Playing with Temptation

For me, temptation is something to play with and pleasure is something I choose to pursue every now and then. Yet for some other people (those who are religious and/or conservative) temptation and pleasure appears to be a source of endless fear. Why? Why fear and desperately try to avoid something that can be a source of harmless fun and enjoyment? Do some people really distrust themselves so deeply?

I grew up in a secular environment. Nobody ever taught me that laziness, poor self-discipline, or indulging in pleasurable activities are immoral or evil. Nobody worried about the slippery slope fallacy and expected me to become some kind of evil monster just because I preferred to spend time on pleasurable activities rather than doing hard work. There was no “give the devil your little finger, and you will be taken entirely” nonsense (such a proverb exists in Latvian, but nowadays few nonreligious people have this kind of mindset).

Some “character flaws” were never a matter of sin or immorality. In fact, people didn’t even think that traits like laziness were character flaws as long as a person was capable of getting things done when necessary. Instead I was warned about potential negative consequences in the future. For example, when my eight years old self hated foreign language lessons and wanted to play games instead, I was warned that unless I learn other languages, I won’t get a job better than a janitor as an adult (in my part of the world even shop assistants must be polyglots with the average person being fluent in three languages).

I was also warned about possible negative consequences of certain actions. Tips like “don’t get involved with cults and don’t try heroin, because it’s hard to quit.” “Not getting addicted to nicotine in the first place is better than dealing with an addiction after realizing that cigarettes are expensive and harmful for health.” “Here are the facts about STIs and contraceptives.” That kind of advice. Adults certainly feared that children might get themselves into trouble by doing risky things, but it was never “spare the rod, spoil the child” mentality. The general attitude was that kids needed loving adults in their lives rather than some “strict father” figure.

Contrast this with Christian ideas about self-denial and avoiding pleasure and temptation at all costs. According to another Freethoughblogs blogger who has written several posts explaining conservative mindsets, some people believe that, “The way a child learns to be self-reliant and self-disciplined is by being obedient to authority and denying pleasures in life that tempt them.”

To begin with, obedience to authority and self-reliance/self-discipline have little in common. For example, as a child, I hated jogging (especially when ordered to run in circles). Whenever I did jog, it wasn’t due to being self-disciplined. Instead I was being forced to do so against my will by some sufficiently nasty adult. As soon as the person forcing me to exercise against my will was gone, I refused to jog. (Later in life I figured out that I actually like some sports, like martial arts, swimming, cycling, hiking; but I still hate jogging.)

Self-discipline can be observed only in scenarios where there is no authority figure forcing a person to do something but they choose to do so anyway despite the fact that they could have gotten away without doing said action.

As for denying pleasures in life that tempt you, what’s the point? More often than not, they are just harmless enjoyment. I loathe Christian mindset saying that things that feel great are always bad for you; a mindset warning people that if they succumb to some trivial temptation once then afterwards they will always do the wrong thing also in serious cases where it would have mattered.

Personally, I have a different approach.

1. Distinguish between harmless fun versus actions that have harmful consequences.

For example, eating a slice of cake once per week isn’t going to harm my heath, thus I might as well enjoy my cake. But if I were to eat a whole cake every day, that would increase my risk of getting a heart disease or type-2 diabetes, never mind all the health problems that come with obesity.

Another example: sex, the thing that devoutly religious people fear like plague unless you are married. Harm is certainly possible. Don’t harass that sexy person who doesn’t like you (or else you will harm them). Don’t engage in risky sexual practices that can result in an unwanted pregnancy or STIs. But it is unjustified to treat all extramarital sex as a temptation that must be avoided at all costs, because it can be very enjoyable and safe.

2. Learn your limits.

For example, I can go to a party and decide that I will have only one glass of some alcoholic beverage, and I know that I won’t get wasted after that first glass. Meanwhile, for a recovering alcoholic it might be smarter to instead decide that they won’t have any alcohol at all. Being aware of how one’s brain acts in various circumstances is highly beneficial and allows a person to avoid high risk situations.

In my case, if I wanted to jog for a while, it would be smarter for me to pick some location where I do not have to run in circles (running in circles means that at some point I would just decide “screw this, I’m getting out of here”).

Playing with temptations.

I don’t think a person should fear having a (metaphorical) cookie jar in their life. A mature person should be capable of deciding to not have a cookie this time. They should also be capable of not emptying the entire jar after having had the first bite.

Personally, I consider myself a hedonist, so I usually try to have as much fun as I can without endangering myself or causing harm to somebody else. For example, before I got myself sterilized, the last time I was with a sexy person in a situation where both of us had forgotten a condom, my solution was to do only other things that cannot result in semen getting inside a vagina.

Moreover, literally playing with temptation can be fun in itself. Surfing (aka edging, peaking) refers to bringing a person to the brink of orgasm and then backing off for a few seconds. Do this enough times and afterwards the orgasm feels more intense. At least for me a sense of control over my own body and desire can add an extra layer of enjoyment.

Overall, I tend to dislike various all-or-nothing attitudes. From strict diets that say “no snacks ever and here’s a list of forbidden foods” to sexual norms that say “if you have extramarital sex even once you are fallen from grace.”

On a societal level, it can be disastrous for people to assume that individuals cannot be trusted to control themselves. It erases individual agency and legitimizes claims like “I couldn’t help myself” as valid excuses. For example, this is how we get rapist defenders engaging in victim-blaming: “You shouldn’t sleep in the same bed (or even the same room) with a person with whom you aren’t planning to have sex,” or “You shouldn’t have agreed to oral sex if you didn’t want vaginal sex afterwards.”

Whenever somebody advocates denying pleasures that tempt you, I tend to get suspicious.

Why do they want some strict authority figure to tell them what to do? Do they distrust themselves to make their own decisions? Do they consider themselves incapable of choosing the right thing?

Why do they want to always avoid all temptations? Do they distrust themselves to say “no” to some temptation also in cases where it actually matters and succumbing could cause harm?


  1. vucodlak says

    Why? Why fear and desperately try to avoid something that can be a source of harmless fun and enjoyment? Do some people really distrust themselves so deeply?

    I’ll start with an example from my past:
    I am pansexual. However, I was taught that it’s wrong for me be attracted to men,* because that’s not what God wants. I was also taught that even questioning God was very, very wrong. As in, “God will torture you forever if you question his perfect wisdom.”

    It wasn’t just God’s wrath I had to fear, either- people who were attracted to the same sex had to fear violence from people around them. They still do, of course, but where I live it was even worse 25 years ago (which is when I was first starting to recognize that I was attracted to men as well as women). I faced an almost-certainty of being assaulted, disowned, and/or murdered if I was found out.

    So temptation terrified me. God was supposedly always watching me, and I was worried that people would notice that I was different. Worse still, I had an extremely active libido. When I gave in to temptation and took pleasure, I would viciously punish myself afterwards, in hopes that God would forgive me.

    It wasn’t “harmless fun,” to me. I was taught I was risking an eternity of unimaginable suffering, to say nothing of the potential Earthly consequences if I got caught. There was never a question of my trusting myself, either, because I was taught that trust in one’s self was a grievous sin. One trusted God, period.

    There was no secular option when I was child. I was surrounded by Christianity, mostly of the very conservative variety, 24/7. I knew no one who would even admit to being non-Christian until I was in high school. I wasn’t taught a lot of basic facts about sex, sexuality, drugs, or anything else- I was taught that it was all evil, and to be avoided on pain of eternal punishment.

    Though I still live in the same area, I got away from the worst of that. I met people who were not Christian. My beloved and my mentor were both atheists- after their deaths I finally began to question the doctrine of eternal damnation. It was easy for me to believe I deserved eternal damnation, but the women who saved my life (and the lives of others) on multiple occasions? No, I couldn’t believe that a just, loving God would condemn them to hell.

    Other people aren’t so lucky, and they live in that kind of fear and self-loathing for their entire lives. Even people who grow up in more liberal parts of the United States aren’t immune, because a strain of repressive puritanism permeates our culture. Every flaw, every illness, every misfortune can and will be blamed on the character of the person who suffers from it, largely because many unscrupulous people have found a way to profit from doing so. The diet/fitness industry, health insurance companies, and preachers are among the worst offenders.

    Why do they want some strict authority figure to tell them what to do? Do they distrust themselves to make their own decisions? Do they consider themselves incapable of choosing the right thing?

    The answer to that first question was that I didn’t want that, when I was very young. I said “No!” a lot, at first. So my parents taught me what happens when you disobey cruel beings who are much, much more powerful than yourself; they beat me. This was, and in many states still is, legal.

    That might not have broken me, but being raped at age 3 did. The man who did it told me he was doing it because my parents said I’d been bad. I believed him, because they’d already hurt me many times, though never that bad. When he said he’d be back if I complained or told anyone, I believed that too.

    Those were my lessons in the character of God- God is the biggest man, and if you don’t obey, he will hurt you worse than you can possibly imagine. I could imagine a lot. I learned to obey, in hopes of getting hurt less.

    When you grow up like that, it isn’t about what you want. It isn’t about trusting yourself, and you don’t dare let it enter your mind that you might be capable of distinguishing right from wrong. You live at the pleasure of the tyrant gods in your life. They define the parameters of your choices, and sometimes they hurt you just for the hell of it.

    My experiences were not terribly uncommon, where I grew up. Some people never escape that fear. Lord knows it still wells up in me occasionally, and I don’t even believe in the tyrant God I was raised with anymore.

    *I’m not a man but, when I was younger, I didn’t realize that being something other than that was an option.

  2. anat says

    On the demonization of ‘character flaws’: My mother had a cousin that had a reputation for being ‘lazy’. She was always too tired to do any work, always needed to lie down etc. The truth came out when she was pregnant and finally went to see a doctor – turned out she had a congenital heart condition. The doctor was livid that she was untreated all her life and that on top of that she ended up pregnant without knowing the risks to her health. In the end she died young (probably in her 30s, I don’t have dates). Her daughter inherited the same condition, but had the advantage of better medical treatment. Still, she avoided pregnancy, ended up marrying a divorced man with children from his previous marriage. If the family had looked into the mother’s situation instead of moralizing her over her ‘laziness’ she could have had a better and longer life.

  3. says

    anat @#2

    A neighbor, an elderly lady, once criticized me for not doing manual labor that required going up and down to fifth floor repeatedly again and again for two hours in a row. I decided to ignore her instead of informing her that at that time I had severe anemia. My experience was that after losing too many red blood cells, I could function normally and not appear sick. Go to university, study, participate in conferences, travel, everything was fine. That was until I had to do anything that required physical exertion. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t even climb 5 floors of stairs without taking a break and resting for a while or else my head just got dizzy.

    And then there’s my boyfriend who cannot lift/carry heavy stuff due to an old shoulder injury. In addition, he also has a heart disease that results in him getting fatigued faster than normally. Yet people have all kinds of expectations about what he should be doing (“a working day is 8 hours, stop slacking; no, you don’t deserve a nap in the middle of day”).

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