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:
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hilary Bryntesson: email@example.com or 267-446-3134
Gwenda Cowley: firstname.lastname@example.org
And if you would like to talk to a willing minister:
Erik Buss: email@example.com