Beauty vs. Sexuality

By Hugo Schwyzer
April 11, 2012

Why the fear of lust shames both men and women.

It's spring again—time for some to talk baseball, others to talk graduation or prom or taxes. For some Christians, springtime is also the favorite time to lecture girls about keeping their hemlines long and their necklines high; it's the season for the "modesty wars."

If you've been around the Christian blogosphere long enough, or been in a youth group any time in, oh, the past 30 years, you know what I'm talking about. You've heard or read the usual catchphrases and snatches of proof texts: "Don't cause a brother to stumble"; "Don't let your vanity be a man's undoing"; "Faith matters more than fashion." It's not that these discussions aren't important. How we dress—and, more basically, how we carry our bodies out into community—matters. Yet these discussions (or lectures) often end up shaming rather than encouraging the young people who are their targets. That shame falls on both sexes, albeit in very different ways.

Our contemporary cultural dialogue about men emphasizes the decisive role that biology plays in driving behavior. Evolutionary psychologists, brain researchers and TV doctors regularly produce studies "proving" men are hardwired to be visually stimulated or to cheat on their wives. The emphasis is on men's helplessness in the face of their own physiology, an emphasis many women find disillusioning and many men find disheartening.

The response of the church has been to reframe basic male decency as Christlike heroism. The language of books like the ubiquitous "Every Man's Battle" frames the struggle against sexual sin as the greatest war most guys will ever fight. Where the New Testament treats lust as one sin among many, contemporary Christian rhetoric—influenced by the secular pop science of the likes of Dr. Phil—elevates lust to a status of first among definitely-not-equals. (Far fewer best-selling books and articles get written about anger or pride.)

We shame men by insisting they're fundamentally weak, constantly vulnerable to being overwhelmed by sexual impulses. We shame women for not being better stewards of that supposed weakness.

This reframing fails both men and women. It fails men by insisting they can't gaze at an attractive woman without automatically lusting for her; it denies any possibility that the average man can appreciate female beauty without desiring to possess it. If a man claims to be able to "look" without lusting, he's too often accused of denial at best and rank dishonesty at worst. If a woman says she believes men can gaze without carnal desire, we call her foolishly na´ve. A self-fulfilling prophecy is created; if men are taught they can't separate a delight in beauty from a longing for sex, they won't.

In many discussions about modesty and the male gaze, someone quotes the famous line from Job: "I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl" (Job 31:1). Note the pesky adverb. If men can't look at women without sexual longing, isn't the "lustfully" redundant? Perhaps Scripture isn't telling men not to look, it's reminding men how to look. The problem of lust is that it's selfish; when we lust, we appropriate for ourselves what isn't ours to take and, all too often, lose sight of the humanity of the person for whom we're lusting. The implication in Job, however, is that men can "look" without lusting. The covenant isn't to avoid looking or even delighting in what is seen; the covenant is to look while stopping short of sexual objectification. If we believe men can't separate these things, we sell them—and we sell the reality of grace—woefully short.

Because we refuse to take seriously men's ability to not lust in the presence of loveliness, we shame the great many women who—whatever their other fabulous qualities—also want to be affirmed for their beauty. If every man is "fighting a battle" against lust, and if few men are capable of distinguishing appreciation for beauty from carnal longing, then every woman who dresses to be validated becomes a traitor to the cause of spiritual purity. The end result is devastating for too many. Lauren Lankford Dubinsky, founder of the Good Women Project, wrote in an e-mail that: "women are victimized by the soul-crushing weight of having your motives (or even personal worth) judged incorrectly on the basis of something as simple as an article of clothing. A huge percentage of women within the Church are silently battling eating disorders, self-harm, pornography addiction and depression—all stemming from misplaced shame; a shame they feel because fellow Christians have equated their beauty with intentional malice or deliberate seductiveness toward men."

To put it another way, we shame men by insisting they're fundamentally weak, constantly vulnerable to being overwhelmed by sexual impulses. We shame women for not being better stewards of that supposed weakness. That shame doesn't just lead to unhealthy sexual relationships (including between husbands and wives); it leaves too many men feeling like potential predators and too many women feeling as if they're vain, shallow temptresses.

The more we emphasize the male propensity to lust, of course, the less we acknowledge that women are sexual beings. The same myth that says men are incapable of looking without lusting says women never (or at least rarely) experience sexual desire. The fact that men seem to be more easily visually stimulated than women may have less to do with our innate biology and more to do with cultural expectations. Women do look—and more than a few men like to be looked at. That doesn't mean men and women always experience lust in exactly the same way. But it does mean women and men alike are sexual creatures, and Christian women and men share the call to "gaze responsibly."

While it would be absurd to deny any link between beauty and sexual desire, it's even more preposterous (not to mention spiritually toxic) to assert the two are so inextricably linked that they can't be separated. A broken worldview that reduces human behavior down to a predictable set of gendered, inevitable physiological responses shouldn't be the framework for a Christian discussion of beauty, desire, and the longing for affirmation. If grace is real, it is strong enough to give us the capacity to distinguish the delight in gazing at beauty from obsessive lust. If grace is real, it is also strong enough to give us the capacity to distinguish between the longing to be validated as beautiful and the longing to cause another person to be overwhelmed by a desire so strong he or she forgets their commitments.

Too often, the church talks about beauty and desire in ways that suggest the church doesn't believe grace is quite that real.

Hugo Schwyzer teaches at Pasadena City College and lectures nationally about body image, masculinity, and perfectionism. Follow him on Twitter @hugoschwyzer.