“Just because you’re attracted to men doesn’t mean that you should accept it.” I’ve heard the words often.
“The other day, my best friend’s husband admitted in our small group that he struggles with lust. My pastor said that most men struggle with lust. Since men are naturally inclined to this, does that mean that they should just accept it? It’s ‘natural’ for them, isn’t it?” Usually, this is followed by a slight smile, as if they’ve dealt the final blow and won the conversation.
The idea is fairly simple: gay people shouldn’t accept their sexuality just like men shouldn’t accept their propensity to lust. It is an argument against the idea that homosexuality is naturally occurring and thus acceptable — “it’s the way I am.”
Men, according to this argument, have a strong drive towards lust. If gay people can accept their sexuality, why shouldn’t lusting men be able to act on their attractions?
The connection makes sense on a surface level — both speak about sexuality, but that’s where the similarities end. Besides promoting an animalistic view of the male sex drive, this argument exposes ignorance in the church about human sexuality, and it is causing damage in the process.
“The attraction is not the lust.”
My sexuality, our sexualities are not lust. There is a fundamental difference here.
Lust, in the sexual sense (which is the sense I will be referring to in the course of this piece), requires an attraction. That attraction is oriented toward something, usually men, women, or both. This attraction is where we get our spectrum of sexuality.
But, the attraction is not the lust. It is a byproduct of our sexual orientations, not the other way around. In other words, lust necessitates sexual orientation but sexual orientation does not necessitate lust.
When I was growing up, I would go to youth groups and summer camps where on certain nights they would separate the men from the women in order to have “real talk time.” We would go out into the woods, build campfires, and spend several hours talking about lust and women. We would learn strategies on how to guard ourselves against lust.
These strategies were many things, but none of them were attempts to completely remove attraction to women. I can imagine the silence if someone were to raise his hand and proclaim, “I know! What if we just stopped liking girls?”
In these circles, it is assumed that it’s possible to hold one’s own sexuality without lusting — that’s what we were being trained to do as Christian young men.
“Admitting my sexual orientation is not acting upon it.”
Yet, strangely, this idea doesn’t often carry over to homosexuality (and it’s virtually nonexistent in popular ideas around bisexuality). While many churches are now teaching that homosexual desire is not in itself sinful, the persistence of this lust argument is evidence that the message isn’t actually believed. There is pressure in many of these same churches to not accept one’s sexual orientation if it is anything different from the majority.
In my teen years, I believed that if I used the word “gay” to describe myself, I would be giving myself over to Satan. Because of this, I couldn’t utter the word out loud until I was in my twenties and instead chose Christianese identifiers like “same-sex attracted.”
As my friend Jonah eloquently points out in a recent piece, within many of our churches we teach that “experiencing same-sex attraction isn’t a sin,” while also telling LGBT people that they must be constantly “fighting it,” “battling it,” or “taking up their crosses.” There’s a disparity between these sentiments.
As with heterosexual people, lust can be an outflow of homosexuality. But that lust is not what bisexual, lesbian, and gay people are “embracing” when we come to terms with our sexuality. Neither is promiscuity, or flamboyance, or any other thing stereotypically associated with the so-called “gay lifestyle.”
By accepting our sexualities, we are naming something that is true about our experience. Admitting my sexual orientation — to myself and others — is not acting upon it. It is possible to be certain of one’s sexual orientation without engaging in sexual activity (case in point, I’ve never even held hands with someone in a romantic way, and yet I am certain that I am gay).
It should be a given in faith communities, even in communities where sexual activity is reserved for male-female marriages, that there is space to admit and accept one’s own sexual orientation. For me, to say that I am gay is to say that I am sexually attracted to men. Anything else would be a lie.
“Honesty should be fostered and celebrated.”
The argument comparing lust and sexual orientation, and others like it, expose an ignorance around sexuality within the church. This is causing damage because it makes it difficult to have productive conversations around sexuality.
If sexual orientation is misunderstood as being sinful, or is compared to something that is sinful, environments are created where it is not safe for LGBT people to bring their full experiences. We cannot turn off our sexual orientations with a switch, we cannot simply confess them and stop experiencing them, but they are something that we can hide from others. Unfortunately, one of those places where hiding is often required is in the church.
To combat this, it is important for faith communities to foster understanding around what sexual orientation is (attraction towards certain genders and gender expressions) and what it is not (lust, sin). This understanding builds the ground for open conversations around sexuality, morality, and theology.
Too often, I walk into conversations around faith and sexuality where it becomes abundantly clear that some people in the conversation have no idea what they are talking about. Yet, they present themselves as experts. These conversations are nearly impossible to navigate and they rarely ever produce meaningful dialogue. Without understanding, we end up talking past each other and drive each other away.
Stop comparing sexual orientation to lust. Lust requires orientation. Orientation does not require lust. Coming to terms with my sexuality does not mean I am embracing sin. It does mean that I am being honest about my experience. Regardless of what we believe about what I should do with that experience (the morality question), that honesty should be fostered and celebrated.
May we be people who create these spaces.
Images courtesy of alberto a.s. and Shutterstock.