Tag Archives: sexuality

The migration from lust to artistic appreciation

My rendering of a female figure from a life drawing class in college. There was seriously not a trace of lust in me while creating this image.

So many of us are taught to not feel proud about having sexual feelings. Yet human beings are biologically wired to have sexual attractions of one form or another. Many of these are characterized as taboo or against the teachings of a particular religion. We’re told these feelings are sinful and are thereby urged to repress some of nature’s most powerful instincts.

Feelings of sexual desire are loosely characterized as “lust,” a word that bears a negative connotation in context with scripture and other moral guidebooks. To “lust” after something is characterized as a craven or base instinct, something to be resisted. The website Biblestudytools.com describes it this way:

Lust is a temptation and an evil that overcomes many of us. It is born of Satan and the flesh. Every single one of us is subject to lust. If we are to overcome it, we must be strong. Use these Bible verses to find out why you should resist lust, and use them to strengthen yourself.

The quote attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5:28 is most often cited as a directive to resist lust at all costs:

28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

A drawing I produced from a Playboy centerfold when I was a sophomore in high school. There was definitely lust involved in producing this drawing.
This is an image of the centerfold from which I rendered the drawing above. The beauty of the female figure is aptly captured in this centerfold.

Yet the natural curiosity to know more about the human body isn’t just about lust. There is also appreciation involved. Even scripture recognizes this aspect of adoration in the Book of Psalms, where a lover clearly lusts for his divine partner:

“Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.” (7.3)

“Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit.” (7.7)

“My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts.” (1:13)

Okay, so now we know that exploring and expressing lust is not all bad. Many of us recognize its allure within us from a young age. I well recall, at the age of eight or so, reaching into my father’s closet to pull down copies of Playboy magazine. The sight of naked women fueled my desire even before I entirely knew what to do with it.

The drawing of Playboy model Claudia Jennings that I produced in 1972. It also drew from lust, but it was more than that as well. Look at the clothing…
The centerfold on which the drawing above was based.

So strong was my urge to understand the female body that I took to tracing outlines of those women on the pages of Playboy. I stored those tracing paper drawings in the depths of my closet and returned the magazines to my father’s room.

I even drew images of naked women on the steam-covered bathroom mirror. On Sunday mornings the sight of Blondie’s buxom figure on the cartoon pages even got me going. I copied those cartoons too, but not only those. I began to replicate all sorts of cartoon figures on my own. I was learning to draw. To appreciate what I was seeing. That gave me a sense of ownership and power over my observations.

By the time I reached my early teens, I was drawing and painting regularly. My mother bought me paints and paper. I rendered wildlife that I’d seen and copied pictures from books. My desire to capture the essence of birds and other creatures was a lust of sorts.

A 1973 watercolor of a great horned owl copied from a painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

As a sophomore in high school my drawing skills began to come together in all new ways. In a fit of drawing immersion combined with lust, I rendered highly-detailed copies of centerfolds from Playboy magazine as shown above. I didn’t always get the face quite right, but doing the shading on their bodies was captivating.

This is the same model as the drawing at the top of this blog. I produced this single image from a long series of separate drawings. The female figure celebrated.

Then I reached college and took a life drawing class. My curiosity about the female and male body was greatly satisfied by drawing live figures. There was no lust in this brand of appreciation. My entire focus was on rendering the human figure with accuracy, detail and subtlety. This applied to both men and women.

It struck me as odd that when I arrived back at my college dorm room, male classmates would gather around to look at the drawings I’d done that day. To many of them, the images constituted “naked chicks” and while I laughed about it then, my interests were migrating from lust to appreciation.

Not long after college I hired a model on my own to pose nude for an afternoon drawing session. She arrived at my studio apartment, disrobed and posed on the couch, and left at the appointed time. I compensated her for the time, and did not feel any particular lust for her body while doing the drawings.

The model I hired to pose for a life drawing session. It is an interesting reflection of the piece I created from the centerfold years before.

Yet I can’t honestly say that I never looked at pornography again. The nature and accessibility of naked images, especially of women, evolved with technology. I did a search of Playboy centerfolds and can identify the year and month that I last purchased that print magazine. It was 1994. In a strange twist two years after that, I was parked in a White Hen lot and looked down to find a Playboy magazine sticking out from beneath the parking block next to the sidewalk. I pulled out the magazine and was stunned to see that it was dated 1976. Patti McGuire was the centerfold. Had that magazine survived under that block for twenty years? I doubt it, but it was still strange to find it there.

These days it’s not just Playmates who show up half-naked or completely naked in the digital and real world. World-class athletes on social media know that a touch of sex sells. It’s part of the gig to attract followers, be they males lusting after fit girls or women appreciating the hard work it takes to look like that.

World-class female athletes know that a touch of sex sells when it comes to gaining followers.

Society has grown to accept the sight of fully exposed female buttocks as a natural part of empowered fashion. Social media encourages nakedness at many levels, including women that willingly pose without clothes or get involved in the porn industry to make money. It’s seldom glamorous, as Rashida Jones shared in a telling Netflix series.

Exploitation, whether by self-choice or by revenge porn, is a far different enterprise than building appreciation for the human body. Some of the world’s greatest art features nude human beings. That is an accepted part of culture. Yet there’s also no avoiding that lust drives considerable occupation with the human figure as well.

A pencil drawing of film star and sex symbol Marilyn Monroe.

I think the right kind of pride sits somewhere in between the worlds of lust and appreciation. Maintaining that balance is a sign of maturity and self-actualization. When I consider the manner in which attractive actresses are expected to bare all for movies, it makes me wonder how they feel about having their naked bodies out there for all of eternity. Women such as Marilyn Monroe were supposedly able to turn that lust magnetism on and off. It was a persona, they say. And yet, we tragically learned, it also wasn’t.

A drawing from a Playboy photograph rendered in the 1970s.

We all conduct our own mind experiments and learn our flaws and obsessions. The range of human sexual expression, orientation and gratification is far more diverse and appreciated now that society is becoming more honest about it. Clearly we still have a ways to go, and some argue that sexual images and exploitation are signs of a morally decaying society. Yet knowing about sex and having a better understanding of the human body ultimately empowers everyone in the end. Being educated and making choices is better than being repressed and succumbing to fears, guilt, and mistakes in conscience.

Ancient attitudes of automatic repression and hardline theology don’t do people any favors. They depend on a brand of hyperbole that comes from an age when sexuality was poorly understood, and lust along with it. It’s not true that people conduct adultery in their heart every time they look at a woman (or man) lustfully. Sometimes it’s just that: a look to wick off desire. Then we get back to appreciating the ones we love, and even making art that inspires appreciation of the human condition in all its forms.

That’s the right kind of pride.

Sex drive

Amy Poehler BookWhile reading Amy Poehler’s funny book Yes, Please, it has been amusing to follow her course through pregnancy. In one section, she talks about how difficult it can be for some women to get pregnant. I’ve known several women that have gone through that. Tried all kinds of treatments and submitted to clinical trials. Sometimes it’s a problem with the woman. Other times it’s a problem with the man. At some point, sex drive is no longer the issue at all. You just wish it would happen. Immaculate conception would be fine. You reallly can get tired of f****** on demand. The human sex drive has its limits.

I know a woman that had all kinds of trouble conceiving because she was in her thirties. Then she had acupuncture treatment for a back problem and she was warned that the procedure could increase chances of pregnancy. She laughed bitterly at the thought.

But lo and behold. Her acupuncturist was right. She did pregnant. And was quite happy and relieved about that. So was her husband, as I recall. Because the effort of having programmed sex is quite exhausting. It can also take quite a bit of fun out of the sex act itself. And sex drives can disappear.

And sure, there are all kinds of sex acts, which have become more acceptable as our society has become enlightened to the fact that not everybody has the same types of sex drive. Or to put that different, some people do have a same sex drive.

In any case, sex drive is a pretty strange and mysterious thing. For one thing, being horny interrupts all kinds of other thought. As a young man, there were days when it was impossible for me to think much about anything else but sex. Boys of a certain age wake up thinking about sex in the morning and keep their eyes and minds out for reminders of sex pretty much all day. In that state of mind, sex is nearly a complete distraction.

The only way to temper sex drive when sex is not available with other people is to take care of business yourself. Jackson Browne wrote a great song about that, and being a young man left alone after striking out at a rock concert. The song is called Rosie. The refrain goes like this:

Rosie, you’re all right
(You wear my ring)
When you hold me tight
(Rosie, that’s my thing)
When you turn out the light
(I got to hand it to me)
It looks like it’s me and you again tonight, Rosie

It’s only been in recent years that the female equivalent in masturbation and orgasm has been brought to light, so to speak. The intrigue of female orgasm was originally explored in songs such as Mystery Achievement by The Pretenders. Yet when Lucinda Williams a few years back tried to sing one of her lyrics about a woman masturbating out of loneliness and grief for her lost lover, the singer was forced by TV censors to change the lyrics for a “general audience.” Williams was disgusted.

Girls rule

Consideration of female sexuality is changing rapidly thanks to the Internet. Sex drives and objectification and female empowerment are on display all over the place. Can anyone say Miley Cyrus? Women do know what they want. They’re talking about it, and showing it, and gaining tens of thousands of Likes on site like Reddit. But many also wind up getting exploited and having their privacy invaded. So sex drives can go quickly out of control.

It’s true therefore with both boys and girls. To whit: I’m not sure how I’d handle this new world if I were a kid today. But I do know that my own children have rationally explored this world and made sense of it in their own way. More knowledge is always better. With sex drive, curiosity and the taboo are almost worse than the prevalent display of sexuality. You can get sick of it after a while if it’s everywhere, and move on. But curiosity and ignorance are never, ever satisfied. That’s what the real trouble starts.

Sex and religion

The church has always preached that our sex drives are only for one thing: a motivation to create children. And to keep boys from resorting to the grip of Rosie, the church even falsified a Bible passage about a character named Onan to suggest that “spilling your seed” was a sin of ungodly proportions.

Yet from experience and having fathered two children, I can only say that fathering children is actually very different than having sex. I believe being a father or mother is an important thing if that’s what you want to do. But you should really want to do that, or you should not become a parent. Not on your life. Sex is only incidental to that greater decision.

That’s why I think it’s fine to have sex even if you’re not planning to become a parent. I also think women should have all the access to birth control that society can muster. I think birth control should be legal, free and readily available. That’s because I know how men think when it comes to sex drive. And the fact is, they mostly don’t. Think. So women need to be able to protect themselves from men who don’t think it matters if a women protects herself or not. The Catholic church for years has maintained that birth control goes against God’s word. But Catholic women in droves ignore that patriarchal mess of a dictum and do what they need to do in planning their parenthood.

Great moments

My testimony about the difference between having sex and fathering children comes down to one singular moment in my life. In our late 20s, my wife and I decided to have our first child. We had nice sex. And a couple weeks later she came to bed with no clothes on, and her hair all wet. She hugged me and kissed me and said, “We’re gonna have a baby.” And that my friends, was one of the nicer moments of my life. And it was true again with our second child.

Sex was a very small part of the picture in either case. Because what follows is profound. Having babies is no easy enterprise. Pregnancy is hard. Delivering the child can be difficult. I will never forget practicing Lamaze and then having my wife blow on my index finger for 15 consecutive hours of labor contractions every three minutes. I thought to myself, “This is insane.” Lamaze was insane. The whole thing. We had a guy that came to class bragging that he went to bed with Oreos ever night to enjoy with his wife’s breast milk. All of it. Was Nuts.

Making babies and other things

So I have a healthy respect and a somewhat divisive opinion about sex and babies. And I greatly respect women for being able to go through that pain and glory. One of the awesome things my companion Sue told me… is that she delivered two of her three children at home. That is so in line with her character and practical approach to life. She’s both tough and tender. A true woman, in other words.

Which is what makes so much of what we find on the Internet a bit difficult to comprehend. Sexuality is everywhere, and pornography is easy to view. There are literally millions of women and men putting their bodies on display. Some engage in sex on video. Amateurs tape themselves in the bedroom or on the beach, and share it on sites for millions to see. One young woman rose to instant fame by recording herself naked in the college library. And all that has raised the question of just who has the greater sex drive, men or women?

Relative sex drives

The answer of course, is that it’s more subtle than that. There are obviously times in life when women and men differ in their relative sex drives. That can put pressure on a marriage, such as when a women does not feel much like having sex after the birth of a child. And if a husband loses his sex drive for emotional or physical reasons, or fails in his ability to “perform,” that can cause problems as well.

So while complaints about the damaging effects of pornography and overheated sex drives get all the press, the quiet pain of those struggling with sex drives within relationships gets far less press, yet is perhaps the far more important aspect of the sex drive when it comes to maintaining stable, trusting relationships. Because without that, there’s cheating to contend with, which leads to conflicts and distrust.

Gender and sexuality

Then there is the issue of people trying to figure out their sexuality at all. The bitter retorts against Caitlyn Jenner by those uncomfortable with her decision to affirm herself in the female gender point out the fact that while sex is celebrated in our society, actual sexuality remains taboo.

That explains in part the continuing discomfort with homosexuality. People who are attracted to the same sex aren’t weird or different though. Not any more. Sure, there are social control freaks who contend that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice,” while clinging to ancient fears codified in the Bible. But none of those hold up under rational scrutiny. The fact of the matter is that we’re all part of the same species in the human race. Homo sapiens. In other words, we’re all homos. So deal with it.

Most often complaints in the bible about homosexuality relate more to wanton behavior and abusing other people than they are about sex acts. The biggest confounding bible passage is that a “man should not lie with another man as with a woman.” But you know what? That’s impossible. Men don’t even have the same parts.

And some people have parts from both genders, and like it or not, they deserve consideration and respect. They did not choose their gender any more than you or I chose to have blue or brown eyes, blonde or black hair. People are born the way they are born in terms of gender identification and sexuality. And either you believe God doesn’t make mistakes or you don’t. And you’re a hypocrite if you try to parse that.

Sex drive math

Where that leaves us in terms of healthy, honest, moral response to sex drive is this. There are billions of sperm in every ejaculation. There are hundreds of eggs in every woman’s body at birth. These are not all designed to be used to create children. That’s both impossible and stupid.

The sex drive itself can be similarly wasteful. So there’s nothing wrong with masturbation. Not for men or for women. There’s also nothing wrong with premarital sex if two people take precautions to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. This notion of forced abstinence is somehow holy does nothing but repress healthy urges. Today’s medical doctors even recommend that men of all ages ejaculate with regularity. That can help prevent prostate cancer. And orgasms are healthy for a woman’s reproductive organs. So go enjoy yourself. You’re doing God’s work.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Sex drive is about far more than making children, and that’s a fact. Yes, it’s wonderful when it contributes to the process of creating a child. But only if you are prepared and able to manage that decision. Otherwise, you should stay away. Don’t overpopulate the world.

But we’ll close with one provocative notation about sex drive and holiness. Even Jesus was ostensibly conceived without Mary ever having had sex. What are we to make of that, really? If sex is only for having babies, why did God prevent that from happening with a girl, a young virgin supposedly, and put Joseph through all that hell?

Some scholars have suggested that Jesus knew the company of women in his life, or was even married. Which would mean one of two things. Either there is holy blood floating around out there in the world or there are some unholy little bastards running around.

Or, none of the above, and Jesus avoided his sex drive altogether. Did the Son of God never ejaculate, even at age fifteen, or in his sleep? That would be one of life’s miracles indeed.