A friend recently asked me, “How should we deal with unmet sexual desire?” He is gay and celibate and looking for ways to make his life workable, sustainable, and maybe even — let’s dream big! — joyful.
I considered his question. How do I deal with unmet sexual desire? It’s a question which led me to ask, what is my sexual desire? Of course, “sexual desire” is a category with a lot of things in it.
“There’s a lot of different fish in that bucket,” I told myself.
But let’s not call it a bucket. Let’s call it an aquarium so all the fish have plenty of room to swim around, and so we can get a good look at them.
What fish are in the aquarium of my sexual desire, then? Don’t worry, I’m coming back to the question of what we can do with unmet sexual desire. I just want to take inventory of my aquarium first!
We each have our own aquarium with different fish in it. As I describe my fish you might find yourself saying, “Yup, I’ve got one of those.” Or you might say, “Hmm, that sounds a little like one of my fish, but I think mine is a different species.” Or you might even say, “Wild! I didn’t know there was a fish like that!”
Let’s name the obvious ones first. One fish in my aquarium is the desire for a good orgasm. A lot of people also have this fish. I imagine it to be sleek and fast, silvery with a pointy nose. It hides when it’s not hungry, but when it is hungry it swims around restlessly.
Another fish in my aquarium is the desire for physical touch and physical intimacy. This is different from the “O-fish,” a touch and intimacy that I picture as a clownfish. It’s all curves and no angles. It likes to nestle down in the sea anemone, and it’s a little shy.
There’s also a lion fish that prowls around. It’s the desire to be connected with raw, vulnerable masculinity, to drink deeply of that masculinity.
If I keep observing my tank, I see a multi-hued fish with scales like gems and graceful, resplendent fins. This fish is the desire to be seen as beautiful and desirable. This beauty-fish just wants to be admired and wanted!
There’s also a little nondescript fish resting on the pebbles at the bottom of my aquarium, watching the beauty-fish above him. This little guy just wants to perceive and enjoy beauty, and for the beauty to be okay with that.
There’s a school of minnows, darting about the tank as one. They collectively represent the desire for union with others. I long to merge with certain other men, for there to be no boundaries or disconnections between us. That’s why the minnows count as one fish — they live and move as one.
I also have to tell you about the shrimp — not technically a fish, I know, but he lives in the aquarium too. It takes all kinds! He is a useful guy, keeping things clean and tidy. He likes to feel a sense of purpose. The shrimp is my desire to feel like my body — specifically, the sexual aspects of it — have a purpose. I might not have ever noticed this humble yet resolute “Shrimp of Purpose” were I not celibate.
Sometimes in my celibacy I begin to wonder about the point of the sexual aspects of my body if I put them to very little use. The shrimp represents my wanting to find meaning in my sexual body.
I could probably go on, but by now you see that “sexual desire” is far from just a glass cube; it’s a busy, dynamic aquarium with a lot going on every day!
What are the fish in your aquarium?
This question of what we do with unmet sexual desire is a lot like asking, “How do you take care of an aquarium?” There’s not a simple answer: it depends on what’s in the aquarium. You have to identify the different fish, understand them, and decide what to do with them.
I propose four possibilities for our various aquarium denizens.
1. Meet the sexual desire.
Some of our unmet sexual desires can actually be met, I believe, in ways that are healthy and satisfying and not on a trajectory toward same-sex sexual intercourse. (How I can call something sexual without its being directed toward intercourse is complicated and won’t fit this post.)
For example, I think there are ways the beauty-fish can participate in the beauty of creation. Even though I’m not trying to tempt anyone to bed with me, I still dress in attractive clothes and take care of my body. Cultivating beauty is good for its own sake.
2. Redirect the sexual desire.
Some of our unmet sexual desires can’t be met directly within the parameters of ethics and morality we’ve chosen for ourselves. But I believe there are ways we can come at the desire from a different angle. These strategies may seem frustrating and unsatisfying in some ways but can turn out to be edifying and helpful in others.
Maybe I can find safe people and places where I can allow my body to be seen, and where others can allow me to see their bodies, without our nudity being directed toward sex.
Or rather than feeling like my body’s sexual functions have no use, purpose, or meaning, I can consider how God has used them to point me toward beautiful truths about himself, creation, and the Incarnate Christ. (Don’t worry, I’m going to finish my thoughts on this eventually!)
3. Be patient with the sexual desire.
Some of our desires aren’t bad, and they aren’t for bad things, but they just won’t come to fruition in this age. We can consider how these desires might be met in the New Creation when the fallenness of the world is healed and the sanctification of our hearts is complete. And we can school our desires toward patience.
The union-minnows fall under this category. Even if I found a guy to be my sexual- and life-partner, there would still be boundaries and disconnects between us due to the broken nature of the world and the shortcomings of our human hearts.
But we know from John 17 that Christ’s vision for us, his followers, is that we would eventually enjoy union with each other and with God the same way the persons of the Trinity enjoy union together (while still retaining our individuality and uniqueness, of course).
I’m unsure how the ins and outs of my desire for union will be fulfilled on that day. But I do believe the desire is good and that fulfillment is coming.
4. Starve the desire.
I hesitated to include this last strategy, because I’ve seen how it’s been weaponized against us non-straight people and how it’s been the site of so much spiritual abuse in the church.
But I’m not sure it’s never the answer. I don’t think we paint a complete picture without it. Some of our sexual desires aren’t meant to stay in the tank. We may find that some of our desires don’t have good intentions undergirding them, and they don’t have good ends.
I’m not talking about most sexual desires here. I’m talking about desires that demean the image of God or violate a fellow human’s autonomy. When we do find those fish in the tank, we should do our best, seeking professional help if necessary, to make our aquarium healthy.
Why I Like This Exercise
I like two things about the aquarium exercise. First, it gives me a framework for picking apart the conflation of feelings that we call “sexual desire.” This helps me apply my values to smaller, more manageable questions.
And second, it helps me ask questions about my sexual desire that point me toward stewardship of something beautiful rather than management of something icky, like an oil spill.
I hope this aquarium exercise can be useful for you, too.
What fish are in your aquarium of sexual desire? Are there other strategies you use to tend well to your sexual desires?