When I was dean of theology at an interdenominational evangelical university, some of the freshmen guys started sharing their frustrations with me about a popular phenomenon: young men’s study groups centered on a book by Stephen Arterburn, Every Man’s Battle: Winning the War on Sexual Temptation One Victory at a Time
(2000). Arterburn shared a story that illustrates the way sex talks in Christian circles often cause one to imagine the very thing they’re trying to suppress. He recounts something that happened while he was driving up Pacific Coast Highway, along a stretch I enjoy regularly on my motorcycle:

My eyes locked on to this goddess-like blonde, rivulets of sweat cascading down her tanned body as she ran at a purposeful pace. Her jogging outfit, if it could be called that in those days before sports bras and spandex, was actually a skimpy bikini. As she approached on my left, two tiny triangles of tie-dyed fabric struggled to contain her ample bosom. I can’t tell you what her faced looked like; nothing above the neckline registered with me that morning. My eyes feasted on this banquet of glistening flesh as she passed on my left, and they continued to follow her lithe figure as she continued jogging southbound. Simply by lustful instinct, as if mesmerized by her gait, I turned my head further and further, craning my neck to capture every possible moment for my mental video camera. (2009 edition, page 11).

Then, it turns out, he slammed into a car that had stopped in the road ahead of him. Here we see a common evangelical morality tale: when women dress immodestly, and men don’t keep their libidos in check, the men are in danger of physical harm. At least two things frustrated my students, concerning this book study. First, the emphasis placed on the ways in which women create problems by their beauty seemed to contribute to a sexist approach to the subject. Check out Elyse Fitzpatrick’s essay on this subject to better understand this criticism. Second, they complained that the constant conversation about sex seemed, paradoxically, to keep their minds focused on sexual lust itself.

This phenomenon reminds me of the problem of motorcycle accidents that occur because of object fixation. This happens when a rider’s eyes and head turn toward the very thing they are desperate to avoid. Say a biker is cutting a corner fast. He comes upon a tighter bend than expected, only to find a telephone pole precariously close to the road. He might instinctively stare right at the pole. This might cause him to freeze up and orient his body in the undesired direction, and plow straight into the hazard. This can happen when skiing too.

But, with motorcycles, it involves the strange way in which motorcycles are maneuvered. One steers a motorcycle at speed by leaning; even slight bodily movements have an effect on one’s trajectory. Many don’t realize it even while they are doing it, but motorbikes going faster than 20 miles per hour are “counter-steered.” This means that, although bikes moving at 5 miles per hour steer to the right when the handlebars are turned to the right, when a bike is clipping along, to get out of the way of a hazard on one’s left, turning the handle bars to the left, with a good push on the left hand grip, moves the bike to the right. This relies on the curvature of a motorcycle’s tires. It’s hard to get used to psychologically, but that’s indeed how it works.

Christ crucified carving

This motorcycle analogy is helpful with respect to the question of sex and lust. By focusing intently on what one wants to avoid, we often crash right into the moral hazard we are trying to evade. I’m not submitting a new observation. Others have noted that telling someone not to think about a pink elephant tends to create mental images of dancing pachyderms within a person’s imagination. I believe, therefore, that it is far more helpful to fix our eyes outside ourselves, on something more profoundly wholesome and transformative.

In our quest for erotic virtue, we are better off with the advice of Martin Luther, who frequently reminded us that our attention should not be on spiritual or moral navel-gazing but rather something outside of us (extra nos): the cross of Christ. Staying focused on the transformative teaching of Christianity itself—the central message of Scripture—and then habituation in virtue within the alternative culture of the church is a far more helpful strategy with young people than a barrage of nagging sex talks. There’s certainly a place for discussing and studying such things, but we must resist the temptation to make this topic our main theme.

My prayer is that all of us, by setting our heart’s compass to the North Star of Christ, will find ourselves on the road to unconditional love, the sort of love that flows from Christ to all whom we encounter. Perhaps especially our romantic partners!

Jeff Mallinson

To read more about the connection between the Gospel and erotic virtue, check out Mallinson’s new book, Sexy: The Quest for Erotic Virtue in Perplexing Times, from which this essay was adapted.