I’ve been writing about the seven deadly sins, using as my basis the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and their Remedies by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. I’m especially interested in how these harmful habits manifest themselves in those of us who are past midlife. This post is on lust.
Having lust as one of the capital vices by no means denigrates the value of healthy sexuality. It’s not sexual desire in itself that is wrong but the distortion or elevation of that desire. How does sexual desire most easily go wrong? DeYoung suggests the following:
“Good Sex has an interpersonal and social dimension, a dimension that brings us into connection and relationship with others. Lust is deformed sexual desire because it cuts us off from this potential. Sexual desire is meant ultimately to bring us into a union of intimacy with another person.” (p. 163)
Lust, then, is dehumanizing. It treats the other person as an object for one’s gratification, not as a unique and precious person. Sexual fulfillment is reduced to pursuit of my own personal pleasure, regardless of the well-being of the other. When I lust, I am not vulnerable to the other, not truly seeking connection. Though I may be unclothed in front of my partner, I’m not naked in the sense of being open and defenseless in his or her presence, since I have mentally transformed that person to a mere thing that I intend to use for my own enjoyment. As DeYoung explains, lust is also prideful in that I am using sexuality as part of my self-centered project to achieve my own happiness apart from anyone else, including God.
Lust thus reduces sexuality to physical pleasure and the partner to something less than human. Paradoxically, there’s also a sense in which lust elevates sexuality past the physical and makes the partner more than human. I’m thinking of a client I once had who compulsively pursued women, one after another. He showered them with attention, gifts, and flattery. He was sexually attracted to them, but hardly ever pursued them to the point of having a sexual relationship. Instead, what he was really after was having an attractive female come to find him desirable and reciprocate his attention. Once that happened, he quickly lost interest. It was evident that he had inner feelings of inadequacy that his conquests were aimed at assuaging. Each woman he pursued was like a goddess to him, a deity who could lift him to wholeness by her attention. It was not physical pleasure that he was after but a blessing from an exalted being that would make him whole. Of course, the feeling of wholeness always eluded him, so his pursuit continued. Speaking personally, when I’ve fallen into lust I think I’ve been closer to this specious pursuit of blessing than to merely chasing after pleasure.
So how about lust in the elderly? On the one hand, trying to prove oneself via sexual exploits seems more a characteristic of the young than the old. It may be that at least some of us learn via experience that we can’t achieve happiness by sexually exploiting others. On the other hand, there are some cultural stereotypes about excessive sexual behavior in older men in particular that may have some kernel of truth. I’m referring here both to the man in a midlife crisis who chases young women and to the “dirty old man” whose lecherousness doesn’t diminish with age. Harvey Weinstein, whose sexual predation is now legendary, is 66, hardly young.
I don’t know of any statistics comparing the amount of lust in adults of various ages. There are statistics on internet porn use, which in all likelihood is motivated by lust–it certainly has the features of excessive focus on one’s own pleasure and proclivity to dehumanize the other person. A 2014 nationwide survey conducted by the Barna group on behalf of Proven Men found that the percentage of men of various ages reporting that they viewed porn at least monthly were as follows:
- 18-30 year olds, 79%
- 31-49 year olds, 67%
- 50-68 year olds, 50%
For viewing pornography several times a week, the percentages were:
- 18-30-year-olds, 63%
- 31-49-year-olds, 38%
- 50-68-year-olds, 25%
For women, the percentage viewing porn at least monthly were:
- 18-30 year olds, 34%
- 31-49 year olds, 12%
- 50-68 year olds 10%
So the good news in these results is that pornography use declines with age. The bad news is that, among older men, half still view pornography on at least a semi-regular basis and one-quarter look at porn quite frequently. Since porn viewing is only one of several ways that lust can manifest itself, it seems safe to say that quite a few older adults experience it.
At least among the oldest old, some cases of excessive sexual interest aren’t the result of lust but of brain deterioration. Sexual acting out is a problem in dementia units, for example. Elizabeth Marcus wrote a poignant essay about her father, who at age 88 became preoccupied with finding sexual gratification despite having no prior history of excessive focus on that area. After his death, she did research into such behavior changes in the elderly and makes a case that he probably had frontal lobe dementia.
Even after excluding such biologically based cases, lust is a significant problem for some who are elderly. Older adults who have a decades-long history of lust have in all likelihood developed a well-entrenched habit that will be difficult to change. That’s the way the vices work; they are initially voluntary, but, indulged in repeatedly, they take root in such a way that they are hard to dislodge. Recovery from this, and from all the capital vices, may seem impossible. Still, there’s hope for all of us, even if the journey isn’t completed in this lifetime. We can start by taking the first step, knowing that help will be available along the road.