|Jesse Bering is director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University Belfast
I have been happily tasked, on this Valentine’s Day, with writing about the sin of lust. But before I expurgate my lascivious soul, let us first get the concept of lust straight—and I should warn you that this will be the only thing straight about my confession.
Lust is not an easy psychological construct to operationalise. Although it can be used in non-sexual terms, its sexual connotation is primary, as well as the theological incentive for diagnosing it as a deadly sin. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the theological variation as “a sensual appetite regarded as sinful: of the flesh.” And it is in this carnal sense of the word that I have sinned mightily.
In a 2004 treatment, psychologists William Cupach and Brian Spitzberg concede that, ‘one who lusts possesses the wish to experience sexual union with another.’ But they also note that sexual arousal alone does not capture the entire phenomenon:
‘[L]ust is usefully distinguished from sexual arousal (e.g., erect penis, swollen clitoris) and sexual behavior (e.g., intercourse, oral copulation). The awareness of one’s own physical stimulation does not necessarily entail desire for sexual union, although arousal can be either a precursor to or a consequence of lust. One can experience lust without concomitant physical arousal. Similarly, sexual activity can occur with or without lust. The experience of lust may motivate sexual activity, or sexual activity may breed lust that leads to further sexual activity. [But] sometimes the lust object does not desire sexual activity with the lustful person and sexual union is thwarted.’
It is this “unrequited lust” that best describes the nature of my particular sin, which is in fact more an epoch of lust rather than it is a single lewd act. I may have played, in weaker dosage, a version of the other role in someone else’s narrative. But in this story, I am the lustful party and a specific individual from my adolescent past, who shall go unnamed to protect the innocent, the object of my lust. It is easy to describe him, because his visage I worked deliberately to imprint deep onto my mind’s eye, cognizant even then of my future self reflecting continually back on this image and therefore the eternal need for accuracy. To this day I would recognize the shiny half-moons just above his cuticles or the crook of his knees behind his bronze legs.
I’ll sketch a portrait, but it is, of course, only anaemic compared to the vitality by which the ghost of this boy burns brightly in my head. Olive-skinned, bright-eyed, golden-haired, a Donatello David perfect and cruel. He was little more than an acquaintance, really, but I did try, in my own cloudy, puerile ways, to imbibe his essence within the moralistic constraints I was dealt. And these were not insubstantial, since our only regular field of interaction was a suburban high school cloistered away in a rather conservative part of early 1990’s Ohio. We shared a disease—both being insulin-dependent diabetics—and this discovery of our mutual endocrinal failures was one of the few times that I ever was tempted to believe in God. Through the good fortune of our mutually dysfunctional pancreases, we were tied together symbolically as if by fate. More importantly, this, along with my eventual befriending him on the school tennis team, gave me an ironclad excuse should someone ever suddenly turn the conversation to my curious and frequent mentioning of him.
According to psychologist Dorothy Tennov, I was suffering from a tell-tale case of limerence—a neologism that meant intense emotional and sexual attraction for a desired romantic partner. Here are its key symptoms: intrusive thinking about the person; a yearning for the other person to reciprocate the feelings; the inability to have such feelings for any other person; a fear of rejection; heightened sensitivity to signs of interest on the other’s part; and the tendency to dwell on the person’s positive characteristics and avoid the negative. Tennov believed that nearly all adolescents are stricken with a hobbling bout of limerence at some point in their burgeoning sex lives. Indeed, empirical evidence demonstrates that limerence—also known as “passionate love” and “infatuation”—is strikingly common. In a 1997 study from Personal Relationships, psychologist Craig Hill and his colleagues found that such experiences are concentrated primarily between the ages of 16 to 20 years. Although there are no differences between the sexes in having a mutual infatuation, males are significantly more likely than females to have a meaningful unrequited lustful relationship.
|Bering’s new book
When lust levels are mismatched due to differences in physical attractiveness or an even more formidable hurdle of having different sexual orientations, limerence can be rather painful. Very little research, so far as I can gather, has been done on the subject of homosexual limerence, but I suspect my case is not so uncommon among gay males, who may find themselves lusting after others who are completely naïve, distressed by, or even hostile to their advances. The need for ambiguity in gay male courtship in homophobic societies, coupled with the perceptual biases inherent to the state of limerence wherein one is hypervigilant to even the slightest signs of potential interest in the lustful object, complicates matters profoundly. I remember quite clearly how this boy would steal glances at my lips as I spoke to him, how he asked to sit next to me in the crowded back seat of a hot car, our bare legs sticking together in perspiration, his innocent sharing of a can of soda (a can which, along with a helpful stack of peculiarly homoerotic Men’s Fitness magazines, I kept for beastly pleasures at least a month at my bedside, since his essence had been soldered onto it). All of these things were, in my distorting and wanting mind, delicate little tortures that failed to disconfirm the statistically probable null hypothesis of his heterosexuality.
Given the scalding moralistic climate of the times, my sensitivity and fears of being ostracized, my lust simmered for years, often boiling over into my dreams. I was not out of the closet yet and would not be until my early twenties. I moved away at graduation, pathetically scribbling his name in my notebook like a lovesick schoolgirl at a distant college; he stayed behind, completely unaware of the deep impact that his sheer being had rendered. I knew that my lust for him was a cosmically irrelevant craving, never-to-be relieved, so I threw myself into other things, and other people.
Many years passed until my pancreas intervened again and brought him back into focus. In my late twenties, I went into hypoglycaemic shock in a hotel room in Atlanta while attending a conference; luckily, a friend found me unconscious, called the paramedics, and thirty minutes later, a line of glucose was being transfused into my veins. I’d known this intellectually before, of course, and had already written a good deal about the illusion of an afterlife, but this intimate flirtation with my own mortality taught me that existence really was the equivalent of an on/off light switch. And what a shame, I thought, if I squandered the rest of this absurd gift worrying about making people uncomfortable. It’s time to live an honest life—you can call it a life of sin if you’d like. It doesn’t matter; you’ll perish all the same.
And so, eleven years after I’d last seen him, my great smouldering sin, my limerent lust, finally saw daylight. I’d heard through the grapevine that the object of my attraction had become a rather pale haze of his former glory, an average, married man and father living a very traditional life—but still I wrote him a letter. I purged myself of my feelings for him, sympathizing with the strangeness he must feel as the target of someone whose passions are so misplaced, explaining that this was more a letter for me than it was for him, that it was an exorcism only. I tried to articulate how, in spite of all this, it was important for him to know that I’d loved him.
I can only imagine how bizarre that letter must have seemed to him, how out-of-the-blue and, indeed, probably disturbing (particularly if it had been opened by his wife). For that I apologized, profusely. Still, I wouldn’t apologise for my feelings. They were what they were, and all facts are godly. The letter was my only way to break the spell, once and for all, by facing his rejection, which alone could free me to really love other people.
And his rejection did come, in the form of deafening silence. Whether he was flattered, flabbergasted, or disgusted I’ll never know. But his avoidance is okay. In his work on interpersonal relations, Roy Baumeister has highlighted the fact that, by contrast with a rich cultural stock of guidelines to get someone to fall in love with you, namely through persistence, there are no clear cultural scripts for how people should handle an unwanted lover’s attention. ‘In a sense,’ write Baumeister and his colleagues, ‘both the rejector and the would-be lover end up feeling like victims—one of intrusive pursuit and unwanted attentions, the other of heartbreak and rejection.’
But no matter, since mailing that letter five years ago, there is no more ambiguity, no more haunting regrets. Shortly after placing it in the mailbox, Asmodeus, the demon of lust, kindly turned my attention to a more fitting object, one that is lying in bed next to me now and for whom I am free to lust after in peace and guilt-free carnality.
Jesse also contributed to our special feature The Bloggers Behind the Blogs.
This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.