‘All men lust’: how this toxic message increased my shame

Contains adult themes and mentions sexual assault and rape.

The message that all men lust is unavoidable in our society: it’s everywhere from Hollywood movies to Christian self-help books and I’m sure most people will have heard it at some point, even without realising it.

But that doesn’t mean it’s true. And it certainly isn’t healthy either.

First, let’s be clear about what I’m talking about when I say the word lust, because many people have different ideas of what it is. Lust is a deliberate choice based in our thoughts and not an automatic response (though, like many behaviours, it can become habitual if you keep doing it). It’s not sexual attraction or just noticing that someone’s good looking – those things are normal and healthy.

Lust includes things like objectification (seeing someone as an object, not a whole person), ogling body parts, staring, fantasising about what you’d do to them or what they’d look like naked, weighing them up based on their looks, talking to others about them in a derogatory way, acting or talking about them as if they were just a collection of body parts or thinking about them in a sexual way even long after your encounter with them. Lust can lead to things like sexual harrassment or assault, rape, porn use, affairs, using prostitutes and other similar behaviours.

At its heart, lust is about disrespect and entitlement. It’s treating people as if they exist purely for your pleasure and looking at what you can get from them.

No human being is biologically wired to lust after and objectify others. It’s a choice. Yes it may be a choice that’s hard to resist and can become compulsive and difficult to stop, but the problem with the message that every man lusts is the idea that it’s something hardwired into men at birth, that it’s just something that’s in men’s nature that they’re powerless to stop.

Men and boys suffer shame from being told from a young age – either openly or from depictions of men in the media – that just by being male they will turn into lustful monsters who can’t keep their eyes off women. And this message becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because men have been found to be no more visually stimulated than women but they’ve been socialised to see women as sex objects.

I’m not arguing in this article that no men lust – sadly as a society we’ve given men a sense of entitlement around women’s bodies and, as a result, many men do struggle with lust. But the truth is that many men who think they have a problem with this actually don’t. They’ve been told that being attracted to someone or noticing that they’re good looking is lusting when it really isn’t. In fact, in a study of 3,000 men 75% believed they had a problem with lust but only 55% of those who believed they had a problem displayed signs of lust or had a problem with porn. That’s still a huge number I know, but it’s not every man, which means that it can’t be a built in predisposition.

But why am I concerning myself with this?

Because women are harmed by this too – think about those women in countries like Afghanistan who are forced to cover up head to toe just in case men lust after them. My experiences are less extreme but still harmful nonetheless. Below are some of the results in my own life from believing these messages.

‘My worth comes from men wanting me’

A year ago I discovered that I’d been both craving and detesting objectification for most of my life. It was a lightbulb moment in more ways than one because that was the moment when I finally accepted that I’d been sexually abused after many years in denial.

The reason I unknowingly craved objectification was because I believed that it was how I could receive love and acceptance, and that lie was taught to me at a young age by one of my abusers. On the day I found out I was abused, I could hear my abuser’s voice in my head telling me that I was a ‘good girl’ and could picture myself looking proud in my school uniform with shiny black shoes.

The lie persisted into adulthood and I can remember walking around Lidl one day, imagining that all the men in the shop were lusting after me and that was how I got my worth (though I was also terrified of being objectified by those same men).

The lie that all men want me is also an obvious consequence of the ‘all men lust’ message. If all men lust after women then that must mean that there are men lusting after me at all times.

This then obviously leads on to the next lie:

‘When I’m not objectified it’s because there’s something wrong with me’

When I was in my early teens, I used to occasionally walk home from school along a busy main road. There was a quicker way along an isolated former railway line which my parents rightly banned me from walking along on my own. The trouble was that the main road wasn’t the safe option that it seemed at first.

Every time I walked that way, some lorry and van drivers (and the occasional car driver) honked at me, shouted disgusting things at me and wolf-whistled at me. It happened on average three or four times every journey.

Once I started sixth form though, the harassment stopped completely and it hasn’t ever happened since. But as well as feeling happy that I was no longer scared for my life while walking home from school, I also felt shame and asked myself: ‘what’s wrong with me.’ Because when you’re told that all men lust after women, and the men just suddenly stop lusting after you, then the only possible reason is that there’s something wrong with you.

Now with hindsight I can see that the only difference between me walking home at the end of year 11 and the beginning of year 12 – apart from being a couple of months older – was that I was no longer wearing a school uniform. That’s how sick and depraved those particular men were, that they only lusted after children and not adults. The sad thing is I’m not alone. I’ve heard of so many stories like this on the everyday sexism project website (trigger warning).

‘As a woman I’m dangerous to men’

I was 12 years old and about to go to my granddad’s funeral when I overheard a female relative comment about me always wearing revealing clothes. I was wearing a vest top and baggy jeans – something that all the girls my age wore, including the girls at my church – and had never considered that it might be revealing. I have a long upper body so all my tops showed off my belly and I used to pull my tops down as far as they would go to hide my midriff. I was a pretty naive child and sex couldn’t have been further from my mind, but she turned my innocent outfit choice into something sexual by her comments.

As a result, I felt huge amounts of shame and worried that people might believe that I was seeking to lead innocent men astray through what I wore. I hated the thought of people looking at me in a sexual way and already carried so much shame about my body since I was sexually abused at a young age by a different relative.

I don’t know my relative’s motives for saying what she did behind my back: whether she genuinely believed that I was dressing to entice men or whether she had my best interests at heart.

If you believe, like I did, that all men are fighting an invisible, behind-the-scenes battle with lust, then any woman who’s reached puberty is a potential threat. And women who dress in tight or revealing clothing must be the ultimate enemy. (I’ll talk more about women’s clothing in the next section).

Because I believed this lie, and because of things I’ve experienced in my past, I’m often paranoid about other women thinking I’m trying to steal their husbands. I wrote in my journal not too long ago about an encounter with a woman that had taken place earlier that day. At the time I believed she was thinking that I was trying to tempt her husband (but with hindsight she probably wasn’t thinking that at all):

I felt really uncomfortable and unsafe and thought that everyone thought I was weird or just a hussy or a harpie (what do those words even mean?) I thought she was judging me and that she didn’t want me around and I kept second guessing myself, like not wanting to lean back on my arms even though I was tired in case they’d think it was provocative. And I hardly said anything in the conversation too. I thought that I was the one in the wrong and that I’d somehow sinned even though I hadn’t. I’m glad I wasn’t wearing my long dress because I would’ve felt even worse. I felt like I’d done something wrong and had led him on. I hate it. Why does it have to be so complicated. Then I realised that I was believing the lie that God doesn’t love girls and young women because they lead men astray. And thinking that girls are ‘temptresses’. Where is this even coming from?

My journal, 2022

Of course it’s not true that women and girls lead men astray (not that I condone deliberately trying to entice a married man). If a man chooses to lust after a woman or girl it’s 100% his choice and nothing to do with the woman or girl. Because, as I mentionned above, there’s a big difference between being sexually attracted to someone and deliberately lusting.

And of course God doesn’t love women and girls less or think that they’re temptresses, harpies or hussies (how disgustingly dehumanising those words are). But sadly, there are some American evangelical Christian teachers and authors (and probably some in the UK too, I’m sure) who do believe that women and girls are dangerous to men and lead them astray just by existing. Those same evangelical teachers also tell men who struggle with lust (which according to them is every man) to look away when they see an attractive woman, reinforcing the message that women are dangerous to men.

‘I’m responsible for preventing men from lusting and raping by what I wear’

A few weeks ago, my trauma was triggered by a pair of leggings.

All my clothes were in the wash and my only clean trousers were a pair of leggings, which I would normally wear under a dress or skirt. I needed to go out to a meeting and realised I had no option but to wear the leggings. I nearly cried before I left the house and I tried to cover my bum with a bag the whole way there. I didn’t know why my heart was racing and I felt a sense of dread until after I arrived home:

I was subconsciously believing the lie that I would be raped because I was wearing leggings in public.

It makes perfect sense actually. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read victim-blaming news stories or women’s safety campaigns about women needing to protect themselves against rape by what they wear. I’ve heard so many horror stories of young girls being asked what they wore when they were sexually abused – as if they somehow caused what was done to them – or rapists being acquitted in court because the woman was ‘asking for it’. I’m even still a bit paranoid that the relative who shamed me for what I wore to my granddad’s funeral would blame me for being raped as a teenager because of the clothes I used to wear around that time.

It’s as if our society believes that all men are incapable of restraining themselves when they see a woman dressed in a certain way and can suddenly switch into ‘rapist mode’ at the sight of a bit of cleavage.

Let’s just be completely clear on this – a person’s choice to lust after, objectify rape, sexually assault or abuse someone is 100% their own choice and has nothing whatsoever to do with how the victim dresses or behaves.

I’ve started wearing my leggings out in public a lot more since joining a gym and I’m pleased to say that I no longer feel anxious while doing so.

‘I can’t trust the men in my life not to have affairs or worse’

I’ll admit that I’ve known many men who fit the stereotype, including married male colleagues who had multiple affairs, male colleagues who stared at me and regularly made comments about the way I looked and married men who openly flirted with younger women. But even though these men are, thankfully, in the minority, my experience with them added fuel to my belief that all men lust.

This impacted my relationships with those closest to me. I didn’t know if I could trust even those men whom I loved the most, suspecting every man in my life to be unfaithful at any opportunity.

When my last relationship started going downhill and my partner became withdrawn, I went through a phase of spending hours every day worrying about him having met a younger woman at work and bracing myself for him leaving me for someone else. In reality he was just as worried about our relationship going downhill as I was.

Even long after we broke up I was convinced there was another woman, primarily because I believed that all men lust after women and just need an opportunity to act on it so he was no exception.

Even now, I occasionally battle with fears and lies about the men in my life straying, having affairs, using prostitutes or sexually abusing other women. I know that a lot of this is based on my past experiences and I’ve mostly overcome these now but there are still lies that I need to conquer, and a lot of it is based on the core lie that all men just naturally lust and would act on their lust given the opportunity.

‘I have to put up with lust, criminal acts, porn use and objectification from men because it’s normal’

I’ve recently noticed that I ignore my gut instincts and suppress my feelings when it comes to men who do things that I find disturbing but that are widely accepted and seen as normal. And this is a direct result of the lie that all men lust.

For example, when I read in a book written by a respectable man who I used to know about how he was struggling not to get an erection around a younger woman, it played on my mind for days but I told myself that he was just a normal man and men’s brains just work differently to women’s brains. And when I recently read about another respectable older man leaving his wife for a woman in her twenties I tried to tell myself that it was totally normal but my gut and emotions told a different story.

You see, in those situations my brain will try to signal to me that those men are unsafe for a woman to be around and should be avoided at all costs but I just keep batting away those red flags and pretending everything’s fine, because that’s what the lie that all men lust teaches us: ‘It’s just business as usual, boys will be boys.’

Those are fairly tame examples, but what about when the men in question are sexually harrassing, sexually assaulting or raping women?

After nights out during my student days, my female friends and I would exchange notes on the amount of sexual harrassment and sexual assault we received that night. Who was groped, who was grabbed, who was pestered, who had a man put his hand up her skirt. Certain nightclubs and bars were notorious for it. We complained amongst ourselves and would look out for each other on nights out but never once did any of us report the men who did it to a bouncer or the police – we didn’t even know that some of what was done to us was against the law.

My friends and I reluctantly accepted that sexual assault and harrasment were just part of the experience of nights out, something that we just had to put up with and get used to. We never expected to be taken seriously by those in charge because what we were experiencing was so widespread and widely accepted.

When we say that all men lust, it normalises acts like sexual harassment and sexual assault, as well as objectification, lust, affairs and porn use, and it stops us from seeing them as wrong. It also dismisses and dehumanises those who have been harmed by their behaviour and tells them that they don’t matter.

I remember a conversation with my then boyfriend and his friend about 15 years ago. The friend’s girlfriend was unhappy because she’d found out he’d been watching porn. That conversation was the first time I discovered that not everyone just passively puts up with their partner’s porn use. I hated that my boyfriend used porn – and especially that he used the abusive things that he learnt in porn on me. I had no idea just how unhealthy and sexually abusive my boyfriend was at the time. I’ve written more about how he coerced me into sexual acts in a previous blog post (trigger warning).

With hindsight there were more red flags in that relationship than I can count, but, just as with the sexual assaults on my student nights out, I never thought I had a right to complain because I thought: ‘that’s just what men do and I have to put up with it.’ My needs never mattered in any of this, only his warped sense of entitlement.

‘I have to give him what he wants because he needs an outlet for his lust and if I don’t provide it he’ll look elsewhere’

I recently read a book from Gutenburg about the state-run brothels set up by the British authorities in India so that British soldiers would have an ‘outlet’ for their lust. The book detailed the horrors of what the Indian women were put through – how they were tricked, enslaved, raped and severely abused – but it also explained that the reason why the brothels were set up over 100 years ago was based on the lie that all men need an outlet for their lust.

The brothels were actually advocated for by many noble women in England and India. The story goes that there was a noble woman out riding on her horse and a British soldier tried to molest her. She protested but he argued that, as British soldiers in India had to remain unmarried, they had no outlet for their lust and that’s why they were more likely to attack noble women. She was so convinced by his argument that she lobbied for state-owned brothels so that women of noble birth could be protected from the soldiers’ lust. Of course there was no mention of protecting the Indian women who were used and abused with government approval and forced into weekly intrusive medical examinations so that the soldiers would be kept free from sexually-transmitted diseases.

Some incredibly brave women stood against the system and eventually the brothels closed down.

Sadly, though, the lie behind the brothels being set up is still very much alive. I read an article a few months ago about how a husband’s decision to have an affair or watch porn is partly the fault of the wife because she needs to make sure she satisfies him enough sexually. It’s one thing to say that marital problems are caused by both partners – that’s quite possible except in the case of abuse – but it’s another thing entirely to say that one partner’s infidelity is caused by the other partner’s actions. It’s making the perpetrator out to be a weak and powerless victim who was just so deprived of sex that he couldn’t help himself – and it’s very much linked to the lie that all men lust and will act on their lust given the opportunity, and that if men don’t get regular sex then they’re not responsible for their actions.

In the abusive relationship that I mentioned earlier, I was regularly expected to provide an ‘outlet’ for my partner’s ‘needs’. The thought of the things I let him do to me horrifies me now but I did genuinely believe that my partner needed an outlet for his lust, that it was a ‘need’ (and more important than any of my genuine needs) without which he would stray. I realise now that he used this lie to his own advantage, to coerce me into doing whatever he wanted me to do. It didn’t matter if it was the middle of the night or if I was asleep or in pain in some way, he always got his ‘need’ met.

‘Other women are competition’

Recently a line from a song that I hate has been going around and around in my head. The line is ‘you’re the hottest b*** in this place’ and it’s from a song by Robin Thicke called blurred lines. If you know the song you will understand why I don’t want it in my head – it talks about overriding a woman’s lack of consent and seems to promote rape. Understandably I’ve been trying to get that song out of my head but without much success.

This morning, though, when the line popped into my head again, I decided to listen and realised that God was speaking to me through that line.

For as long as I remember I’ve believed the lie that I have to be more beautiful than other women in order to be loved, and for me it’s closely linked with the message that all men lust. When you think that all men just need an opportunity to act on their lust, you start to see other women as a threat because the next beautiful woman that comes along may spell the end of your relationship.

When my most recent relationship was going downhill, all I could think about was how old and unattractive I looked compared to other women. I was convinced that he was eyeing up other women all the time and comparing me to them. I thought I was getting too old to be loved (I was 30) and that all men just want attractive women in their twenties.

I sometimes think this when I see other couples too. For example, I recently saw an attractive young couple on YouTube and the wife was pregnant. I kept thinking that he was going to leave her for another woman or turn to porn because she’d put on weight. I think this fear is definitely fed by tabloids and trashy magazines that shame women for not losing weight straight after giving birth.

And there’s a common misconception that a woman needs to be as sexy as a porn star or her partner will look at porn, which again stems from the lie that all men lust and are easily led astray by other women. So on one hand, women are often expected to be as unsexy as possible so as not to be raped or sexually assaulted or harrassed. But then on the other hand we’re expected to out-sexy porn stars just to stop our male partners straying. We can’t win!

‘Other women think I’m lusting after them’

For many years I was paranoid that other women would think that I was looking at their breasts or ogling their bodies. I was convinced that they thought that I was lusting after them in some way. Then I convinced myself that maybe I was actually lusting after them without really being aware (I wasn’t but that was the level of my paranoia).

Being a woman with what are considered to be more stereotypically masculine traits, and knowing that so many of my peers believed that all men lusted, I was paranoid that they also thought it about me.

I carried so much shame and kept my fears secret in case I was accused of being a pervert or similar. I’m certain that so many men carry this shame too.

I suspect it may have started when I had a male neighbour who would stare at women’s breasts – mine included – and not make eye contact while talking. On two or three occasions, when I was standing with the woman from the downstairs flat and she looked down or adjusted her top, he would say something like, ‘O, I wasn’t looking, don’t worry,’ and laugh it off. After that I was worried that I was doing the same thing unknowingly.

As soon as I said out loud to my mum that I thought I was lusting after women’s breasts and she prayed for me – so much of the shame lifted off me. I no longer believe the lie that I have a problem in this area and I’m no longer paranoid that women think that I’m lusting after them.

‘As a woman I don’t lust’

At the same time as believing that I was lusting after other women, I also believed the lie that I don’t lust after men because of how I’m made as a woman.

Seven or eight years ago I had a female colleague who regularly posted ‘hot firemen’ pictures on Facebook. They would normally be topless and showing off their muscles and she always posted comments that objectified their bodies.

At first I wasn’t bothered by it and usually scrolled past them without paying much attention. Then I started to think there was something wrong with me as a straight woman who didn’t fancy topless muscular men.

So I started studying the pictures and ogling their muscles.

And after a while I did it instinctively, without thinking. It became a habit to objectify these firemen.

I started to see other men in that way too, and would weigh up the men I encountered based on their looks, often trying to judge whether they would make good boyfriend material. I would even do it just based on their face – for example when watching TV if I could only see their face – but I was still judging and weighing them up based on their looks.

I also used to think that it was ok – and even a good thing – to objectify and lust after someone you’re in a relationship with. I equated it with being really attracted to them and thought that they should be flattered that I saw them that way. In reality it was disrespectful and not related to physical attraction but objectification.

These behaviours became habitual and felt impossible to stop but once I took ownership of my thoughts and acknowledged that the behaviour was unhealthy I was able to break the habit and stop seeing men in a disrespectful way. Again, telling someone about it and praying about it was the catalyst for this and broke the shame and stigma off me.

Again, let’s just clarify, I’m not talking about sexual attraction or noticing, or even commenting that someone is good looking or has big muscles. I’m talking about deliberately ogling, objectifying and acting as if the object of your lust exists for your pleasure.

How to heal from these lies

I’m still in the process of healing from these lies but there are some things that have helped me considerably:

  • Get help/get to safety if you’re in an abusive relationship – If, like my ex, your partner is using the lie that all men lust – or that all men need sexual release or all men will stray if they don’t get enough sex – to get you to engage in sexual activity, this is coercion which is classed as sexual assault or rape, depending on the act that he’s trying to coerce you into. Remember that women can also do this to men and it can happen in same-sex relationships too. Domestic abuse support.
  • Trust your instincts – if you believe that a man (or woman) is behaving inappropriately or lustfully, don’t just ignore that, your safety needs to come first.
  • Become aware of your beliefs – notice if anything in this blog post resonated with you and ask yourself why. This is something that really helped me when reading other blogs.
  • Notice how you think and feel in the moment – can you notice if you’re believing that a man lusts because you think that that’s just what men do or is it for another reason altogether?
  • Replace lies with truth – I’ve found it helpful to read things that come against the lies, for example the articles and studies that I’ve linked to in this blog post.
  • Don’t make excuses for inappropriate behaviour – twice in the past two days I’ve had two different people say to me, ‘it’s just what men do’ as a way of excusing a man’s lustful behaviour. But that devalues the object of the their lust and all the other people who’ve been hurt by their behaviour, and it makes out that their need for safety is unimportant.
  • Speak to someone about your beliefs – shame thrives in secrecy. If you’re feeling shame about your thoughts and beliefs, like I did, it can help to find someone safe to speak to. You can contact me if you just want to get something off your chest (I’m not a therapist), find a safe friend to talk to or speak to a professional.