The Shame Isn’t Helping: Women’s Struggles with Lust

Last February I wrote an article for New Christian Woman about pornography (read here). I shared my experience of supporting my husband through his struggle with porn and addressed what we as women can do to support men as they combat lust. One of the biggest responses I received for the article was that struggles with lust and pornography are not limited to men, and that these struggles are even less talked about for women. This is absolutely true. And so in this article I want to start talking about women and lust, focusing on the issue of shame.

I will start by saying that when I use the word “lust” I intend it to refer to unhealthy sexual desire, NOT everything to do with sex (because sex as the Lord intended it is a good thing). This is a sensitive topic though, and one that is difficult to discuss no matter how it is worded. I will not try to address every aspect of this complex topic in this article. My hope is that this article will serve to start more conversations about women and their sexual struggles and the shame around them. And while I am writing under the premise that the Lord tells us lust should be shunned (Matthew 5:27), I think that we as New Church people need to begin a more compassionate and productive conversation around sexual struggles, for men and women.

In order to attempt to address what struggling with lust means to New Church women, I created a short online survey asking women if they identified with struggling with lust and sent it out to over 130 New Church women I know. The survey is far from scientific, but it gave me some more data to work with. 55 women responded, the majority aged 18-35, and about a quarter aged 35-60. Roughly half of the respondents answered “yes” to whether lust was a personal struggle for them (92% of those who said “yes” were aged 18-35). Responses as to what this struggle looked like varied from sex addiction, watching pornography, masturbating, sexual exploration with boyfriends/partners, reading sex or fantasy romance literature, watching movies with sex scenes, being interested in other men when married, or fantasy daydreaming, to the other end of the spectrum: finding it hard to be interested in intimacy or sex when married. Almost every woman who responded that they identified with struggling with lust as a negative thing in their life spoke of their confusion and incapacitating shame, and the lack of education and church guidance on how to deal with this struggle as a woman.

This rings true for me and my experience. As a teenager I had the entrenched idea that lust was something natural, but something men faced and had to struggle to overcome. When I found myself engaging in lustful daydreaming and seeking out sex-scenes in books, I was deeply confused and consumed by a feeling of unworthiness and even unnaturalness, because women aren’t supposed to deal with these feelings, right? And because I didn’t feel that I was supposed to have to struggle with it, for a long time I didn’t put up much of a fight. But I worried with a deep and unarticulated fear that something in me was broken, that I was less of a woman. Comparatively speaking my sexual feelings were mild and common, but they did not feel small. I thought I was the only woman to have ever felt that way, and while I knew I wanted to change my behaviour, I didn’t know what to do. I felt alone and certainly didn’t think I could talk to anyone. It was only after this shame was reduced through awareness of not being alone or abnormal in feeling interest in sex, or even lust, that I had the conviction and the self-respect to stop these behaviours. The shame though was crippling. These feelings of shame and a wish for clearer guidance are echoed by many other women in the survey responses. Here are some of these responses, shared with permission:

“Periodically, I have launched personal campaigns against having sexual thoughts and engaging in masturbation… I find this struggle to be deeply humiliating and upsetting, and have never discussed it with anyone.”

“I think that lots of women struggle with lust, but that it is a somewhat taboo subject, at least in the church. Lust is meant to be a male struggle, but it makes so much sense to me that the hells attacks both sides of a marriage. I think feeling alone and odd made my struggle harder. I explored sexuality with friends and boyfriends. I also explored it on my own. I was fiercely curious. And I didn’t know how to curb that curiosity because sex and lust just weren’t talked about enough or in a way that made me feel safe or that it was okay that I struggled with lust. Being told that guys are the gas and girls are the brakes was really damaging. I felt broken and disgusting. And confused–I wasn’t entirely sure how damaging my experiments were on my own or with others–not knowing for sure made it easier to make excuses to keep giving in. I needed more clear guidance from adults.”

“Once I was old enough to connect my experiences with what others referred to as sex and lust, it became very difficult to process questions that I had about why I had those experiences, if I should have them, and what I should do about them… I acknowledge that there is a difficult balance to strive for in this matter because it should be private to some degree, but ultimately I think that I have been negatively affected by a closed attitude towards women and their sexuality.”

“I discovered masturbating by accident. I had no idea it was a thing with a name. I just figured out that it felt good. I did feel guilty about it though. I didn’t know for sure, but it felt wrong. The scary part was that it was a kind of addiction. I couldn’t seem to stop for long. I was deeply ashamed. Girls don’t talk about this stuff. So I felt like I was alone. I was disgusting. I didn’t know what I was doing until a boyfriend told me. I guess in a way it felt validating that it was an official “thing” people did, but I felt fiercely unfeminine again because it was clear that this was typically something that boys dealt with. What was wrong with me?”

“My struggle with lust has mainly been in the form of reading erotica. It’s still something I struggle with every day or every few days. I have been too afraid to seek out help because I’m ashamed. Though I had been praying and trying to fight lustful behaviors in high school, by the time I got to college I began to give up. I wish that my parents had talked about things like masturbation and pornography with me when I was young, because by the time I even learned those words I had long since fallen into bad patterns of behavior.”

“Lust is everywhere – tv shows, pictures, commercials…if you are already feeling sensitive to it, it’s easy to feel like it’s following you around! What has not helped is feeling like there is no one I can talk to about it – girls aren’t supposed to have lust issues! Nobody mentions it! I have felt so incredibly alone in my struggle, as if almost no other female is or ever has struggled with lust.”

“The sense of isolation I felt didn’t help with any of my attempts to stop my behavior because there was nobody I felt safe talking to about my problem.”

These responses reinforce the counter-productivity of isolation and shame around sexual struggles. While negative and uncomfortable feelings about our behaviours are often the signposts that direct us towards growth and change (we’re not supposed to feel good about doing something wrong), I do not think that shame is such a signpost. Shame hinders more than helps. Shame keeps us from talking and getting help or support on the things that don’t feel clear, or that feel too difficult to undertake. And shame does not seem to produce the kind of bad feelings that make us want to change, rather it produces the desire to hide from feeling bad, which in this case can lead to rationalizing lust and making excuses for lustful behaviours. These survey responses speak to the experience of many women for whom shame around their struggles has been a road-block to change.

A number of women in the survey also brought up a different side of the shame-equation. Several responses commented on the fact that lust should not be simply equated with sexual desire, because this implies that all sexual desire is negative. And many women felt that rather than sexual struggles, the real issue for them was confusion about whether it is ok to be at all interested in sex, or even look forward to sex in marriage:

“Sex is scary. I’m not sure when it became that way. But something about it has me feeling excessively guilty for wanting it. I’m supposed to be a guardian of conjugial love. I feel that thinking about sex is lustful and shameful, and anti-conjugial love. No one ever taught me this, but somehow it got engrained in me. Sex is for marriage. Not for single people, therefore thinking about it before you’re married is wrong. For me, and I believe for lots of New Church women (and men) sex, lust, and guilt all go together.”

“I wish the church/society in general would somehow teach more about sex, and more about the good parts of sex. I don’t think growing into a woman who finds pleasure is a bad thing, but I felt like enjoying the idea of sex gave me so much shame.”

“I found the religious sexual guidance I received made it hard to know how to judge what was appropriate to be doing and why it was important to my spiritual well being, and not just some arbitrary rule. I sometimes wonder if such a negative lens of sex can lead to young people perceiving all sexual desire as lust, and equating it with shame rather than the potential for loving connection in marriage.”

Sex isn’t a bad thing, but in our church culture of trying to protect and respect sex in marriage, it seems that a lot of negative and unhealthy perceptions around sex have crept in too. I do not think the solution is to demonize or blame “the church,” but rather to look for ways to individually and collectively work toward a more supportive culture. I would love to brainstorm ways to teach about sex and marriage that hold the ideals of marriage but do not tie sex to bad things, and that also allow more space for discussion and guidance on sexual struggles. What would this look like? How can we preserve innocence and implant the ideas of respect for intimacy in marriage as a pure and powerful gift from the Lord, while also reducing the shame so many women feel in their sexual interest that arrives before marriage? What if time was spent on intentionally discussing with young women the balance between natural and healthy interest in sex and appreciation of your body, versus engaging in acts or thoughts that lead to less healthy behaviours? What would help prepare young women for sexual curiosity that can grow to lust, without excusing lust as commonplace and therefore acceptable? What if women knew that their struggles with lust weren’t an anathema, but something that they could seek compassionate help for? I don’t think it is an easy line: to accept the normalcy of being human with human desires, and also not adopt the blanket idea that because it feels good it is good. But it is a very important line.

I do not claim to speak for all women in this article. As the survey shows, for many women lust is not a personal concern, either because lust is not a temptation they face, or because they disagree with the definition of lust/do not feel that it needs to be shunned. But if roughly half the New Church women under 35 feel this struggle and its lack of discussion and understanding as a negative in their life, then I think it is worth exploring. Even though there isn’t a clear or easy answer, let’s start talking, privately, in our institutions. I think that many of the most powerful conversations will be private—between friends, family members, couples, in women’s own hearts, and with the Lord, and I believe in the power of a church culture more open to discussing these struggles and supporting strugglers, without trying to assign blame, and without perpetuating this counter-productive shame.

“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11

Some of the survey respondents asked that I include ways to find help for their struggles. Here are some online sites aimed at women that offer support or workshops:
https://www.xxxchurch.com/get-help
https://www.xxxchurch.com/women/3-ways-tell-youre-addicted-masturbation.html
http://www.x3workshops.com/pureworkshop/

If you would like a safe, accessible person to talk to, here are some New Church women who have said they would be happy to talk with any woman about her experience with sexuality or struggles with lust:
Nina Dewees: nina.dewees61@gmail.com
Hilary Bryntesson: hilary.bryntesson@brynathyn.edu or 267-446-3134
Gwenda Cowley: azcowley@msn.com
And if you would like to talk to a willing minister:
Erik Buss: erikjbuss@gmail.com

About Tania Alden

Tania is a wife, mother, artist, and South African American (in that order). Born in the USA she spent her formative years in Westville, South Africa, only returning to America to attend Bryn Athyn College. Tania and her husband Micah now live in Bryn Athyn with their small and delightful daughter. Tania loves to share memories and discussions, especially when they are centered on South Africa, parenting, art, the movie "Gladiator," and spiritual life.

20 thoughts on “The Shame Isn’t Helping: Women’s Struggles with Lust

  1. Thank you for doing this research, Tania. It is nice to know that women who struggle with lust and lustful actions are not alone. I sometimes do wonder at the church’s teachings (or lack thereof) about women’s struggles with lust/desire for sexual arousal. I asked a New Church minister about it once, and he said that Swedenborg describes women as having a “readiness to receive,” but never describes women as becoming aroused or as being interested in sexual arousal/pleasure. It is strange that the Word has so little to say about women’s sexual lust, since it is a real struggle for so many.

    1. Thank you for bringing this up! The lack of clear direction on this topic (for men and women, but especially women) is something that has confused and frustrated me too. I have some thoughts that I’ll share, but no “answers”…

      One thought is that the Lord is clear on the essentials needed for getting to heaven and leaves some of the other issues up to us to determine in our own hearts and minds more as an act of mercy. If He laid out everything we should and shouldn’t do in particulars we would go crazy trying to keep to all of them. And would be more crushingly aware of all of our failures? I do think though that because this is an issue that is currently so out there in our sexualized culture, there is more attention and more confusion around it, and so we (church, church leaders, church people) need to maybe specifically look for more direction in the Word and make that available to people who are looking for guidance. I think there are more allusions to sexual things (like masturbation) in the Writings, and there’s the overall idea that lustful thoughts are a form of adultery… but specifics aren’t spelled out. And it can feel like they are not including women at all.

      I know there is a passage (that I can’t find right now) that talks about women not feeling lust or sexual interest unless they are introduced into it, whereas men will experience it as a fact of life. I think that the interpretation of this teaching has maybe been particularly misleading. I think we have traditionally taken it to mean: men deal with lust, women don’t unless there’s something wrong with them (they were sexually active/abused etc.) This is clearly a very harmful interpretation and one I think we need to work to address. I think that this teaching can still be true, but that the definition of being “introduced” maybe has a much broader definition? Maybe ANYONE (everyone?) growing up in this culture, men and women, are introduced to sexuality and sexual awareness from a young age. Be it from friends, movies, books, billboards, the internet etc. So this idea that women won’t feel desire unless something has clearly introduced it is moot because everything in the culture around us is introducing it.

      It’s still unsatisfying though. And I know I can have some feelings of: Hey, Lord, You knew this was going to be an issue, why didn’t You give clearer guidelines? I hope that through more discussions and study, we as a church will be able to find more answers and see the Lord’s plan through His Word–I believe that it’s there, but on this issue it is hard for me to see. And that brings up the last semi-comforting thought: that the Lord wants us to wrestle with and dig to understand what He says in His Word. And maybe that links to the thought that He clearly told us the essentials (10 commandments) and then left a lot of it up to us to seek to understand in the multitude of different circumstances that arise.

        1. Thank you. So the end of CL 502 (after describing how virgins essentially feel no desire for sex, even with a husband, before marriage) states that: “It is different with those who before marriage encounter stimulation from learning about it.”

          To me this seems to bear up the idea that our culture today is inundating us all with sexual images, information, and its desirability and so we are all learning about it, and even being stimulated by it, before marriage. So in this case women will very easily combat lust too, even if in a more ideal world they wouldn’t? What do others think?

      1. I love your idea about women being “introduced ” to sexuality through the culture. I think it can be particularly challenging in the USA where we are not as affectionate as Europeans, so get little skin contact, but our visual culture is sexually overt. This seems a recipe for a struggle for fulfillment pre-relationship.

  2. I especially agree with the comment about the “men are the gas, women are the breaks” thing. While there may be some truth to that in terms of the general tendencies of men and women, I think trying to apply that principle to individual relationships can be harmful. I think it is particularly dangerous to be giving high school kids this message. I know I heard this that phrase quite a few times from my high school teachers. I think it can give teenage boys the message that it’s not really their responsibility to consider what level of intimacy is right in their relationships, while making the girls feel guilty for wanting any kind of physical relationship. If girls are told that they’re supposed to be the breaks, then anything physical that happens in the relationship can feel like evidence of their failure as a woman. The reality is, though, that relationships aren’t cars. Both parties should work together to figure out what level of intimacy they think is right. I think out to g out that message instead of the “girls are the breaks” thing would result in a lot less shame in discussing sexuality.

    1. I definitely want to try and pass on to church and school leaders that this phrase has been particularly unhelpful!! I agree that it can be really harmful, and it’s really useful to know that more people resonate with that feeling. Thank you for all of your comments, I’d love to hear any more thoughts as/if they come up.

  3. Thank you for a brave and helpful article. I agree that the silence around the issue creates the impression that this is something one has to fight alone.

    1. Thank you, Bronwyn. I hope more than anything that we can begin to change that perception! We never have to fight alone.

  4. I lost my trust in the church after bad teachings. A minister once told me, much in line with “women are the brakes”, that it was a woman’s responsibility not to wear certain tops/t-shirts or dresses that might arouse men around me. I never dress in a way that normal society would consider inappropriate, so to me this was like a physical punch where I felt like I was a walking bomb because my body and clothing might trigger things. It was only when a secular friend pointed out the similarities to the rape culture “some women invite rape by dressing a certain way” that I realised why I felt so violated. Men should be taught that their responsibility for intimacy is equal to women’s, and to control themselves and not the women around them (as was advocated by the minister with his clothing regulation). It will take me a long time to regain the trust I lost.

    1. I’m so sorry that this was your experience. It is a big problem, and one that I think many NC women have felt hurt by. It is very wrong that women should feel that they bear the responsibility for keeping men in check. And it’s certainly not healthy for men to think that either. It fits very well into the whole shame issue and is something I think and hope that our church culture is working to better address. We’re not supposed to feel ashamed of our bodies!

      And yeah, I personally think there can be a line where women dress inappropriately in a way that isn’t helpful or kind to men who are trying to think chastely and respectfully of women, but it doesn’t sound like “truly inappropriate” dress is what you’re talking about. AND even if a woman is dressed “truly inappropriately,” you’re right that it is without question always the responsibility of the man to control himself.

    2. I totally agree that men need to be taught to fight their lusts. But I also think it is the responsibility of we women to be considerate of the struggles of men and to try to not make it harder– i think its a matter of charity. But it definitely is not a woman’s fault whenever a man lusts ( fyi, that is the belief in the Muslim religion and the reason women cover themselves). I think an accurate NC picture would be– if a man walks by a modest woman and lusts after her, whose at fault? Answer: the man. But if a man walks by an immodest woman and lusts after her, whose at fault? Answer: both.

      1. I would add (maybe it goes without saying) that if a man walks past an immodest woman, lusts after her, and proceeds to rape her… he is at fault.

  5. This is such an important conversation. Thank you for initiating it, Tania. And thank you to everyone who cares enough to engage. It nearly moves me to tears. I spend a lot of my days, when in social situations both within and outside of my small church community, wondering why it is so difficult to bring up more substantive topics in daily conversation. I don’t just mean to comment on others’ hesitation; I wonder about my own just as much. Why is it hard to say, without the aid of say, a glass of wine, “Do you see problems with the way our community talks about women and lust?” I find this to be true even among friends and ministers and family members that I trust. It’s possible that I am of a more reserved ilk, period, and that this has something to do with it.

    The real reason I’m writing is that questions around lust touch a related question I have been steeped in for a long time. It’s is a question that’s been making noise outside my door most noticeably in the last few months. And that question is this: what is the role of pleasure to be in our lives? What is the proper role of pleasure in my own life? How can I re-order the priorities in my life to reflect my desire to move from self-indulgence to selflessness—without swinging into the cold and lifeless place that can come with deprivation?

    This reminds me of Abby Smith’s recent post on self-care. I have the same question as she: how much is too much? I don’t know the answer, but Tania, one of your points is resonating with me. You offered that “the Lord is clear on the essentials needed for getting to heaven and leaves some of the other issues up to us to determine in our own hearts and minds more as an act of mercy.” Part of me, in reading that, is flooded with a quiet relief: Yes, I like freedom! Thank you, Lord, for allowing me to find my own way. But the other part of me is like: No! Come on, just tell me what to do. I’m not the boss, that’s Your job!

    I am just really struggling right now with the consequences of excess in my life. One of the positive things I can already feel, though, coming out of the last little chunk of my life, is my conviction that on my own I cannot make lasting changes. I just can’t. I need the Lord. I need Him to help me be willing to keep answering the door when all these questions keep showing up. Ringing my doorbell. Pressing my buttons. Getting me to examine the current disorder of my priorities. I do choose to believe the Lord wants me to enjoy my life in this world. I am just still looking for non habit-forming ways to do that.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful response, Kendall. I’m not sure I can articulate all the thoughts I have in response, but I will try.

      I love the idea of nurturing that ability to be more honest in more of our daily community interactions. You’re right, why CAN’T we say “hey, what do you think of how we talk about sexuality, or women and lust?” I think part of it is that sexual matters will always remain difficult to talk about publicly, just because they are so personal and private, and I’m ok with that. But I do wish it could be more of an ongoing conversation in whatever ways it naturally comes up… and fostering a space in which it IS natural for it to come up in safe settings, rather than it being shocking and uncomfortable because one person one time decided to talk about it.

      And I love the idea of connecting lust or sexual desires to the larger question of pleasures. I think part of why we get to stuck on the sex stuff is because we put it in a separate category than any other indulgences or pleasurable things in our lives. I don’t mean to say that they’re all one and the same, they’re not, but they’re also not unrelated. Anything pleasurable can be abused, but we were also given these natural pleasurable things for a reason. (I think that that reason is both so that we learn moderation and how to limit our natural desires, and also simply because the Lord wants life to be good for us.) But it does sometimes feel like it would be easier–better, if we didn’t have these cravings for natural pleasure of all kinds. Did it have to be set up this way? Should parts of life of it be this hard? Should addiction (to sex, food, alcohol–all good when used properly) be “allowed”? That feeling of the unfairness galls me–the unfairness of addictive behaviours that seem in some ways to circumvent our freedom. I know that nothing actually does remove our freedom, but it’s still not comfortable to accept.

      And yet this is how the Lord designed the world, knowing that we would struggle to find this balance. So I guess at least this struggle is important… in the ways it helps us regenerate and grow? Is the role of pleasure in our lives to help us grow? As I said earlier, I think pleasures are also there because the Lord wants this life to be enjoyable, and I don’t want to overthink everything that’s good or pleasant. But perhaps we also attach too much importance to this idea of enjoying life and feeling good? After all, that’s not the point of life, it’s the side-effect of doing the right thing.

      I’m not sure where these thoughts all end, but it’s something I want to keep thinking about. Thank you again for raising this, Kendall. And thank you for the reminder that no matter the struggle, change can only ever come when we turn to the Lord.

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