Lust; the bright side…….

Lust does not appear in Index Medicus or on Medline. We in the medical profession pretend that the most atavistic and implacable of all forces does not exist, though our colleagues in the clergy consider it the deadliest of all the deadly sins.1 What, then, is lust? Like any good Irishman, shuddering with repressed Catholic guilt and Victorian prudery, I interpret lust as unfettered sexual desire, and not as some wishy-washy Van Goghian lust for life in general; as Jenny Diver screeched triumphantly in Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, “Sexual obsession hath him in thrall.”

In truth, our primal drives offer us little choice; they demand that we see our descendants thrive and our genes become immortal. But Mother Nature has been capriciously kind and has given us this irresistible imperative with a twinkle in her eye. Procreating is fun, great fun, though archaeologists now say that for the past few million years humans have consciously separated sex from reproduction; fortunately sex, even without procreation, is still great fun. It may be an empty experience, but to paraphrase Woody Allen, as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.

Lust drives us to create, to achieve, to make ourselves as attractive as possible; whether our dick-substitute is a big shiny car or the tenderest love poem or the most outre art nouveau is simply a matter of taste – we are combing our peacock plumage with different strokes. But there is a snake in our garden of Eden, the serpent of sociocultural patterns which trammel this rich creative force into the bottlenecks of monogamy and sterility. Imagine driving down the motorway in a Porsche and encountering a 30 mph zone; how do you restrain the six tons of throbbing horsepower between your legs? What congealing effect will it have on your spirit?

This is in regrettable contrast with the happy sexuality of other mammals, where sex is governed only by the availability of the female. The unfortunate female human who engages in sex without emotional involvement has been shown to feel vulnerable and this emotional vulnerability increases with the number of partners.2 But could it be our society and its legacy of sexual limitation and equivocal morality which is the real cause of this vulnerability? Many other cultures display this unfair, dimorphic attitude. In Mangaia, in Polynesia, a boy who has had many women is admiringly described as being like a bull; his female counterpart dismissed as a pig.3 

Women, I am strangely relieved to say, can be just as superficial, and are more likely to consider sex with a man who has high socioeconomic status (SES) and consequently greater earning potential,4 no matter if he is as unappealing as a hernia with a goatee. Perhaps the tide is turning; women are now more often initiating sexual contact,5 and as they wield more social and political power, their sexual attitudes may also become more aggressive. 

But even unsatisfied lust may have its Bright Side. When Yeats, only 23, fell in unrequited love with Maud Gonne, his loss inspired the greatest body of love poetry in the English language; the anguish, the ruin, the grief, the lurching between melancholy and despair, “It had become a glimmering girl/With apple-blossom in her hair/Who called me by my name and ran/And faded in the brightening air.” Would a few good hard shags right at the start of their relationship have deprived us of these sublime and unforgettable verses? As Balzac said (afterwards), “There goes another great novel.”

Footnote; The Christmas issue of the BMJ is always off-beat, and this year they commissioned seven highly-regarded doctors to write an academic review of the positive aspects of the Seven Deadly Sins (hence the references). I was allocated Lust, for some unknown reason.

Soon after I was commissioned to write the entry on Sex for the Oxford Companion to the Body. I had become typecast as an expert on sex, and it’s been hard to shake off this reputation. Give a dog a bad name, said Flashy, but it’s far harder to live down a good one.


1. Capps D

. The deadly sins and saving virtues: how they are viewed by clergy. Pastoral Psychology 1992;40:209–33.

2. Townsend JM

. Sex without emotional involvement. An evolutionary interpretation of sex differences. Arch Sex Behav 1995;24:173–207.

3. Marshall D

Sexual behaviour on Mangaia; human sexual behaviour.New York: Basic Books, 1971.

4. Townsend JM

. Effects of potential partners’ physical attractiveness and socioeconomic status on sexuality and partner selection. Arch Sex Behav1990;19:149–63. 

5. Anderson PB

. Reports of female initiation of sexual contact: male and female differences. Arch Sex Behav 1993;22:335–43.


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