The Seven Deadly Sins, Revisited: Lust Print
By Mary Eberstadt   
Monday, 22 December 2008

With Christmas around the corner, dear readers, this month’s Deadly Sin packs a little extra frisson for that Catholic Thing stocking. Say what you like about Anger, Sloth, Envy, and the rest of the low-tech capital vices: they’re not really what most of us first reach for in that Deadly Sin grab bag. No, we all know who’s the real preening diva among these serpents, just whose big topaz eyes paralyze us fastest. Let’s face it: Lust is everyone’s secret favorite Deadly Sin, the “it” vice of the capital list.

Why so? In part, because our sexually toxic time won’t have it otherwise. Even believers can’t help but imbibe the signature lies of our age sometimes – including the lie that disordered sexuality, Lust in and of itself, is something we all need to feel fully alive. “I lust, therefore I am” is obviously the cogito ergo sum of our time.

Lust also wins the Deadly Sin popularity contest for another reason. As even Nerve.com co-founder Rufus Griscom has said – to the uninitiated, his is a pioneering online magazine second to none in its cheerleading for copulation (including with animals) – “the taboos are what make sex interesting.” Quite right. Despite all the feverish public attempts to de-stigmatize it, here is one Deadly Sin still performed furtively, in the dark, in “private.” This includes even the travesty of privacy, like a flickering blue screen in the family room late at night.

In fact, exactly because it may still be the one sin easiest to recognize as sin these days, Lust is also a capital vice about which we modern men and women, including Catholics, routinely deceive ourselves. Isn’t it true, we ask under a worldly, arched brow, that Dante only assigned Lust to the Second Circle, thus suggestively putting it farther from Satan than any other? That priests often tut-tut, both to us and to themselves, that sexual sins are the least serious of all? Or that the sin of Pride, especially, is universally judged by theologians to be worse?

Maximizing the supposed gains, minimizing the real losses – the self-deception characteristic of chronic gamblers is also commonplace with Lust.

The news – and as it happens, there is some real news about all this – is that this sophisticated game of dumbing down the costs of Lust has left many people disarmed at what may be the worst possible time. Such was the plain meaning of a conference at Princeton last weekend on “The Social Costs of Pornography.” The Witherspoon Institute and two other groups organized a gathering that for once truly deserves the adjective “groundbreaking” – an unprecedented assortment of psychiatrists, psychologists, authors, scientists, and professors of sociology, psychology, law, and philosophy, summoned from around the nation to tally up and explain, in particular, the human toll of internet pornography.

Just for starters, another outstanding lie of our time – that pornography itself is a victimless, harmless pursuit – has been definitively laid to rest by these researchers. In an age of so many fake victims, they offered a torrent of data about real ones. Lawyers reported that a growing percentage of divorces now come from pornography addiction. Therapists reported that frustrated wives and girlfriends gave the ultimatum, “it’s your porn or me,” only to have husbands and boyfriends choose the former – with family trauma and breakup the entirely predictable results. All this is to say nothing of the children and adolescents dragooned into the “industry” via drugs, prostitution, and rape; or of the many other children and adolescents who have been inadvertently or deliberately exposed to internet pornography as their first template, with consequences that even the most jaded psychologists and related practitioners cannot yet imagine.

And those are just some obvious casualties. Clinicians also spoke of patients progressing rapidly from itinerant use of “soft-core” pornography to compulsive forages for images of “hard-core” child rape, bestiality, and other violence.

Similarly, debilitating fetishes in adolescents just a few years removed from childhood are now darkening psychiatry’s doorstep. Then there are the men who finally consent to therapy because they are losing their jobs, unable to break the serpent’s gaze even for the length of one workday. Meanwhile, experts also reported, there are others who discover too late one perfectly perverse result of this technologically novel tornado of addiction: it leaves at least some habitual users incapable of desiring a real human being. Period.

It really is ironic, in a nauseating sort of way, that so many sophisticated people have labored so hard, for so long, to convince us that any truly loving God could not possibly send people to hell for Lust. It’s ironic because – as internet pornography addiction shows – there are times when He apparently needn’t lift a finger to send anybody anywhere. As a couple of former addicts testified at the Princeton conference: who needs marching orders for the next world when you’re glued and frozen, incognizant and indifferent to anything and anyone else, right here in this one? These men think they are in Hell already.

None of this would have surprised Dante, who stuck Francesca, Paolo, and other conniving victims of Lust into an imaginary world that has jolted readers ever since: a permanent whirlwind of images in which naked, powerless bodies contort eternally but never really touch. Seven hundred years later, the very word “lust” is guaranteed to provoke a condescending, knowing smile from people who think the stigma once attached to that word no more exists than Santa does. But it has all proven hellishly true.


Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, consulting editor to Policy Review, and a contributor to The Catholic Thing. The last column in this series can be found here.

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