Jordan Monge’s recent post in Hermeneutics, “The Real Problem With Female Masturbation,” argues that we all need to stop calling female masturbation simply a product of psychological problems or environments. We need to call it what it is: lust.
It will hardly come as a surprise that I am no expert on the subject of female masturbation. But Monge still offers ideas of substance in her piece that we can all engage, namely a definition of lust, the causes of both lust and masturbation, and how men and women are unfairly segmented on this issue.
One of her strongest points that I can affirm is that men and women wrongly experience different stereotypes and cultural expectations when it comes to lust and masturbation. Much too often men are given license to have sexual desires and, conversely, to be slaves to them. Women, however, are almost always depicted as having little to no interest in sex itself; women’s interest is always for the sake of something else, e.g., security, closeness, emotional dependency, even children. Monge seems to understand this ridiculous stereotype better than most, and I found her perspective refreshing.
One of the main points of her piece is that women experience both lust and good old-fashioned sexual desire just like men, which is becoming more explicit in our culture and even in Christian circles. Anne Marie Miller is an example of this articulation when she speaks openly about her own past addiction to pornography.
Where I think Monge goes astray in this conversation is in how she proposes to tackle (women’s) lust. She writes,
We need a strategy that recognizes the sin of lust and calls it by its name, rather than pretending that women have no agency beyond reacting to environmental stressors or psychological difficulties.
Yes, we do. I’m all for expanding our view of women so that it accurately includes women as sexual beings with real desires. When people argue that women must desire sex, but their desire is outside of the physical pleasure and expression of that act, we have to reject that claim as an ignorant one.
But I raise an eyebrow at Monge’s next sentence:
We must treat lust like other sins—not a way we act out as a consequence of other problems in our lives—but as a sin requiring us to learn the discipline of self-control that we must master if we ever hope to be the women God made us to be.
Why must we relegate sexual desire to either the pyschological realm or the physical one? Why can’t our view of sexual desire be holistic—one that includes physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual components? Why can’t sin be connected to other areas of our lives?
Self-control is paramount for combating sexual sin, and I’d encourage anyone to work wisely and alongside a spiritual community in order to develop that. But one of the worst ways we can attempt to handle sin—any sin—is to isolate the sin to one dimension and then pretend an ironclad will is the only required solution.
Sex does involve physical pleasure. But the definition can’t stop there. And willpower may go far in mastering certain desires but it will fall short of the deeper ones. Imagine willing yourself not to need love or feel a sense of belonging or desire relationality. Or denying your identity as a sexual person.
When I was taking theology courses in grad school, one of the Jesuit priests explained that at its core lust is never really about physical desires. (He was speaking about lust as experienced by both women and men.) He further explained that psychologically, lust can usually be traced to other desires, anything from fighting loneliness to physical hunger.
I’m not sure I agree that lust is purely psychological even if we make no distinction between the genders, but it’s hard to deny that there’s more than a physical component here. It’s hard to deny that we all have those deeper desires that we think sin will fulfill.
This seems to be the source of most sin. My first reaction to difficulties in my own life is usually anger. Over time I’ve learned to better recognize the various causes of anger: feelings of insecurity, rejection, fear, embarrassment. It’s rare that I am angry for anger’s sake. I think lust for lust’s sake is more likely to occur, but it’s still out of false seeing. People hurt each other mostly out of ignorance (something I’ve written about before).
Buddhism expresses the troubles of the world such as greed and violence as resulting from false notions and ignorance. Lust is the objectification of a person—not seeing someone clearly as a fellow human made in God’s image and reducing them to an object whose sole purpose is to serve you. Monge is mistaken in thinking that we have to choose either sinful desires or psychological causes as the source of lust.
Ultimately, we need to look deeper at our sins to see the deeper causes therein. And our solutions need to be as holistic as the problems themselves. Discipline and self-control are wonderful (and everyone needs them), but deep seeing is a surer way and it produces more spiritual maturity. If you reduce religion to a willpower game alone, you’ll change your actions but not your desires.
Samuel Ogles is a freelance writer and an assistant editor and marketer for a national Christian publisher. He is a student of contemplative spirituality.