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.

3 responses to “Desire (part 1 of a series of posts)

  1. I followed your link from Hugo Schwyzer, and I thought you needed a little encouragement. Your post is excellent.

    “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?”

    I think it creates a lot of suffering. I very much want to know what you mean by “gives power where power is not,” this sounds like my kind of thinking, if I understand it.

    There is also the whole issue of “accepting one’s sinful nature.” Interestingly, anti-rape advocates are saying they want to cut down on “rape empathy.” I haven’t yet researched specifically what they mean, and my first reaction was, I don’t want to cut down on any kind of empathy, empathy is something we all need. Then I began to think about it. Our Christian background, whether we are overtly Christian or not, teaches us that we are sinful and evil people. “Sinners in the hand of an angry God.” One of the first things that men tend to do, when they encounter feminist documentation of rape, abuse, etc. etc., is to fall back on this narrative of “men are pigs.” “Yes, you’re right, we’re all bad, just like you say.” We even tend to think we’re good feminists when we do that. Well, maybe not so much.

    In fact, this whole way of thinking may be a big part of the problem in the first place. Or so I think, anyway.

    “This teaching CREATES suffering, in that it gives power where power is not.” I am waiting with great interest for what you want to say about this.

  2. Just to be clear, I have no empathy with rape whatsoever. I have just finished reading a story at Salon about women soldiers and what they go through, and it fills me with incredible rage. It goes to show that you can have the best laws and policies in the world, and they can mean nothing, when people do not have courage. Of course, war is all about not having the courage to oppose those who are supposed to be on your side.

    My point is that the idea of “male weakness,” however much we would like to think that it is just admission of our sinful nature (which is supposed to be a good thing), actually can shade itself, via “there but for the grace of God go I,” into making excuses for the inexcusable. Hence the idea that “rape empathy” (wrong word though) is wrong.

    Actually I still believe that it is not, ultimately, desire that is at fault. I cannot know this for everyone, of course; and we are fascinated by the idea that some people have desire that is wrong and can never be put right. This fuels our panics which are in my opinion the wrong way to address wrongs. Anyway we have 2000 or more years of seeing the consequences of assuming desire in general — particularly that of straight men — to tilt toward the bad. Not to say that you couldn’t marshal some evidence for this — and quite a lot against it, of course, to speak up for us decent ones — but ironically I think that very set of beliefs is one which ultimately reinforces the bad.

    But right now my “weakness” is that I just couldn’t resist commenting again, even though I’m basically just watching for what you will say in your next post.

  3. Humbition, thanks for commenting. You’re the first person to comment that I don’t actually know in real life, so yes, it is encouraging! I started this blog mainly as a sort of record of my life here, but I’m obviously interested in responses, too..
    I’m still working on what I want to say, exactly, in the next post, but it will be up soon. I don’t think Christianity is the ’cause’ of sexual shame, or not the only cause (living in Japan, not exactly a hugely Christian society, it’s actually very illuminating to compare the conceptions of what ‘shame’ is) but I do have some more to say about it. Also, it’s kind of relevant to what you say, that “we are fascinated by the idea that some people have desire that is wrong and can never be put right.”
    I’ve never heard of the term ‘rape empathy’, although I would tend to agree that it sounds a bit odd.
    The problem with these posts is editing them down!

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