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Do These Violent Delights Have Violent Ends?
Rethinking sex and reordering desire
This week, I’m sharing your reactions to my interview with Christine Emba about her new book, Rethinking Sex. On Saturday, I’ll be speaking at the 2022 Effective Altruism for Christians conference. The whole thing is online, and my panel is “Is EA too utilitarian for Christians?” You can find more details and register here.
I also have a new piece at Deseret about crowdsourced support for Ukrainian refugees and how to be open to the less obvious needs in your own community.
The comment from Christine that many people focused on was “Some desires are worse than others.”
I have it stuck in my head how several years ago someone asked Dan Savage for his opinion about masturbating to images of random teenagers on Instagram, and he basically said that whatever you do in the privacy of your own mind is fine as long as you're not using child pornography.
And Rosemary chimed in:
Sure, Dan Savage, no child is actually being harmed by your masturbatory fantasies—but isn’t there a good argument to be made that *you* are being harmed?
“Are some desires worse than others?” is linked to the questions of “Are there bad ways to use my imagination?” If something stays confined to your own head, it can still be bad for you.
The game trades on the frisson of being deliberately provocative and transgressive. […] When my friends asked me to join in, I politely declined. If I were a runner, I could see an advantage in being able to push my limits for endurance and exhaustion. But, I don’t want to spend time learning how to ignore my moral squeamishness. I can’t trust that that kind of callousness will stay confined to the domain of the game.
Eve pushed back a little on the question, wanting the emphasis to be on how we respond to some desires, not on simply having them as a fault.
On some level all (?almost all?) of our longings are longings for God, or at least prepare us to encounter God, and finding ways to express those longings which help us to love others and love God is often better than just trying to have better longings. I know in switching from "desires" to "longings" I'm cutting some corners, but with sexual desire too, I've really found that for myself and many others, trying to have better desires is harmful whereas trying to express our desires better is healing and transformative. "Some desires are worse than others" will mean, for some people, "Your desires are worse than others," and imho that framing usually imposes shame without hope. It doesn't actually guide or educate desire.
I'm sure it depends a LOT on which specific desires we're discussing, but I want to at least suggest that "Some desires are worse than others" is a framework which has the potential to foster self-hatred rather than humility, chastity, self-respect, or self-gift.
This prompted a fruitful back and forth among several commenters. Eve had offered an alternative way to think about a misdirected desire (“What are the possible good expressions of my desires?”). And that took us a little out of the sex-specific framing to talk about whether it’s a helpful question to ask of a desire for, e.g. violence.
I agree with Aristotle and Aquinas that no one does evil except for the sake of a perceived good. And thus, somewhere within a desire to commit violence may be the seed of a better desire: A desire for justice, a desire to be a protector, a desire to feel a unity in your body and your will.
When it comes to desires for violence, I think, in many cases, you still have to start by working to take a step back from the desire tout court, and then, only once you’ve gained a little space from it, could you begin finding a better expression.
When it comes to sexual desires, the question of how to examine them and find your way into the best place that desire could be pointing you can be a little more complicated.
I do like Diotima’s Ladder of Love from the Symposium. But if you have a range of desires, some higher and some lower, it might make more sense to see how you can lean into the higher ones and let the lower ones diminish, rather than begin climbing from the bottom.
I also think that it can help reduce shame and stigma if we remember that all of our desires merit examination. There are better and worse desires, but even the better ones may have something in them that needs curbing or redirection.