Lust

A rant from the intersection of popular culture and politics.

I’ve lately been playing a little Diablo III before bed to kill some brain cells so I can sleep (doesn’t work, but that’s another topic). The game’s setting leans pretty heavily on western notions of heaven and hell. Act III focuses on Sin, and the last mini-boss is Cydaea, the Maiden of Lust. Cydaea is a creature rather like a centaur, with a spider’s body supporting a hyper-sexualized human female torso, and she speaks with a pouty, sultry voice. This got me thinking – not about the game (it’s about a millimeter deep), but about depictions of lust in our culture and history.

The personification of lust (specifically the sexual sort) is usually female. From the tortured women carved in Romanesque stone to pretty much anything on the internet these days, Lust is a woman, naked or nearly so.

This seems backwards to me. In the world where I live, lust is more of a male thing.

I’m not suggesting that women are delicate flowers, fainting at the mere thought of intimate contact with a man; quite the opposite. Women are sexual beings, just like men, fully capable of wanting, having, and enjoying sex. Women are fully capable of lust.

But both historically and in today’s culture, men tend to spend more effort in active pursuit of their sexual desires, especially the purely physical sort implied by the word lust. According to all the available data, men on average have more sexual partners than women and are more likely to cheat in their relationships. And prostitution is almost entirely about male customers seeking female prostitutes.

So why is lust depicted as female?

In part, I’d argue it’s another symptom of the double standard. Male sexual desire, even when it’s on the edge, is the norm. It’s excused. Boys will be boys, locker room talk, etc. Female sexual desire is judged by a different, harsher standard. We have a huge vocabulary to shame women who violate sexual norms – loose, easy, cheap, slut, whore, etc. – but basically nothing for men.

I think there’s more, though. The blame for male sexual misbehavior often falls at least partly on the woman. The vixen, the temptress, the painted Jezebel. That’s sometimes justified – two married people having an affair are equally culpable; a single woman is not completely blameless if she’s knowingly sleeping with a married man.

But far too often we blame women for men’s boorish (or worse) behavior even when it’s entirely out of their control. Getting catcalled on the street? It’s your fault for wearing a skirt. Creepy guy grabbed your ass on the subway? Shouldn’t have worn those tight leggings. And how many rape victims feel like they’re being violated all over again when they testify against their accusers, only to have the defense comb through their personal lives to paint them as sluts? How many never testify, for that exact reason?

It’s no accident that Cydaea’s lower body is a spider and not some other demon creature. She’s the black widow who tempts the virtuous man into her sinful embrace and then kills and eats him afterward. I don’t blame Blizzard for their sexy spider-demon; it works in the context the self-serious piece of cultural fluff that is Diablo III.

Lust isn’t always a bad thing; sometimes it’s just sexy fun. But when it’s channeled in the wrong direction, when it reduces another person to a sex object without her consent, it can be quite harmful. The background sexual harassment that women experience every day takes its toll; serious sexual assaults can ruin lives (and no, I’m not talking about Stanford swimming scholarships).

Creative people everywhere, if you want to personify Lust in all its debased glory, you can do better. Make him male, because, obviously. Make him a bloated orange grotesque. Give him a mane of ridiculous blonde fur. Give him yuuuuge genitals (because art is not reality) and tiny, tiny hands.

After all the awful stuff that’s been spewing out of the presidential race, particularly this weekend, I can think of no better avatar for the destructive, dehumanizing power of lust than Donald Trump.

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