Is “All Men Struggle with Lust” a Primal Fear?

by | Oct 11, 2022 | Pornography | 15 comments

Is the "all men struggle with lust" message one of primal fear instead of truth? let's look at the research for a better way forward!

What if the “all men struggle with lust” message is coloring how we see life?

We’re in the middle of our New Research series on the Bare Marriage blog, where we talk about some interesting studies that have come out with relevance to marriage, sex, and more.

Recently I was sent an article from The Atlantic with reference to a study about primal fear.

The article is based on a new peer-reviewed study from Clifton and Meindl that just came out in the Journal of Positive Psychology. The reader who sent the Atlantic article discussing this study to me (you all send me the best stuff!) felt that the “every man’s battle” message fit in this conception of fear. Here’s how the article describes what a “primal fear” is:

The contention that the world is mostly safe or mostly dangerous is what some psychologists call a “primal world belief,” one about life’s basic essence. Specifically, it’s a negative primal in which the fundamental character of the world is assumed to be threatening. Primal beliefs are different from more specific beliefs—say, about sports or politics—insofar as they color our whole worldview. If I believe that the Red Sox are a great baseball team, it generally will not affect my unrelated attitudes and decisions. But according to Clifton and Meindl, if I believe that the world is dangerous, it will affect the way I see many other parts of my life, relationships, and work. I will be more suspicious of other people’s motives, for example, and less likely to do things that might put me or my loved ones in harm’s way, such as going out at night…..

And to top it all off, negative primals don’t even help keep people safe. Researchers writing in the journal Psychology & Health in 2001 showed that a general state of fear can actually make a person less likely to take threats seriously (a self-defense mechanism to control our fear) and undermine precautionary behavior (by degrading the ability to address danger rationally).

Arthur C. Brooks

"Don't Teach Your Kids to Fear the World", The Atlantic

The article wasn’t about lust, but rather about the danger of teaching kids that the world is unsafe.

And I love their solution! You flip the narrative, and instead teach about red flags. As Brooks says: “Instead of saying, “People will try to take advantage of you at college,” say, “If someone is trying to get you to drink too much, avoid that person.”

This is what we’ve been arguing for two years now. We need to stop seeing lust as every man’s battle, and instead treat a man who can’t control his mind in the presence of 14-year-olds in bikinis as a threat to those 14-year-olds in bikinis. That is a red flag that something is wrong with the man, not that something is wrong with the girls.

We need to start seeing boys who push girls’ sexual boundaries (another negative belief that we measured) as a huge character red flag, not as just something girls need to put up with, because “that’s just how boys are, and boys are dangerous.”

Here’s something we wrote in our upcoming book She Deserves Better (it’s out in April, but available for pre-order now!):

Boys are not made less in the image of God than girls. They do not have less of the Holy Spirit than girls, and frankly, [the message that all boys will use girls as objects and lust after them] is denying the cross of Christ. Rather than telling girls that all men and boys will push their boundaries and won’t be able to stop themselves, why don’t we teach girls that these behaviors are red flags that the guy is dangerous and should be avoided?

Your daughter does not need to be told, “Boys can’t help themselves.” What she needs to know is that she deserves a partner who displays the fruit of the Spirit, which includes self-control. She needs to know that her no is more powerful than any boy’s sex drive—and if he continues past her no, it’s a sign that he is a predator, not just that he is male.

What if we could normalize healthy behaviour rather than red-flag behaviour?

Yes, we have a crisis in evangelicalism where far too many men objectify women and feel entitled to sex. When we ran the numbers from our survey of men, as I reported last year, only 38% of men are sexually safe (they don’t use porn; they don’t believe the obligation sex message; they don’t actively lust in any of the scenarios we give them; they do make their wife’s pleasure a priority).

But what if we started talking like all of these things are normal? What if we started teaching girls that this is what men CAN be like; this is the way GOD MADE MEN (unlike how Steve Arterburn claims in Every Man’s Battle that men were made without the Christian view of sex); that this is what men SHOULD be like, and that this is what they can EXPECT?

They say that when bank tellers are taught to recognize counterfeits, they first study the real thing. Maybe we should be teaching our girls and our boys primarily what HEALTHY sexuality looks like. We should be setting that up as the expectation, rather than constantly warning about how bad everything is.

And then, when we talk about the bad, it’s more in the context of, “okay, nobody should be doing this, there is no reason to do this, and that’s a huge red flag?”

Of course, we’d have to do this with grace, knowing that many boys (and girls) do indeed struggle with lust, and we don’t want to add shame or make it so that they can’t get help.

But as we’ve been speaking about The Great Sex Rescue and rescuing and reframing these messages, it’s possible to say,

Lust is a battle many people struggle with, often men more than women, but women as well. But it is a battle that many have fought and won, and you can get victory over it. And the victory comes from learning to see the other person as a whole person, made in the image of God.

Then people would know that if someone doesn’t treat them as a whole person, there is something wrong with that person–not that the world is a dangerous place.

The responsibility is put back on the person who is doing wrong.

When we think the world is dangerous, we put up with more red flag behaviour.

That’s what Clifton & Meindl found. Seeing the world as dangerous led to far worse outcomes; but being able to recognize danger is a good thing. And you can recognize that some things can be dangerous without feeling that danger is everywhere.

For example, if it is beneficial to recognize dangerous situations as dangerous, but seeing the world as dangerous is associated with much worse outcomes, then perhaps the world is not so dangerous.

Clifton and Meindl

Parents think—incorrectly—that teaching their children that the world is a bad place is likely best for them, Journal of Positive Psychology

And teaching girls the world is dangerous will likely just lead to bad outcomes overall:

As predicted, regardless of occupation, more negative primals were almost never associated with better outcomes. Instead, they predicted less success, less job and life satisfaction, worse health, dramatically less flourishing, more negative emotion, more depression, and increased suicide attempts.

Clifton and Meindl

Parents think—incorrectly—that teaching their children that the world is a bad place is likely best for them, Journal of Positive Psychology

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This shouldn’t be rocket science, because isn’t this what God tells us? 

Take heart, for He has overcome the world. We have the Holy Spirit, and are no longer slaves to sin. We can expect those who are Christians to be good!

So let’s stop telling girls that all men and boys are dangerous, and instead teach them that men and boys can be expected to be good, since most are (and that’s factually true). Then, they’ll be able to see potential red flags more clearly. 

Is the "all men struggle with lust" message one of primal fear instead of truth? let's look at the research for a better way forward!

What do you think? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Helen

    So insightful. Thank you for this, it’s helped clarify a few things in my head. Helen

  2. Stefanie

    What am inspiring vision! I hope I can find a church that embodies this.

  3. Laura

    The church teaches that the world is a dangerous place and that we are not supposed to be of the world. When I rededicated my life to the Lord over 20 years ago, I first heard the terms “secular” and worldly” but didn’t know what they meant. Basically, what I had been told was that if a movie isn’t made by a Christian and does not have anything to do with God it was considered “secular” and that was bad. So, I felt like I should only listen to Christian music (mainly, marketed by Christian labels), try to avoid movies with sex and cussing, and avoid bars because none of those things glorified God.

    I have also noticed that in women’s Bible studies the leader would consider “red flag” behavior the right way to handle marriage and that it is acceptable for husbands to forbid their wives from seeing the doctor, not let their wives drive even when the husbands are not in any condition to do so, and if your husband does not want you to have a job even though you’re both deep in debt and don’t have any kids yet, you need to obey your husband. Yep, red flag behavior is seen as “normal” and “that’s just the way men are.”

    As a long-time divorced woman of 20 years, I have not had much luck in the dating department. Many single and divorced women my age (40s) struggle with this too. I’ve been on dating sites and encountered men who want to send inappropriate pictures of themselves and request the same for me. Well, that’s a huge red flag to me, so I didn’t contact those men again. Unfortunately, some of these women consider it “normal male behavior” even though they know it’s not good. Well, when you keep encountering the same unpleasant experiences, you begin to wonder if it’s just better to have anyone even if they have undesirable “red flag” behavior and there’s that fear that no one good is out there. It’s sad to think there aren’t many good men out there because of the way we’ve been taught to think both in the church and in mainstream culture.

  4. Jo R

    “All men lust” is both self-fulfilling prophecy and a great excuse for men to do NOTHING about their sin.

    Thanks, church.

    • Jackie

      Exactly. The Bible never says one gender has a monopoly on the sin of Lust. It is a human sin we all struggle with. Men are just constantly told that only they have a high sex drive and uncontrollable lust. Only women are expected to exercise self control because they “don’t struggle with lust like men do”(yeah right).

  5. Codec

    Fascinating post. It is interesting that the message of every mans battle sets up men to be paranoid and why wouldn’t they be if they are told every woman they encounter is a threat to them. To borrow an image from one of the greatest anime ever made according to every mans battle every man winds up being Lupin III hilariously falling for Fujiko every single time.

    • Mara R

      Primal Fear?

      Kind of reminds me of the opening of The Croods (not an anime, but definitely animated.)

      The motto of this caveman family, “Never NOT be afraid!”

      • Codec

        That fits.

  6. Cynthia

    I love the emphasis on modelling healthy behavior!

    The discussion of primal fear has another aspect here that we need to discuss. It isn’t just about a fear that women might have of men, but also a fear that men might have of women. Think of the words “Every Man’s BATTLE” – men are being taught to see this as a literal war, and it is a book that is aimed at men, not women! While the battle is supposed to refer to their own lust, it easily gets turned into seeing the mere sight of a female as a satanic attack on them. In extreme forms, this fuels rage and violence against women who aren’t deemed sufficiently pure and modest. Women are sold a message that dressing modestly will somehow keep them safe, even though that message doesn’t always make much sense – a decent man should be able to refrain from sexual assault even if a woman is naked, and modestly dressed women and girls have still experienced sexual assault. The message for men, though, is that merely having a sexual thought makes them a sinner and that this is therefore a satanic attack on their purity and souls. From there, it is easy for some to get the message that any girl or woman walking by, minding her own business, might cause him to have a sinful thought and therefore she becomes a tool of satan. It isn’t and never was about women’s safety.

    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      YES. The primal fear for many is that men will harm women, yes, but it’s also that women are inherently “against” men. It is flat-out misogyny. It treats women like poisoned apples instead of sisters to be loved.

  7. Mara R

    Sorry, this concept of primal fear really has me thinking.

    Absolutely, I see where this applies to Every Man’s Battle’s stinkin’ thinkin’.

    But extending it further, it looks to me like primal fear is what fuels devotion to patriarchy presenting it as that which will save the family. Think Gothard’s Umbrella of Authority. That is insanely driven by fear.

    I’m thinking of that crazy purity culture that was slated to protect out daughters but instead damaged them soooo bad!

    I was in the throes of dealing with how bad things had gotten when I wrote a blog post comparing the movie Courageous (and the purity ring scene) and “The Croods” mentioned above.

    As said above, The Croods motto at the beginning of the movie was “Never NOT be afraid.” It changed by the end of the movie.

    • Laura

      Mara R.

      I thought The Croods was a great movie. It’s been years since I’ve seen it so I forgot about it. Unfortunately, I haven’t forgotten about Courageous. I get that these men wanted to be better fathers and I think they had good intentions, but it seemed so controlling with the father giving his teenage daughter a purity ring.

      I discovered a book written by the Courageous directors about men being leaders in their homes. I read an excerpt of it on Amazon and just thought it was so sexist when the author was having a bad dream about his wife driving and he was asleep at the wheel. He realized he should be the one taking over on “leading” his family. Can’t both spouses do it jointly?

  8. NL

    One of the few arguments I had with my fil was over this- when I would come home from anywhere with my 3 year old, my fil would ask “Did anyone hurt you?” I tried to be patient with his ignorance, but I finally snapped and asked him to stop setting her up to seek offense and expect the worst.

  9. Mindy

    New title for a book: Some Men’s Battle: Winning the War to See Women As Whole People Worthy of Safety, Security and Healthy Relationships With Men, One Step Of Ownership at a Time.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I love that so much!


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