The cultural conversations I have heard on sexual desire and fantasies over the last few years intrigue me. On many counts I agree: that desire is valid, that age doesn’t deter sexual desire, that sexual appetite can be insatiable, that repression can lead to overindulgence, and that being honest about your lust is actually healthy. Even so, I pause over a couple of questions.
Is fantasy without consent exploitation of others?
Human experience teaches us early that we are insatiable creatures. And being honest about our lust is a good thing. What troubles me about pursuing a life bent on satisfying sexual desire is this: the pursuit of your self-fulfillment is other-infringement. Someone else exists at the end of your appetite. So I have to ask the question: is fantasizing, as an uninvited advance, something we should pursue? Is sexually fantasizing about someone without their knowledge, much less permission, a form of exploitation?
Surely, proponents of sexual fantasizing do not advocate the harm of other people, but their conclusions flirt with it. Apparently, however one lusts in private has no bounds.
Condoned sexual practices, even by today’s standard, typically require mutual consent by the parties involved. Would you tell a friend that you’d fantasized about their husband or wife? Probably not. We know that most do not want our spouses ogled at in public or used as a puppet of someone else’s desire in private. The consensus persists that sexual intimacy between two people is bounded, protected, and not to be infringed upon, even in our minds.
To most people, marriage has historically meant (and in the present still does) a private place of real and reserved intimacy.
Is the addictiveness of lust self-harm?
The pleasure-seeking brain chemicals behind lust can be addictive, and attempting to fulfill our lust can be unhealthy. Maslow offers his hierarchy of needs—think back to your Psych 101 days—with the biological drives making up the base level of what he determined necessary for survival. Interestingly, this lower physiological level of food and drink—and, some might add, sex—can become tied to previously unrelated stimuli. In other words, like Pavlov’s dog, we can become classically conditioned to an unconditioned stimulus that was not necessary but is now linked to a basic instinct.
In a TIME article on how people become addicts, social conditions, genetics, and neurotransmitters, including dopamine, play significant roles. “Every experience humans find enjoyable . . . amounts to little more than an explosion of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, as exhilarating and ephemeral as a firecracker.” Levels of dopamine, in fact, must be “kept within strict bounds,” for too little can lead to tremors and paralysis. Too much leads to hallucination.
Food, drink, and sex persist as fundamental to human existence and pleasure. But these necessities can twist into addictions, as anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder, alcoholism, or sex addiction (reader discretion advised) can testify. As Maia Szalavitz reports, “addiction [is] compulsive behavior related to a substance or activity that people continue to engage in despite negative consequences.”
To Szalavitz’s point, “If we don’t understand how food and sex normally affect our brains and our choices, how can we understand what triggers addictions to any substance or experience?” Hangovers biologically indicate that our bodies have been overly taxed. Our excesses can hurt us, and fulfilling our lusts is no different; it may leave us worse off.
Our minds and bodies, however, can physically change based on our mental practices. (See also the work of UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel and cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf). Addictive behavior and decision-making can be altered with training. The possibility of freedom from addiction has spurred an explosion of psychotherapeutic techniques including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Increasing the frequency of an activity can physiologically and neurobiologically regulate and shape the mind and body, in effect, training them to become more inclined toward the action that has been repeated. Conversely, decreasing its practice regulates the body over time to be less inclined to do the foreign activity. We would want this to be true if we have any hope for remediation for sexual offenders.
Living with Longing
What some purport is nothing new: many cultures have engaged in the pursuit of enjoyment through broad sexual experiences. Unhindered sexual fulfillment, however, does not necessarily bring a life of flourishing. Life offers far more than sexual gratification and requires valuing people as individuals, not just play things. The most viable path to flourishing may be to live with longing. In our culture, to live in that tension—where our unquenchable sexual desire is not fulfilled—might be the most courageous way to live.
My friend, for example, has remained sexually loyal to his wife for decades, despite the fact that she developed a debilitating autoimmune disease that places constraints on their sexual experience. Consider my former professor, a practicing sex therapist, who endured prostate cancer and commented in class, “It’s what I’ve said all along to others in therapy. Sexual intimacy is so much more than intercourse.” I think of my single friends who have chosen to refrain from non-marital intercourse. What if we focused on what we have rather than fantasizing about what we think we need? What if we redirected our unfulfilled desires toward noble aims? As self-directed creatures, we can let loose our thoughts or restrain them.
A person’s desire is not ultimately physically satisfied. Desire is deeper than physical fulfillment. Sexual fantasies do not go far enough to satisfy and in the process can be destructive. Many, without denying their desires, embrace life with longing, whether by unwelcome circumstance or by choice. To hunger and to thirst may be the most honest way to live.
Cover image by Billy Williams.