In a 1976 interview for Playboy magazine, the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, said, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” This was in response to a question about his views on the Bible’s admonitions about adultery, and was a paraphrase of Christ’s teachings in Matthew 5: 28—“I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery.”
Many were aghast that so prominent a man would admit that, thereby damaging his political standing. Others saw it as an honest answer from a pious man, acknowledging his imperfections. Still others saw it as a cynical ploy—embracing both arrogance and humility—wanting to appear virtuous in the face of temptation, thus enhancing his political position.
Whatever it was, it is extremely unlikely Carter was the only man to have sinned in that fashion, although most of us would not choose to admit it.
There is obviously a difference between the so-called evil of lust and the widely-accepted blessing of love—but perhaps not so great a gap as might be imagined. Lust is relatively easy to define: a strong, sexual desire; a sensuous appetite (regarded by many today as sinful). Its blunt hunger can be satiated, at least temporarily, through participation in a sex act with someone else, or even alone.
Love is a softer sentiment, usually involving sexual attraction, but also embracing such emotions as friendship, protectiveness, tolerance, forgiveness, happiness, fulfilment, and mutual respect. It is something that, although freely given, must also be earned. In a truly loving relationship, the quest for love is never satiated, but yearned for, and given, all the more.
It cannot be disputed that the propagation of our species has relied upon the sexual attraction between men and women, their lust for each other. If two people also found love in their coupling, that was a bonus. Love for one another was not required in order to produce offspring.
Biologically speaking, lust can drive a person to have sexual relations with more than one partner of either gender, and more than once with each. And so it is with love. There is no biological impediment to falling in love with, and entering into a loving relationship with, multiple partners—although obviously, no children will result from a union of partners of the same gender.
Over time, and for a multitude of reasons, monogamous marriages became the norm in our culture. Although men and women could fall in love with more than one person, the law allowed us to marry but one at a time. However, the standing of each person in the conjugal union was unequal. For a long time, women were considered to be, if not the property of their husbands, at least subordinate to them. Power resided with the men. That status has changed ever so slowly, only beginning a hundred years or so ago.
At the time the Dominion of Canada was formed, a decade before the birth of the great Republic to the south, our fathers of confederation and their founding fathers espoused equality for all. But that noble ideal was to be applied only to the propertied classes—almost all of whom were male, white, rich, and protestant. Others of different gender, race, wealth, and religion were scarcely considered, except as property, workers, or servants.
Money and power were all that really mattered, and both resided with men.
Thus, it continued to be possible for men who lusted after women (or other men, or children) to prey upon them with relative impunity. Might makes right, as the adage has it, and fear can make cowards of us all. For the victims, suffering the abuse in silence was often more palatable than facing the public shaming and loss of employment that would crush them if they complained—assuming they would have been believed in the first place.
Jimmy Carter was honest in his admission. But I wonder, is it possible all men harbour such thoughts from time to time, even if only a relatively small number act on them? I cast no stones at him.
I also wonder, does power corrupt only men? Would women who come to power be immune to its seductive persuasions? And would any act on them?
Sexual misbehaviour of any sort is unacceptable, a monstrous issue only now being brought to the broader public arena. But I believe it is power, not lust, that is the driving force behind such behaviour. Any of us might experience lustful feelings, just as any of us might fall in love. But only the most powerful, the most arrogant, the most sociopathic among us would mobilize those feelings into unwanted actions, forced upon unwilling victims, solely for our own gratification.
It is as if the predators, when seized by a biological imperative, say to themselves, Because I can, I will. And who is to deny me?
And so, it is time, as many are saying—time to expose and shame those who are found guilty of transgressions, time to re-assess the accepted perquisites of power, time to educate our young people as to what is deemed acceptable in social intercourse, time to redefine the relationship between men and women.
It is more than time.