Yes, lust made the seven deadly sins list, but it’s also the reason we’re all here. Nearly half of all pregnancies in America are unplanned. Eliminate the primal urge to get naked and share body fluids, and homo sapiens would die out rather quickly.
My admittedly incomplete internet search (it’s easy to get sidetracked when you start googling words like lust and sin) failed to turn up a definitive answer on when or how sin attained its status as one of the seven deadly sins. But according to Skipping Towards Gomorrah, sex columnist Dan Savage’s entertaining first-person romp through the seven deadly sins, the big seven list isn’t found anywhere in the Bible.
Let’s just say that somewhere along the way, this particular l-word became a big no-no among devout Christians. Jimmy Carter made headlines when he admitted in a 1976 Playboy interview that he’d “looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” According to evangelicals, looking on women with lust made Carter guilty of “mental adultery,” which could land him in hell.
(Worried about your own status? Take this lust test to find out whether you are “on the road to moral purity” or have “befouled the temple of your body with your lustful ways.”)
What does this have to do with science? Well, lust’s status as one of the seven deadlies has led to numerous dubious pseudoscientific headlines, meant to make lust seem wholesome. According to a bunch of flimsy studies, sex “reduces stress” “helps you sleep better” and “reduces your risk of prostate cancer.”
Why the drive to equate a sexual appetite with a longing for health? As Savage* told me when I asked him about this research for Slate, “In a sex-negative culture — and we’re in one, and in deep — sex for the sake of pleasure alone can’t be justified. It has to be good for you, it has to be actively exonerated somehow, and turning sex into so many pounds of steamed broccoli does the trick.”
I, for one, don’t want steamed broccoli in my bedroom. Sex is one of life’s great pleasures, and I don’t long for it because it will lessen my risk of a heart attack. I lust because sex feels really great. As sex researcher Debby Herbenick writes in her book, Because It Feels Good, “having sex mainly to lower blood pressure is like eating a strawberry only because it is low in calories. Where is the joy in that?”
It’s not like there aren’t wholesome reasons to desire sex. My husband and I just celebrated 14 years of marriage, and I’m pretty sure that our ongoing lust for one another is one of the things that’s kept our marriage strong all these years. As long as it’s directed toward an appropriate person, lust gives a marriage intimacy and spice.
A survey of 238 adults presented at the Gerontological Society of America’s annual meeting last month showed that while only about 59 percent of respondents who reported no sexual activity in the last year said they were “very happy” with their marriage, nearly 80 percent of those who’d had sex more than once per month reported a very happy marriage.
So why does lust have such a bad reputation? Probably because when it’s acted upon with the wrong target(s), it’s a potent force of destruction–just ask Tiger Woods or Ted Haggard. It’s worth noting, though, that the downfall of these two men wasn’t lust, but lies –they wanted things they’d promised their spouses they didn’t, and they acted upon those illicit desires.
Call it a sin if you must, but lust is simply nature’s way of nudging us into doing something that might otherwise seem too complicated or difficult. Attracting a mate takes effort and energy, and if sex wasn’t so pleasurable it’s possible we might not pursue it. If lust has a deadly side, it arises not from desire itself, but the stupid things it provokes people to do.
*Because Pennsylvania’s most notorious hate-mongering homophobe is running for President, I must mention here that Dan Savage is also the mastermind behind the Spreading Santorum project, which has thus far succeeded in associating Rick Santorum’s name with a byproduct of anal sex.