Lust Is Not Uncontrollable

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Emily Heist Moss says her tight yoga pants aren’t the problem, it’s your self-control, dudes.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an open letter to a man who harassed my roommate and I outside a Chicago bar. My goal was to address harassers and their apologists and to add a few layers of context around the issue. First, the singular incident that each man contributes to a woman’s experience builds on the overall culture of objectification and intimidation. Second, “harmless” harassment is only known to be harmless to the harasser; from our viewpoint, we always have to worry about when a joke becomes dangerous. I got much support from a surprising array of readers, but one commenter encapsulated the most common objection to my argument:

“Seems rather hypocritical…Girls look at guys who are attractive in the same manner, the only difference is that they ‘hoot and holler’ to themselves while making the same judgments if not worse. If you don’t want guys to be attracted [sic], stop wearing yoga pants so tight your asscheek is more imprinted then Han Solo’s face when he was frozen.”

The commenter is making the same logical error that many slut-shamers and victim-blamers do: He is equating being attracted to someone with vocalizing that attraction (which can often be unwanted and intimidating). Lust is not the problem, and neither is attraction or desire. Let me say that again: Lust is not the problem. Everyone lusts, everyone desires, everyone wants, it’s part of being human. I saw a guy in the elevator the other day who was the most heart-stoppingly perfectly shaped man I had ever seen in the flesh. Did I want to take his clothes off and get it on in the elevator? Hell yes. Did I say that to him? Did I wink at him? Did I stare at his ass? Did I try to touch him? No, because my desire is not his problem.

I’ve spent exactly one afternoon on a topless beach, and the emotional reaction I associate with that experience most vividly is one of freedom. Not physical freedom (though seriously, it feels great), but freedom from a very specific kind of fear and worry. People looked at me, of course, as they looked at everyone, but they also looked past me. I realized, perhaps astoundingly late in life, that they’re just breasts. They are not powerful inducers of assholery, magnets for commentary, or beacons beaming out a signal that men can’t help but respond to with harassment.

While the original essay was about how constant street harassment is, it’s worth noting that I go about my day, as do most women, without getting harassed by most men. Somehow, the vast majority of men are either devoid of lust, or they’ve somehow learned to keep their feelings to themselves. You know who else doesn’t harass me? Lesbians. Statistics would suggest that at least a few of them would find me attractive, and yet none of them feel the urge to send a “Hey, babygirl” or a hip thrust my way.

There are enough examples of people not harassing women that the claim that the appearance of women is magically forcing some men to harass is clearly baloney. The idea that desire is uncontrollable is an effective way of shirking responsibility for one’s actions while simultaneously blaming the victim for causing your bad behavior. If I were a dude, I’d be insulted that anybody still uses this antiquated piece of rhetorical garbage.

Yes, straight men find women attractive and yes, the way we look can cause desire, but this is where the commenter’s logic falls short. He wrote, “Girls look at guys who are attractive in the same manner, the only difference is that they ‘hoot and holler’ to themselves.” That’s exactly correct, we keep it to ourselves, and so do most men! You are the weak ones, you are the ones who cannot manage your own desire or control your impulses. You are the ones who would rather blame tight pants than own up to the insecurities that cause you to feel the need to vent your desire to the world. Lust is natural, cat-calling is not.

The real issue is that cat-calling may be where this argument gets some traction, but it’s not where it does the most damage. There’s a long and ugly history of women being held responsible for the criminal behavior that their looks have compelled “good men” to do. Think of the Cleveland, Texas, gang rape case, where a lawyer described an 11-year-old girl as a “spider” “luring” men and boys into her web. Attractive or not, tempting or not, there is literally nothing this girl could have done that could compel men and boys to rape her. She could say “Have sex with me right now,” and they could stare down their own physical desires and walk away because it is the right, honorable, and legal thing to do. They didn’t, and that’s on them, not her.

This argument—that some women are “irresistible” and some lust is “uncontrollable”—is almost as weak as the weakness it implies of men. She was pretty, how could he be expected to stop himself? She wore a tube top, so what was he to do? She was drinking and put a hand on his knee, how was he supposed to react? He had an erection, how could he walk away? This is bullshit. We all know men who don’t yell at pretty women, who admire a tube top from a distance, who don’t equate alcohol with consent, who manage their own desires. Those men who can’t actively choose courtesy and respect over harassment are looking for a scapegoat and historically, the “she was asking for it” argument has worked a few times too often.

I wear yoga pants to yoga. I wear bikinis to the beach. I wear short dresses or low-cut tops to parties. All of that is entirely beside the point. I should be able to walk down the street topless without a catcall or rude comment. Before you tell me that’s impossible, remember that there are plenty of places in the world where topless women do walk safely. You can look, you can want, you can lust, that’s all allowed. Opening your mouth to impose your desire on me, to intimidate me, to objectify me, that has nothing to do with my wardrobe, and everything to do with your self-control.

Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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