A friend recently related a story to me about how she was once rudely admonished by a fellow student at a religious university for wearing, at the gym, what he considered to be immodest shorts. Her clothes were not what any sensible person would call immodest, but apparently they were too distracting for this concerned young man, who couldn’t concentrate on his own physical fitness with the bare skin of others causing him to entertain lustful thoughts. And so he took it upon himself to accost my friend for her leading him into temptation, guided as he was by the chief principle at the heart of so much ressentiment mistaken for morality: women should be virtuous so men don’t sin.
These days, you still hear a lot about the evils of lust within religious circles, but not so much in the wider secular culture, unless you’re discussing classic works of literature. Even so, Francesca and Paolo cannot compete with the greedy banker or the bigoted politician. So I recognize the risk that I’ll be called passé when I write now about the moral problem with lust. By lust I mean the craving for, or indulgence of, sexual pleasure for itself. The “for itself” here makes all the difference. The mere desire for or enjoyment of sexual pleasure is in itself no vice. Too often, noticing the hotness of others is confused with lust.
Lust is a moral problem because it inclines one to perceive and to treat another solely as an object of desire or enjoyment. The lustful heart beats for flesh, not for a person. It therefore hinders personal encounters and intimacy. Take our troubled young man in the gym. To him, those dressed not to his taste—or too much to his taste—were not autonomous free persons to whom he owed respect. They were temptations who should conform to his sensitivities so that he could ignore them. Lust feeds this impersonal perspective of others. You could say it’s a sin against alterity.