Thought experiment: You are single. You’re eager for a sociable night out on the town. You step into a bar full of attractive people. You:
— See a hot someone across the room and think, I want to be all over him/her.
— See a hot someone across the room and think, I want him/her to think I am so appealing that they just want to be all over me.
Which one is lust?
The lust I heard about in church only ever dwelt on the first train of thought. This lust was an overwhelming desire for someone else, to the point of obsession, objectification, or infidelity. It was dirty, aggressive, mulled over in accountability groups and discussed in sermons of marriage and singleness. ... I didn’t relate to it at all.
In conversation with other close Christian women, I learned they didn’t really relate to it, either. We didn’t treat men or other women as objects of desire. We had hormones, sure, but they were … different. Sometimes we saw men as actively desirable, but not necessarily. We usually just wanted men to want us.
Sometimes we wanted them to want us really, really badly.
Sometimes we needed them to want us. Sometimes that was the only thing we could think about. Sometimes we’d fall into a prolonged pout if men who OBVIOUSLY SHOULD WANT US because we were HOT AND AWESOME, in fact, didn’t.
... Oh. Hmmm.
Is it possible that lust works in multiple ways? Is it possible that the all-consuming desire to be desired is just as lustful as the all-consuming desire to have?
Usual characterizations of lust assume a masculine experience of it. By “masculine,” I don’t necessarily mean “male” — all genders can experience lust this way. But this articulation of lust is strictly external, one of domination, possession, conquest … in other words, what our society usually tags as “dude.”
Sin is a remarkably malleable thing. If “dude-lust” is a desire to know, bent into the selfish desire to possess, I suggest that a more “feminine” experience of lust — “lady-lust,” if you will — is a desire to be known, bent into the selfish desire to be desired.
A deep longing to be known is a beautiful aching, universal to the human condition. It motivates our need for friendship, for physical and virtual community, for nature, art, dreams, and all pursuits of the divine. Being known presumes a human or divine connection with another. It is incredibly powerful.
But the physical realm is one where emotions and hormones and spiritual longing become particularly entwined. And this is where desire for intimacy can start to transform from a genuine, nuanced need into a flat and obsessive craving. And one quick conduit to satisfying this craving is transforming ourselves into paragons of desirability.
This is where “lady-lust” comes in. This brand of lust says, “I don’t particularly care who you are, I just need you to want me.” Much like the desire to know, it manipulates human connection and the desire to be known into a one-way flow, direct towards the self. Too often, we teach ourselves and other women that to be desirable as a human is to be desired as a sexual being. If men (plural) don’t want us, something is wrong with us.
This craving to be universally appealing is often dismissed as neediness or insecurity, especially when displayed by women. But at least in the case of my friends and I, something different was going on — more prideful, subtle, and harder to identity.
A habit of mind that can be summed up as: “Oh, I don't want you. I just want you to want me.”
Sound gross? That's because it is — just about as gross as viewing someone else as an object for your possession. Lust, regardless of focal point, is not pretty in action. And in my experience, when this kind of lust is unnamed and unchecked, everybody loses.
“Lady-lust” doesn’t quite fit with what my friends and I have heard, from diverse denominational upbringings, about this Deadly Sin. We don’t often hear in a Christian context about whether different experiences of desire can mean different articulations of disordered desire, or whether an obsession with being desirable is maybe something other than simple vanity.
Why don’t we talk about this kind of lust more often? Maybe some of us over-associate femininity with purity. Maybe our narrative experience still skews heavily masculine, including in the church. Maybe we’re too eager to dismiss each other as insecure or vain and call it a day, rather than asking what holy and good impulses — as well as sinful and bent ones — compel us to want to feel desired. And for a feminist like me, maybe also because I don’t want to add one single voice more to the centuries-long chorus that tells women to question or hide their desires.
But this is important to explore, I think. Lust is one word that we isolate and specialize into a specific experience that, while not untrue, often misses the broader, more universal rough edges. A major disconnect in what we hear about lust and how we experience it simply means we need to talk more about how we experience it; and how we forgive ourselves and others for it; and how we collectively heal.
Maybe if the lust we usually hear about has a divine code, “no — you don’t get to know someone like that,” this other lust has a divine corollary, “no — you don’t get to be known like that.”
For those for whom this rings true, it’s a reminder worth repeating. In my case, the second half of The Prayer of Saint Francis has helped me kick some of the most persistent seasons of “lady-lust” and a deeply bent desire to be desired:
“O, Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love...”
... To be known, as to know. Without agenda.
Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners. Follow her on Twitter @chwoodiwiss.
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