How Getting Lust Wrong Causes Harm

A while back, my sister pointed out something that is quite odd: when the seven deadly sins—greed, sloth, lust, envy, pride, wrath, and gluttony—get anthropomorphized, there tends to be a subtle inconsistency that becomes glaring once you notice it. Consider for a moment Fullmetal Alchemist, an excellent manga and anime series that does this. In it, Gluttony wants to eat everything, Wrath is vengeful, Greed wants to possess everything, and so on. There is, however, a notable exception: Lust.

In Fullmetal Alchemist, Lust is not lustful. Instead, she's a beautiful woman, the stereotypical object of lustful desires. Fullmetal Alchemist is not unique in this dichotomy, where six of the sins are portrayed as someone consumed by that sin, but lust is portrayed as the object of that sin.

To highlight just how stark of a contrast this is, imagine if some of the other seven deadly sins were portrayed like lust is. As some easy examples, greed could be represented by a bunch of gold, sloth by a bed, and gluttony by a buffet. Mind you, I don't want to think about how you'd anthropomorphize those things, but hopefully I've made my point.

The fact that culture typically does a very poor job of defining lust further compounds this issue. To explain what it actually is, lust is a disease of the imagination, a kind of cancer that grows out of otherwise healthy sexual attraction, libido, and desire. It fantasizes about how it will sexually gratify itself with another, in the process dehumanizing the object of its fascination, reducing them to a tool for its own pleasure. It isn't hard to find expressions of lust online, where people crudely declare how they want to sexually use someone else, if for some reason you want examples of what this looks like. Like the other seven deadly sins, lust is insatiable and constantly seeks more as, like a tumor, it grows.

That we portray lust as the object of lust rather than as someone consumed by lust reveals that our society conflates the object of lust with lust itself. It'd be like thinking beds cause slothfulness or money causes greed. The result is that we blame objects of lust for causing lust, rather than recognizing that the lust came from within all along. There are three specific consequences of this that I want to discuss here: blaming victims of sexual assault for what happened to them, attitudes towards pornography, and the disastrous sexual dynamics that arise from this conflation.

When we view lust as coming from without, then it's only natural that we would blame victims of sexual assault for somehow triggering lust in whoever assaulted them, of somehow deserving what happened to them by something they said, did, or—and especially—wore. In so doing, we move agency and responsibility for the tragedy that occurred from the lustful person to the victim of lust. If we treated lust consistently with how we treat the other seven deadly sins, we would not do this. Instead, we'd put the full blame for the sexual assault on the lustful person and hold them fully responsible, as we ought to do.

Pornography is generally associated with lust. However, this association is often backwards, as many people will blame pornography for causing lust. This reminds me of those who claim that playing violent video games will make someone violent by pointing to school shooters who played violent games as examples of this happening. However, the exact opposite has occurred: A violent individual enjoys and is drawn to violent media. Likewise, lustful individuals are drawn to sexual media. Just as there is a market for violent media beyond those who are violent, there is also a market for sexual media beyond those who are lustful. Additionally, while some pornographers do try to encourage lust as part of their marketing strategy, they can't actually create it. (Interestingly, prostitutes would logically prefer their clients to not be lustful, since lustful clients are more likely to be abusive.) In the end, the best way to combat lust is to humanize the object of lust because humanization is toxic to that which must dehumanize to function. Demonizing sex workers is the opposite of this.

Finally, there is the way this conflated perception of lust has messed up the sexual dynamic between men and women within our culture. Because society is heteronormative and has associated lust with masculinity (despite the fact that women can also be lustful), we tend to view men as those who lust and women as those who are lusted after. Therefore, because we conflate lust with its object, we blame women for somehow causing men to lust. This results in us demanding that women cover up to avoid provoking lust in men—this occurs even in schools, where educators demand girls cover themselves up so that they don't distract boys. This reasoning for such demands indoctrinates this absurdity into kids who grow up into adults who then perpetuate it! Furthermore, this thinking has resulted in the demonization of the sex drives of both men and women by treating men as lustful pigs and women who admit to liking or desiring sex as despicable sluts. Additionally, it means we expect women to manage men's sex drives and sexuality, instead of men taking responsibility for themselves. As a corollary to this, we also let men off the hook for bad behavior, infantilizing them by acting like they can't control themselves.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point clear: By treating lust differently than we do other sins, we put responsibility for it on its victims instead of its perpetrators. We excuse lustful behavior by some as inevitable, condemn simple sexuality as lustful in others, and indoctrinate these errors in our children. It is my sincere hope that we as a society can begin to change this by putting the responsibility for lust where it belongs: on the lustful.

Thank you for reading.

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