REsources for Living
by Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship
Desire seems to fall into two categories. There is good desire, the kind of desire that makes you come alive and orient toward what your body and/or soul most deeply wants. And there is bad desire—craving or attachment or addiction that puts you in a kind of stuck place where you are continually reaching for something that is supposed to fill a hole that it will never be able to fill.
But I think there are other kinds of desire as well. I remember learning in college literature classes about the medieval ideal of romantic love, which could be summed up as a knight pining for a lady in a tower. It was a kind of desire that was beautiful precisely because it wouldn’t be fulfilled. The beauty was in the longing itself, rather than in the relationship that two people (often married to others) might achieve. I imagine it as the kind of desire I felt as a young teen to have an encounter with a unicorn. I was certainly old enough to realize that unicorns weren’t real, and there was exactly zero possibility that this would ever happen. But the desire, the imagination of an encounter with mystery and wildness and purity and recognition, soul to soul—that was real.
Perhaps that kind of unrealized love is ridiculous, overly romantic, but I have a soft spot in my heart for a pure desire for the impossible. But then there’s another kind of desire which we haven’t really talked about—the entirely achievable desire for things that serve you, but cause harm to others. This could look like a whole lot of things: Dashing across lanes on the highway in a way that is exciting and gets you faster to your destination, but is hazardous—or at least scary—to others on the road. Building your dream cabin in the woods—to the detriment of the woods themselves and the creatures who already live there. Eating up the ice cream that others in your family were expecting to share.
It happens all the time, in ways large and small. But I have been thinking about it particularly in terms of the society-wide conversation taking place about sexual abuse and sexual consent. Sexual desire, in and of itself, is a good thing, a natural and healthy pleasure that most beings (human and otherwise) experience. But it is all too common for people’s desires to not match up. What one person wants to do with another person is not the same as what that other person desires.
And for far too long, men have been taught to follow their sexual desires as a goal to be achieved. Society teaches men that what is normal is to try to “score” or to “get some.” In the meantime, while society has shifted some from the long tradition of telling women that their sexual desires are dirty or wrong, women still are taught that fulfilling men’s sexual desires is anything from an expected kindness to an obligation to a means of escaping even more devastating harm. And in the context of those social teachings we often get lost in a morass of desires that are not just unmatched, but also involve more and less subtle kinds of coercion.
When the fulfillment of sexual desire is a personal goal to be achieved, rather than a subtle and potentially shifting conversation, then it makes sense to push the boundaries of “no,” to see if you can’t bargain or plead or demand your way to getting what you want. If the fulfillment of someone else’s sexual desire is an obligation, it’s all too easy to fail to hold on to—or even recognize—what your own desires actually are.
But imagine what would happen if we were to teach our children and our partners and ourselves that our desires are legitimate and good, and that we are fully entitled to the pleasures of our own bodies. But that encounters with the bodies and desires of other people are never a game to be won, let alone a resource to be exploited. Instead, perhaps we could understand sexual encounters as a kind of conversation in which we find pleasure in trying to recognize and acknowledge and respond to the places where our desires connect.
A conversation that you are trying to win is an argument. A sexual encounter you are trying to win is assault. But we have the choice to understand our desires as part of a complex dance in which invitations are offered and responded to in some variety of ways, all which need to recognize the agency and wishes of the other person.
It’s a lot more complicated that just trying to get what you want. We will never do it perfectly, and there will always be those who just don’t care about the cost to others so long as their desires are fulfilled. But it isn’t a unicorn fantasy. If our deepest desire is for connection and respect and recognition and passion, we can find a way to live into that reality.