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3 April 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 1:01pm

Lust and public policy

Misdirected lust costs billions and creates misery for millions. It is time for policy makers to take it seriously.

By Alexander Stevenson

Lust is powerful.  It can drive us to do many wonderful things.  It can also drive us to behave idiotically.  Usually these idiotic actions will have minor consequences but not always. 

Take Bill Clinton.  By common consent he is intellectually and emotionally the smartest of the smart.  He is driven and ambitious not just to achieve power but to wield it effectively.  And he gives every indication that he values his family.  Yet it also appears that he has been repeatedly prepared to risk it all for sexual gratification.

Clinton’s behaviour has often been explained not in terms of lust but in terms of risk or power.  Like many politicians before and since it wasn’t the lust that took him, so the argument goes, it was his love of risk or perhaps his deep seated desire to demonstrate his power in some way.  In this analysis, lust is a bit part player.

The Clinton experience illustrates two themes of this article: first, that lust has an overwhelming power to overcome the best of us; and secondly that we are bad at acknowledging and examining this power directly. 

These themes have significant implications for public policy. 

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What we know (and do not know) about lust

Such is the potency of the word “lust” that it has leant itself to areas beyond the purely sexual.  Some have a lust for power, others a lust for life.  But for the purposes of this article, the definition is more traditional: lust is the feeling caused by experiencing sexual desire.  This is an admittedly fairly baggy definition.  For “lust” you might equally substitute “libido” or “sexual desire” or even “arousal”.  And it encompasses different types of lust, from the short-term lust to have sex immediately to the more languorous lust that might build over time.  To some extent this bagginess reflects another recurring theme – that we know very little about lust and do not have common ways of analysing or talking about it.    

Science gives us some technical help on what happens when lust strikes.  In his book The Genetic Inferno, molecular biologist John Medina describes it in the following way: “The feelings of sexual desire are best understood as an emergent property of at least four interlocking physiological systems, at least 11 different regions of the brain, more than 30 distinct biochemical mechanisms, and literally hundreds of specific genes supporting these various processes.”  You can really only marvel at the human body when you read something like that.      

But the triggers that produce this sensation and the differing levels of intensity they produce are less clearly defined.  We know that lust is connected with levels of testosterone and we know that these levels vary.  But we also know that a huge number of other factors are involved.  Lust can be triggered to different extents by images, words, drugs, and of course touch.  Within these categories there can be any number of specific fetishes that can cause lust, as a cursory trawl of the internet will reveal.  Then there are the more hidden triggers.  These will be the feelings that individuals may have of love, of anger, of insecurity or the desire to procreate or control.  Other triggers may include the experiences of childhood, or the norms of the culture within which people grow up or the education they receive or simply their own genetic predisposition to certain behaviours.

Analysis of lust typically focuses on trying to understand these triggers.  Studies into sexual violence, for example, will often focus on the perpetrator’s perceived desire for control which may have prompted the act of violence.  This is logical – understand and deal with the causes and the symptom will disappear – but incomplete.  It is like putting all our resources into finding a cure for the common cold without ever inventing Lemsip.  And the challenge of accurately and confidently identifying the causes of lust is prohibitive.  It is hard enough to untangle all the triggers behind any individual act of lust even before attempting to generalise across a whole group of people.  So while we should continue thinking hard about the causes we should also ask more directly whether there are better ways to manage the symptom of lust itself.

One noteworthy attempt has been made to understand the wider impact of lust.  In 2005, academics Dan Ariely and George Loewenstein tried to assess how lust affects our ability to think straight.  “Most appetitive systems in the brain, including hunger and thirst, are designed to increase motivation during times of opportunity,” they argued, “and there is no reason to expect sex to be an exception… This increase in motivation should, in turn, have diverse consequences for judgments and decisions.” 

To test this hypothesis they recruited 35 straight male students and asked them to answer a series of questions about their sexual behaviour.  The twist was that some students answered these questions when they were sexually aroused, some when they were not aroused and some answered the same questions in both states. 

The results supported their hypothesis.  In a non-aroused state 42 per cent found women’s shoes erotic.  When aroused this increased to 65 per cent.  This pattern was repeated on more serious issues.  When aroused the students professed to be more likely (by a similar order of magnitude) to find a 12-year-old girl attractive, to slip a woman a drug to increase their chances of having sex with her, to keep trying to have sex after their date had said no and not to use a condom even if they were unaware of their partner’s sexual history.

It is a small sample and, as you can imagine (or may not wish to imagine), and as Ariely and Loewenstein themselves acknowledged, the research methodology is tricky to execute and open to challenge.  However, it is the only reputable research I have been able to find in this area.  Given the costs to society associated with misdirected lust this lack of extensive research is extraordinary.


The costs of misdirected lust

Why bring lust out of the bedroom to face the humdrum reality of public policy?  Because it is linked to many of the behaviours that profoundly damage our society.

In 2010, 400,000 women were sexually assaulted in the UK, of whom 80,000 were raped, and there were more than 20,000 sexual assaults on children.  In the same year there were more than 30,000 teenage pregnancies and more than 400,000 new diagnoses of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).  The cost of dealing with sexual assaults is estimated to be almost £10bn annually, and dealing with teenage pregnancies costs the NHS alone £69m to the NHS alone (i.e. excluding housing and social service costs which may result) and of dealing with STIs is £500m.  The human cost of these episodes, particularly sexual assaults, is of course incalculable. 

Misdirected lust can also be linked to the break-up of families, a key area of focus for the coalition government.  In 2011 there were 117,000 divorces in England and Wales.  Of these, adultery was given as the reason for divorce in 17,000 cases and, we can reasonably speculate, may have featured in some of the 56,000 divorces granted on the grounds of ‘unreasonable behaviour’.  Beyond these bald statistics there are many more people whose relationships have been haunted by the spectre of infidelity and sexual jealously without the formality of marriage or the finality of a permanent separation.  

In all these areas, I am not suggesting that lust is the sole, or even the main, underlying cause of the negative behaviour – we cannot know either way.  But in each instance what is clear is that the concluding act – the unprotected sex, the rape or the infidelity– is sexual.  Lust, on some level, is involved.

And what about areas in which the role of lust may be less clear?  Since lust is powerful it seems sensible to ask what impact it might have on apparently non-sexual behaviour.  Just as feelings of insecurity or envy or anger might contribute to sexual assaults, it is possible that feelings of lust might contribute to negative behaviours elsewhere.

Lust is particularly immediate and powerful – and often desperately unfulfilled – among young men.  Young men as a group (ages 16-24) are also the most likely to join gangs, commit crimes and be victims of crime.  Might there be a link?  And could there be more general links between lust and sexist behaviour?  Lust and excessive drinking and drug taking?  Between lust and violence?  It is very hard to say partly because it is complicated to investigate such links rigorously and partly because little effort has been put into doing so.  


The absence of lust in public policy

In the absence of any robust research societies have often struggled to know how to deal with lust.  Many have adopted – and still do adopt – a policy of repression.  There have been edicts about clothing, adultery, and of course about contact between men and women.  And there are more subtle expectations created – for example around what is acceptable sexual behaviour amongst men and women.  There is a case to be made (though not in this article) that attempts to control lust have played a part in moulding many of the legal and religious institutions which inform the way we live. 

A more common response is education about the consequences of acting upon lust.  In March 2013 the Department of Health published “A Framework for Sexual Health Improvement in England”.  This is a long and detailed document which is well worth reading for those with an interest in this area. The emphasis throughout is on education.  For example when it comes to reducing the rates of STIs, the report sets goals for their policy such as ‘Individuals understand the different STIs and associated potential consequences’ and ‘Individuals understand how to reduce the risk of transmission’.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this.  Education can be a good strategy.  Indeed teenage pregnancies – an area on which successive governments have focused – are at their lowest since records began at a time when the policy has focused on educating young people about safe sex and providing access to contraception.

But it feels as if part of the puzzle is missing.  At no stage do these strategies offer advice on the management of lust.  Remarkably, neither the word lust nor its coyer cousin desire feature once in the report or in the most recent Teenage Pregnancy Strategy.  And I have been unable to find lust discussed directly or indirectly in any government policy documents. 

In some areas of policy this absence is very obviously bizarre.  Consider, for example, the government’s “This is Abuse” campaign.  Aimed primarily at teenagers, this campaign is designed to help prevent abusive relationships.  One area on which the campaign focuses is teenagers being forced into sexual acts by their partner.  As well as support for the people being abused in such a situation (usually girls), some support is offered for the abusers.  “You may not even realise you’ve done it [the bullying],” the site advises, “but if you recognise the signs now, you can stop yourself turning into someone you don’t want to be. Abuse can lead to a loss of confidence and harm the futures of both people in the relationship. Most importantly, forcing or pressuring someone to have sex with you is illegal – always respect your partner’s wishes.”

This is helpful.  But it is again, incomplete.  If there is one area, above all others, in which advice on managing lust would be useful, then surely it would be for ragingly hormonal teenage boys.  And yet neither the potential abuser nor the person being abused receives any acknowledgement of the power of these feelings or help with how to deal with them, for example by masturbating.

Similarly in the area of adult relationships, advice about managing lust is sparse.  Relate, the biggest provider of relationship support in the UK (and not a government body), does recognise the importance of sex for successful relationships and offers sex therapy.  But managing lust does not get a mention in its written material.  Even when addressing lust as directly as it is addressed anywhere in the context of relationships – on the issue of partners having different levels of desire – the proposed solution is discussion.  “If you have different desires, then compromise and negotiation are the solution…..When you commit to creating a tender, loving environment, sex is more likely to happen naturally.’  Again the advice is sensible but indirect. 

These, of course, are the areas in which you would expect to find the most straightforward advice about lust and how to manage this powerful driver of behaviour.  If even these areas fall short then there is little hope for serious discussion about how to manage lust in other less obvious, but more damaging areas such as sexual violence, family dysfunction and violence amongst young men.


Starting the discussion

In our private lives lust is a topic of enormous speculation, discussion and thought.  This interest is reflected in the conversations we have, the films we watch, the books, newspapers and magazines we read and the websites we browse.  So why isn’t this reflected in public policy?

It may be that lust really does not contribute to any negative behaviours in our society.  Or it may be that there is nothing that can be done to influence the way we handle the symptoms of lust so there is no point in dwelling on it.  I am sceptical that either of these reasons stands up, partly because there is no evidence to support them but mainly because there are other more convincing explanations for the absence of lust in public debate.

For a start lust is very personal.  It is easy to understand why policy makers may be reluctant to be seen to intrude in such an area. Politicians will feel squeamish about discussing lust in public, sniffing the potential for ridicule and unwelcome attention. 

It is also not very easy to talk about.  On a practical level we do not have the lexicon necessary to have a sophisticated dialogue about lust.  At a research level we do not have the evidence to understand what impact lust has or how it links to other behaviours which makes discussing it in a policy context very challenging.  And at an experiential level we do not know how others experience lust.  In particular it is tricky for men and women to say with any certainty that they understand what the other experiences.  Certainly there are signs that men and women experience lust differently.  Vastly more men than women view pornography, visit prostitutes and masturbate frequently.  And some studies suggest that men and women are sexually aroused by different types of images and words. 

Such differences may be as much about social conditioning as genetics but nonetheless they are there and can inhibit serious conversation through a failure to understand other perspectives and possibly through embarrassment about exposing these differences.  Incidentally, many of the people I spoke to for this article remarked on the absence of straight men in leadership roles in organisations that deal with sexual health and sexual violence or among academics who study it.  Less anecdotally of the 734 psychosexual therapists accredited by the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists, fewer than 20 per cent are men.  If men and women do experience lust differently then, in a reversal of almost every other area of public policy, we need to ensure that more straight men get involved in the conversations about it. 


So how can public policy cope with lust?

It is, perhaps mercifully, difficult to come up with policy proposals when the evidence base is so weak.  Therefore the top priority is to build this evidence base in three areas. 

First, we need to understand more about lust itself, how we define, how we can measure it and how it varies between different people at different times.

Secondly, we must research the correlation between levels of lust and negative behaviours.  This should be done both in directly sexual areas such as sexually transmitted infections, sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies, and family breakdowns and less directly sexual areas such as criminality (especially violence), gang membership, alcohol abuse, drug abuse and sexist behaviour.

Thirdly, we should identify the techniques and technologies which are, or with the right investment could be, available to help us influence lust.

Where might such evidence lead?  Generally it would be helpful to move beyond repressing lust or simply educating people about the consequences of lust to a more proactive management of lust.  Very tentatively, and depending on what the research told us, this could take the form of one, or a combination, of three policy responses. 

First, we might think about how to pre-empt lust.  Could we be more restrictive about sexual images in the media in the same way as we are restrictive about images of people smoking?  And as drink-driving advertisements appear towards Christmas, could we target pre-emptive messages more effectively at relevant groups and at relevant times?  For example, at key points in the lives of teenagers?  Or during particularly hot spells in summer when research suggest we all feel more lustful?

Second, we might provide the resources to help people better control their lust.  In this area, more than others, we already have some techniques at our disposal.  Sex offenders and sex addicts receive – with some success – courses in therapeutic treatment to help them cope better with their sexual urges.  Such support might be developed and made more widely available, perhaps even as part of general sex education.  And could we get better at helping people assess their own levels of lust, their key triggers and what implications these factors might have for the life they lead and their relationships?

Thirdly we might make it easier to fulfil lust in ways that do not damage society.  Is there anything we could do to make masturbation and the use of pornography more straightforward, less embarrassing and more fulfilling?  Could we invest in developing new ways of using virtual technology to give people sexually satisfying experiences?  Is there a case for changing attitudes within society towards having multiple partners or having sex with prostitutes?

These suggestions are all speculative and proposed simply to show how policy makers might think practically about lust.  The primary call to arms is for the government to take lust seriously as an issue and invest time and money in researching it further. 

We look back with curiosity and astonishment at the sexual practices and pruderies of previous generations.  I suspect future generations will be equally astonished by our reticence in examining how profoundly lust affects our behaviours, both for good and for bad.  And they will also be surprised that policy makers intent on developing policies designed to influence our behaviours currently exclude lust from their ruminations.  

Alexander Stevenson is the author of ‘The Public Sector: Managing the Unmanageable’ (Kogan Page)

This article was originally published in the RSA Journal

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