in order for us to become better to one another.

But I do have a problem when I see what I believe to be to misuse of religion in order to dominate and control others. At it’s most benign, this is a misguided attempt to help others: it is people translating religious texts, interpreting the spiritual message in judgement, on what they regard as the sinful lives (or sinful clothing) of women. At it’s worst this tendency is responsible for much bigotry, shaming and hatred.

Desire (part 1 of a series of posts)

Desire (De*sire”) (?), v. t.
[
imp. & p. p. Desired (?); p. pr. & vb. n. Desiring.]
[F. désirer, L. desiderare, origin uncertain, perh. fr. de- + sidus star, constellation, and hence orig., to turn the eyes from the stars.

I’ve been thinking about desire. What exactly is desire? What is sexual desire? Is it a need, a want, a lack, a drive, an instinct, an appetite, some combination of all of these?

It seems to me that throughout history, there have been almost as many theories regarding the origin of sexual desire as there have been individual desires (to say nothing of sexual orientation).

There are philosophical theories, religious theories, medical theories, genetic theories, biological theories, cultural theories and theories based entirely on other theories; but the jury is still out.

One of the things that most theories of desire seem to have in common, however, is that straight male desire is still the frame through which all other desires are seen. In other words, historically men’s desire for women has been the main subject under investigation, the ‘norm’, and other sorts of desires have been considered in terms of measuring the distance between them and the ‘norm.’

Some of the most pervasive theories in Western culture are those which derive from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. With most religions, the theory doesn’t tend to be speculative so much as proscriptive. Christianity often frames desire as ‘lust’, which is a sin, and this has had a massive cultural effect, particularly in the West. It’s sometimes tempting for secularists to dismiss the influence of Christianity on their lives, but these ideas – whether directly linked to religion or not – affect everyone, whether it be as cultural memes in advertising, so-called folk wisdom, even concepts embedded in the language (see this sentence itself: notice the word tempting and how it is used!)

So it wasn’t exactly a surprise to read this the other day.

The Modesty Project is a survey that has been organised ostensibly by Christian teens in America; it describes itself as:

“an exciting, anonymous discussion between Christian guys and girls who care about modesty. Hundreds of Christian girls contributed to the 148-question survey and over 1,600 Christian guys submitted 150,000+ answers, including 25,000 text responses, over a 20-day period in January 2007.”

The results were released on Valentines Day this year. In the advert circulated inviting those groups concerned to take part, it asked Christian girls to submit questions about what modest clothing should be. Christian boys were asked to respond by agreeing or disagreeing to statements; the ‘call-up’ used the unfortunate phrasing:

“This is an opportunity for you to serve your sisters in Christ. Many girls are without fathers or brothers to advise them in this area. They need input from godly men regarding what is appropriate and what is not. It is not unlikely that this survey will go on to be widely read and carefully referenced. On the other hand, as Christian young men in a highly sexualized society, this is an opportunity for us to educate Christian women regarding our inner-battle so that they won’t unwittingly contribute to our struggle. If you have ever wanted to tell a girl to go put on a sweater, this is your chance to do so anonymously.”

Before the survey was even begun, the framing of desire within this context was obvious. In terms of seeing it as a ‘sin’ for unmarried people: women have the responsibility to cover up; men have the responsibilty not to look.
Interestingly, the survey, read as a whole, creates a sort of cognitive dissonance. OK, so it points out it should be used as a ‘resource’ rather than as ‘rules’ – but presumably it is aimed at those young women who are seeking some sort of guidance in the area of dress.

Here’s some of the answers to the statement “Girls should always wear clothes that show little body definition” (41% disagreed):

“Always” is an awkward word. A dress that makes a girl look like a girl is feminine. A dress that makes her look like she is for sale is immodest. And a girl should wear what her husband/father wishes. ” (40-49)

“No. God made the human body in such a way that, while certain aspects of the body don’t need to have unnecessary attention drawn to them, it is not a shameful thing. Thus, it is not necessary for women to actually hide the body that God has given them, even if they need not accent it.”(19)

“Here’s my personal rule: If I can’t tell she’s a woman, she’s gone too far. It’s perfectly fine that I can tell she has breasts, for instance, but that doesn’t mean I want to know their exact shape. However, if God wanted every woman to be shapeless, he wouldn’t have bothered giving them shapes in the first place.” (40-49)

“Clothing with a body definition helps girls to stay feminine. God created guys to appreciate feminine beauty.” (19)

 

OK – so these answers are telling me ‘the female form is a thing of beauty, created by God, and should not be hidden, or at least not entirely…

But then there’s the question “How do you feel about girls who purposely flaunt their bodies?” (I want to ask: what is the exact definition of ‘purposely’?)

Age 23: “It is hard for me to respect them. I love them, and pray that God might save them, if they are lost, and sanctify those whom He has called, but I do have a sense of dislike toward them because of how hard they make life for me.”

 

Age 21: “Ladies, this is where you can get confused. Many women would think guys are ‘all about’ women who flaunt their bodies. I am here to attempt to speak for us Christian men fighting the fight for purity. Women like this disgust and frustrate me. They take advantage of something that God intended to be beautiful. They lure men away from that which they truly love. They make men like me fight and struggle, and cause many to fall. THESE WOMEN SHOULD NOT BE ADORED OR FOLLOWED!”

Age 22: “Saddened; disappointed; sometimes angered. They’re distracting good men, dishonoring God and marriage, and offering themselves cheaply–which makes me desire even more strongly a girl who is modest, who is valuable.”

 

The message I understand here is: the female form is a thing of temptation and sin, a ‘stumbling block’ and should be covered. Or at least all parts of it that seem, ahem, female.

So what DO they think is the difference between attractiveness and immodesty?

Age 23: “To lust after a girl is sin only because it is outside of God’s design. That same “desire” is entirely appropriate in the bounds of marriage. The key question is, what is the purpose of a girl’s physical attractiveness? If it is seen as a means to lure the heart of every man she meets on the street, it will lead to immodesty. If it is seen as a gift from God to fulfill her role as helpmeet to her husband through marital affection, she will dress and behave with modesty. Men will then instinctively treat her with respect, because her physical attractiveness will not distract from her inward character. In fact, she makes herself far more attractive to the kind of guy she really wants to marry, one who seeking a girl who has the inward beauty of a pure heart. In that man’s eyes, such a girl is surpassingly beautiful.”

Have you noticed a common theme running through the brief quotations I’ve examined? Yes; it is the purpose of a woman’s attractiveness, as in the above quote. Reading through the survey, there are very few who question the entitlement inherent in the view that women’s attractiveness is put there, on earth, purely as a test for them. I don’t see this as simply a result of the self-selection bias involved in the sample. Rather, it illuminates the way the whole question is framed, and the way in which desire is traditionally framed in Christianity. It’s relevant to non-Christians because it has had such an effect on the way sexuality is presented in our culture, especially women’s sexuality. The interesting point it raises, and the reason perhaps, that so many Christian girls (and not just Christian girls) are ‘confused’ about this question, is that it cannot be answered. Simply, if the judge of a girl’s modesty or immodesty is a Christian man (since the test of immodesty is whether that man’s eyes will be drawn in lust to the girl’s body) then how, short of reading the mind of every man she meets, is a girl to judge this?

“I am talking about the overall effect. There is a difference between a guy noticing that a girl looks particularly nice in a certain skirt and finding that every time he looks at her his eyes are drawn to her skirt.”

Clear? No? how about:

“Your body is like a car that God has given you to drive through this life. Immodesty is when all your do is prepare the paint job on your car and neglect your engine (which is what will get you through). Then when someone gets in your car, they will end up stranded and lonely. Attractive, on the other hand, is when you hire (allow) the Great Mechanic (can you tell I like cars?) to improve your engine. Then when someone gets into your car (i.e. marriage) they will have a blast and will be carried through the good times, as well as the bad. That is the difference!”

No? well maybe:

“Something that is immodest is something that is designed to arouse lust within me. Attractiveness is a far more mysterious quality, a mixture of spirituality, personality and physical beauty.”

Clear yet?

It seems sad to me, reading the responses from men about ‘what is my responsibility’ – some, even most of them, seem genuine in their desire to live a good life, to want a good life (holy life) for others. Their words speak of a desperate sense of sin, and weariness from the ‘fight’.

Many say it is their own responsiblility, primarily, not to ‘look’ and lust. Some do point out that women, ultimately, cannot be held responsible for men sinning in their minds before God.

But the Christain narrative of desire that is illustrated here seems wrong to me. To teach men that they are the bearers of a terrible burden, that lust is a powerful and destructive force; I wonder in some way if this teaching CREATES suffering, in that it gives power where power is not?

To explain why I wonder that, in part 2 I will be looking at the nature of desire and the principle of ownership.