Marcel LeJeune seems to have the particular ministry of talking about sexual dilemmas to young hormone-addled Catholics. Some days, that must feel like being the geek at the carnival, the guy who astounds the crowds by biting the heads off of rats. At other times it must feel like being the piñata at a party. So I won’t have anything bad to say about the man.
I did download two posts of his from a site called Aggie Catholics. One was on lust; the other on modesty. It was in reading those that I realized how ardently I wished never to have his job. The Aggie Catholics site has led me to the two things I want to talk about today. The first is how really hard it is to have a conversation about sexual topics from a conservative—roughly identified with the “Don’t”! school of thought—perspective. The second is a way to bring words like that back into a conversation, should you ever have the need to do so.
Why is it so hard?
Mostly, I think it is because no one wants to be labelled a conservative on sex. And right after that comes the association of sexual standards with rigid moralism. In other words, anything I might say on the topic, however reasonable it might be, runs the risk of having a lot of bad things said about me. I don’t like having a lot of bad things said about me. Maybe just every now and then.
So let’s unpack a little lust. No…make that “Let’s unpack lust a little.” Yes. That’s better. Lust means desire. That’s it. It doesn’t mean a desire for some one thing in particular. On the other hand, when you introduce the word into a conversation, it is going to be a conversation about sex and your handy dandy copy of the Oxford English Dictionary will not help you.
So lust, by which I will now mean “sexual desire” just as everyone else does, is a really good thing. It is not only good in the evolutionary sense that we would not be here without it but it is good in the commercial sense as well. Pills have been developed to help men and women who don’t have as much of it as they want, to have more of it. That brings us down very near the foundation of mass consumption capitalism, so I presume I will not have to argue for its significance any further.
The men’s version and the women’s version
On the other hand, if you are working with young people, you will need to say that lust is not always a good thing. And if you are talking to boys, you are going to need to find a way to tell them that lust is not something that happens to them; it is something they do, something they choose. Think about it for a minute. You are a chaplain at a Catholic school and you want to affect the behavior of the young men in your charge. The last thing you want to say is that there is nothing they can do about it—just before you ask them to do something about it. Here’s the way Chaplain LeJeune puts it:
So, lust isn’t just a thought that pops into your brain without you choosing it. Rather, you take that thought, entertain it, and use it as your own. This makes the thought an act of your will – you choose it. If you don’t take ownership of it, then you can’t be forgiven nor can you start to work on real chastity.
So, regardless of a woman’s ignorance, imprudence, lack of modesty, and bad choices – it is never a woman’s fault you chose to lust after her!
The first thing I want to say is that I agree with him. The defense against his teachings about lust that the chaplain is most likely to run into are: a) it’s natural and b) it’s inescapable. “Lust,” meaning by that term what the boys mean by it, is perfectly natural. They are right about that. Human society, however, is not perfectly natural and it is going to require a little adjustment here and there to maintain it. Second, if “lust” means what the chaplain means by it, it is not something that happens to you. When you make a home for it and treasure it, then it isn’t “happening to you.” It is, as the chaplain says, something you do.
That’s what Chaplain LeJeune says to the boys.
Jesse Jackson made an amazingly strong run for the nomination of the Democratic Party in 1988. Oregon mattered to him so he came here a good bit and I got to hear him speak. He was wonderful. On the other hand, I was able to hear only his “white speech.” He had a “black speech” too. I saw it in transcripts—in black and white, so to speak—because I was the wrong color to hear it in person. In his white speech, he said that white prejudice and the lazy-minded compliance of the federal government had imprisoned black citizens behind bars of prejudice and poverty and hate. Only persistent political effort aimed at changing the white game would begin to give blacks a fair chance. In his black speech, he told them to get off their butts and get to work, that there was opportunity everywhere and that what they were calling “discrimination” was just an excuse for not getting a good education and a good job.
It does us no good to ask which of these causal attributions was genuine. Jackson wanted to say this to white people and that to black people. He was after an effect of a certain kind and the “explanation” he chose was the tool most apt to produce that effect. People like Jesse Jackson and Marcel LeJeune are leaders. They really don’t have the luxury of picking up a tool because it is beautiful or telling a story just because it is true. They want something to happen and the story is just a tool.
Given that, it will not surprise you to hear that the position taken at Aggie Catholics is that women have the responsibility to prevent the arousal of lust in the men by dressing modestly. Here are a few lines from that “tool,” offered by Kristine Cranley.
Too loose. Too tight. Too low. Too high. Who teaches us about these things anymore?
That seemed plaintive to me. I sympathize. But following the Jesse Jackson white speech/black speech model, I was looking for a real zinger about how women who dress provocatively are asking for abuse and deserve what they get. That would be the natural complement of LeJeune’s “lust is not something a woman does to you, it is something you do, using her as an occasion.”
That’s not what happens. What happens is really much better. Here’s Cranley again.
First of all, I want to assert that the reason we dress modestly is NOT [the caps are in the original] because our feminine bodies are bad or ugly or intrinsically ‘occasions of sin’. Simultaneously, it is NOT because all men think about is sex, or that they are incapable of looking at us without lust. Rather modesty involves speaking the truth with our bodies. While women are generally aroused through emotional warmth or physical touch, men are aroused through visual stimuli. Whether we intend to or not, revealing too much of our bodies sends a message that we are sexually available to them.
Modest isn’t because women’s bodies are ugly. A lot of women feel that way, but Ms. Cranley says that’s not why she counsels modesty. Modest isn’t because we think men will think of us only as lust objects otherwise. That would put the reason for modesty in the hands of others. What she actually says is that immodesty isn’t true. Immodesty sends a message, says Ms. Cranley, that “we are sexually available to them.” That is not “true” that “we” are sexually available to “them.”
I stopped and blinked at that several times. Then I came to like it. I don’t think I have ever heard a women say that she would like to be hit on by “men.” Some men, sure. That one over there, absolutely. Men in general, no. The charge here is that immodesty invites a lot more people than you are going to want to attract. It says something about you that is not true and that you will have to find a way to retract. Better not to have said it. Or not to have said it as snarkily as in this poster.
Although it seems odd to me, these two views come down to one common view. It is that lust and immodesty are really good when they are “used” and used “appropriately.” The quotation marks are there to indicate where the land mines are buried. I see immodest dress and behavior as a really nice spice to a relationship that is committed to looking at more important things first. I see lust as a perfectly reasonable response to the immodest dress and behavior.
I don’t know any good relationships where immodesty and lust have been the lead items. There are lots of really important things you would want to know about a new person in your life that are not going to get looked at with the necessary care when the spotlights and the wailing sirens of sexual attraction are filling up your eyes and ears. So find out the important things first. There is a whole menu full of really significant questions about character and habits and practices and other relationships that come along with you (ex-spouses, pets, parents, in-laws) and they deserve all the attention that a menu of appetizers, salads, and entrees ought to have.
But then there’s dessert and I like dessert.
I want to finish with a story about two students of mine at the University of Oregon. Jeff is one of my heroes. The story goes that his friends and her friends decided that Jeff and Laurie would be a really good couple, so they started pushing them together. One night, Jeff went over to the house to pick up Laurie. In the meantime, Laurie’s friends were upstairs helping her “get ready” for her date with Jeff. Her friends pushed her repeatedly in the direction of clothes that were—borrowing Kristine Cranley’s categories—too loose, too tight, too low, or too high. Laurie was feeling really uncomfortable when she went down to meet Jeff for the first time.
They sat down and talked for a little while. Finally, Jeff said, “My friends thought it would be really good for us to get to know each other. I’d like that, but I don’t think I can get to know you while you’re wearing that. Would you mind changing?” By that time, Laurie had begun to resent her friends for pushing her so far toward immodesty and to regret her own timidity in refusing to tell them no. For these reasons and several others, she was delighted that Jeff had named her problem as his problem too. He wanted to know her so much that he gladly passed up an evening spent with a dazzling woman wearing way too little. It was her he wanted; not “that.”
That’s why they are my heroes. They married several years later and I dearly hope they are still married because I really like this story.
 There was a time when geek was a completely pejorative word. Since we rely on them so completely in our electronically connected world, it has become a mostly good word. Please see Jon Katz’s book Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho for the beginnings of the transition.
 I have a perspective on these words and the ideas they have gotten tied to that I like very much. I am quite sure they would not be well received by teenagers and I have no need to find out.
 This brings with it the very modern problem of whether you are obliged to want more lust than you have. It is completely in keeping with the spirit of our time to feel obliged to desire something. Isn’t that just bizarre?
 Although, I have to say—since English is a truly odd language—that this could be read to mean that if the woman does the lusting first, lusting “after” her is really the only choice. That brings Monica Lewinsky to mind and the need of really good anti-stalking ordinances.
 This post comes from Kristine Cranley, who is a PhD student at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. I have never heard of her before nor have I ever heard of the John Paul II Institute. I just follow the links. Speaking of which, there are pictures of a spectacularly immodest woman named Kristine Crank that come up on the screen when you get as far as Kristine Cranl-. Ordinarily, I don’t mention google detours like that, but the irony is so very sharp in this case.
thanks for your well thought and carefully crafted treatment. Indeed, as a progressive pastor I find it difficult to enter into conversations about dress, lust, and modesty. It seems we are afraid to set any limits whatsoever – but where is the freedom in that?
I understand your dilemma. It is nearly impossible to raise these notions in a serious conversation. Why anyone would force himself to believe that “lust” was always a good thing or always a bad thing just baffles me. But, of course, it if it treated that way, then the thoughtful conversation that you and I would like to see is not going to happen.
Do youi know of Aunt Mary Eshelman’s dictum while Dean of Women at Messiah. “A sweater should be tight enough to show you are a woman and loose enough to show you are a lady.” I thought that was pretty good for Messiah in the ’50’s. Karl
Nope. Never heard that. I think it’s marvelous.