Does the fact that “men are visually stimulated” mean that all men will struggle with lust?
That’s certainly the way it’s commonly presented. We hear things like “Every man’s battle” talking about how the biggest struggle all men face is battling lust. We’re told that women have to dress a certain way or they will cause men to lust. And women simply can’t understand how bad it is for men, so we should accept it and deal with it. Even the best-selling Christian book Love & Respect approaches sex that way.
What if that approach is wrong? What if it’s not just unbiblical, but it’s also a misrepresentation of the psychological research, too? And what if that whole approach has actually made the problem of lust worse?
That’s what we’re going to spend the next three days looking at. Last week I wrote a post on Facebook arguing that if we honestly think that a man can’t worship well in church if there are women showing cleavage, then perhaps we have a bigger problem than the women showing the cleavage?
That post went crazy. This is obviously something that struck a nerve. And so I thought it was time to flesh it out.
On Mondays I usually share a reader question, but I’m going to start the discussion by sharing a comment from that post. One longtime reader (love you, Misty!) wrote:
A woman I used to go to church with posted a FB rant about a teenage girl wearing a short skirt to church which she said caused her husband to “lust”.
1) your husband is a pedophile (the girl was 13-14)
2) if your husband is “lusting” with you standing right there and while in the sanctuary then he is so far gone that you can barely see him on the horizon.
I completely agree with Misty. And yet, that poor woman disparaging that young girl has believed the “men are visual and thus will lust” argument hook, line and sinker.
So here’s what we’re going to do. Today we’re going to look at what “men are visually stimulated” actually means by studying the research. Tomorrow we’re going to look at why it’s biblically perfectly reasonable for a wife to expect that her Christian husband won’t lust. Then on Wednesday we’re going to look at 12 ways we can help Christian men stop lusting (and they’re not what you think!) Thursday I’ll wrap up with a post on what a healthier message regarding men’s sex drives and sex in marriage is. And then I’ll follow it all up on Friday with what I think we should be teaching girls about modesty–and how to teach girls to dress appropriately without adding guilt or shame.
But first: What is “lust”?
When I’m talking about lust, I’m not talking about normal desires, like an engaged couple who is struggling not to succumb to temptation by sleeping together before marriage. I’m not talking about the sexual frustration that singles experience, or even some marrieds can experience during periods of sexual drought.
I’m talking about the idea that a man will see a woman who is not his wife and will fixate on certain body parts, automatically become aroused and start mentally undressing her or imagining he was doing things with her.
There’s a continuum that goes something like this:
- A man notices a woman is attractive.
- A man fixates on certain body parts for the purposes of sexual stimulation.
- A man mentally undresses her or imagines things with her.
The first is not a sin. (Let me reiterate that: there’s nothing wrong with noticing that someone else is attractive! There’s nothing even wrong with noticing that someone has a good figure! That just means that you have eyes). But the latter two certainly are.
So when we’re talking about lust, we’re talking about men deliberately entertaining thoughts about a woman’s body, not simply noticing that she is pretty.
Do men lust automatically because they’re visually stimulated?
Men are visual compared to women. Psychological research has shown that when men are aroused, the visual portions of their brains are lit up, whereas when women are aroused, the relationship centers of our brains are lit up. We really do relate to sex in different ways!
I absolutely believe that.
But I also think that too many people have misrepresented what the psychological research says, and made it say more than it does.
It is one thing to say:
For most men, arousal results primarily from visual stimulation
and quite another thing to say:
When a guy sees visual stimulation, he’ll become sexually aroused
Do you see the distinction? Psychological research definitely says the former. Yet whole doctrines on women’s modesty have been written assuming the latter. That’s quite the leap. One says that men will tend to become aroused by cleavage or seeing sexual imagery. The other says that when a man sees a pretty woman’s body, he can’t help but become aroused. He can’t help but lust. It’s the natural reaction.
But what if that’s simply not true?
Dr. Gian Gonzaga from UCLA did a study where he asked university students to (a) pick a picture of a person they found attractive and then (b) write two essays, one where the participant thought about their partner in a lustful way and then another where they thought about their partner in a loving way. If, at any point while writing the essay, the participant thought of the picture they picked instead of their significant other, they put a little check mark in the margins of their essay. The funny thing is that when the participants were remembering a loving memory, their number of check marks dropped significantly. More than that, they were less able to remember why they thought the person was so attractive in the first place!
When we keep our focus on the fact that we love our spouse, we’re far less likely to objectify anyone else.
As well, studies have shown that both men and women tend to focus on women’s body parts more than the woman as a whole. We don’t do that for men, though. Gervais and colleagues found that when they showed non-sexualized images of men and women to undergraduate students and then showed them two images, side by side, where one image had slightly altered the chest or waist of the model, people weren’t very good at picking out the right one for men, but had a much higher success rate with women. We have programmed our brains to see women as parts, but to see men as whole beings.
See, we have two types of processing: global and local. Global processing means we take the whole picture into account. Local processing happens when we focus on the parts that make up the whole (e.g., recognizing a house by the front door). When people look at men, they see the whole person and don’t focus so much on individual body parts.
When we keep our focus on the fact that we love our spouse, we’re far less likely to objectify anyone else.
When we look at women, though, our brains pick apart that woman and scrutinize each individual aspect. And here’s the thing: women do it just as much as men!
The good news is that with one simple task it was easy to train students to use global processing for women, too, and the researchers concluded that this is a habit that could be easily unlearned. All the men have to do is think about how much they love their wives, and this tends to make this problem go away.
If you want to stop seeing women as a collection of body parts, keep your spouse utmost in your mind.
Men are visual, but lots of things affect how men react to that stimulation
Lust is not automatic. Or, even if it is right now for some men, it doesn’t need to stay that way. When men are vigilant in remaining loving to their wives and focus on nurturing that love, other women have little effect on them, and when men train themselves to see women as whole people rather than body parts, struggles with lust are far less common.
Quite frankly, to get back to that man who “lusted” because of the 13-year-old in a miniskirt:
If he was a decent guy she should have been able to walk buck naked in front of him and his only thought should have been one of pity for her.
He knew her personally and he knew she was 13. Lust is a choice. What he did was not “normal” or “automatic”. It was degrading, disgusting, and bordering on pedophilia. So why do we believe that a 13-year-old girl can “cause a man to sin” just by wearing a short skirt?
Are we treating lust as if because it’s natural, it’s almost good?
With the way we talk about the struggle–like it’s “every man’s battle” and “men are naturally visually stimulated” and “a man is wired to react to a pretty girl”, then it almost seems like we’re saying that if a guy gets turned on by strangers, that’s simply the way God made him. Indeed, if a guy doesn’t struggle with lust, then maybe he’s not a real man?
Lust is not seen as something that’s a sin as much as it is something that’s hard wired into all man. I sometimes get the feeling reading certain authors and blogs that part of “biblical manhood” is being obsessed with certain female body parts. But this isn’t what the Bible says:
1 John 2:16
For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.
God didn’t make men to lust. That isn’t a “normal” or “good” part of being a guy.
But come on, Sheila. Lots of guys do struggle with lust.
Yes, they do. And I in no way mean to disparage those guys.
In fact, if you are actively doing battle with lust right now, I applaud you. If you are in a battle, then you are deliberately struggling against sin. And the fact that you’re fighting is a victory in itself!
And so I want to give you hope.
That’s really my whole aim in this series of posts: to give both men and women hope that lust can be overcome.
To the men, I’d say this: Yes, many men struggle with lust. Yes, you have a greater propensity towards that than your wife likely does. But please know that this is NOT every man’s non-ending battle. While lots of guys struggle with lust, not every guy does. Please know that there are men who honestly have overcome this struggle, or even who never battled it much at all. It is possible to have a high sex drive and not be overcome by all the women around you.
You can beat this. It isn’t inevitable. You were not created to lust, and God didn’t pull a bait and switch, creating you to automatically sin and then getting mad at you when you do.
Your struggle is real, just like people’s struggle with overeating or with gambling or with alcohol. But God promises that you can get through it (1 Corinthians 10:13). Even though everyone around you may tell you it’s inevitable, it’s really not.
What happens when we assume that all men lust?
If this is everybody’s battle, then it’s a battle no one can really win. You are virtually helpless. And then it becomes so much easier to blame other people for your sin–like the poor 13-year-old who made a bad clothing choice.
And maybe that belief, in and of itself, is what makes the battle with lust so much worse. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the states with the highest rates of pornography use are also those states where the ultra-conservative wings of Christianity and Mormonism dominate–the ones that talk about “every man’s battle” the most. We’re setting people up for defeat by telling men “this will always be your battle” and by telling women “your husband will always be tempted by other women.”
Tomorrow I want to say to women who are heartbroken, it is perfectly reasonable to expect your husband not to lust. You aren’t being selfish. You aren’t “not understanding what it is to be a guy”. You are living out biblical principles and asking your husband to live up to his wedding vows. And I’m so, so sorry that the Christian community has made women think that men are animals, can’t help themselves, and will automatically lust if a 13-year-old wears a short skirt.
Do you want MORE for your sex life?
- Gonzaga, G. C., Turner, R. A., Keltner, D., Campos, B., & Altemus, M. (2006). Romantic love and sexual desire in close relationship. Emotion, 6(2), 163-179. Retrieved from here.
- Gervais study retrieved from: https://www.livescience.com/21806-brain-male-female-objectification.html