Many bible verses have been interpreted by religious teachers as meaning that a sexual thought is the equivalent to having physically engaged in that behavior. Case in point: "Anyone who even looks at a woman with lust in his eye has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28). In other words, we can sin just by thinking.
If you believe this to be true, you’re going to have your work cut out for you in trying to avoid sinful thoughts, because humans have sex on the brain a lot. In fact, on an average day, college men think about sex 34 times while women think about sex 19 times.
So if you’re someone who views sexual thoughts as “sinful,” “dirty,” or “nasty,” what can you do to stop them? One of the most common ways people try to take their minds off of sex—and anything else they don’t want to think about—is to make a concerted effort to suppress those thoughts. However, while this strategy may be popular, a set of studies just published in the Journal of Sex Research finds that it’s not only ineffective, but may actually have the opposite effect of what you intended—and you’ll probably be less happy in the end.
All of these studies were conducted in Israel and they focused on comparing religious and secular adolescents aged 14 to 18 in terms of how they dealt with unwanted sexual thoughts and the implications this had for their mental health.
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In the first study, 661 adolescents completed a survey that focused on how they felt about their sexual thoughts and fantasies, with items such as “my sexual fantasies keep recurring," “my sexual fantasies distract me from important tasks I have,” and “I feel that my sexual fantasies hurt people around me.”
The overall pattern that emerged was that, not surprisingly, religious adolescents reported being more preoccupied and concerned with their sexual thoughts and fantasies than did secular adolescents.
The second study involved 522 adolescents and replicated the findings from the first study; however, it also found that religious adolescents had lower psychological well-being. Specifically, they were less happy and reported feeling less calm and peaceful. Further, religious adolescents’ preoccupation with unwanted sexual thoughts statistically explained their lower levels of well-being.
The third study consisted of 317 adolescents and it went a step further than the two previous studies by testing—and finding support for—a statistical model in which (1) being religious predicted putting more effort into suppressing and avoiding sexual thoughts, (2) suppression predicted more obsessive preoccupation with unwanted sexual thoughts, and (3) preoccupation, in turn, predicted lower levels of psychological well-being.
In short, the strategy religious adolescents were using to “turn off” their sexual thoughts (i.e., suppression) seemed to be counterproductive and only led to them thinking about sex more—and this came at a cost in terms of their personal happiness.
The results of this research are consistent with previous psychological studies finding that thought suppression is a terrible way to take your mind off of anything (sexual or otherwise) because, while it might reduce unwanted thoughts in the short term, those thoughts come roaring back with a vengeance later on.
The classic demonstration of this idea took place in the 1980s in a set of studies in which college students were either asked to suppress thoughts of a white bear or not. Those who had to suppress their thoughts did indeed think about white bears less at first. Later on, however, they experienced a rebound effect in which they found themselves thinking about white bears far more often than those who did not receive the suppression instructions.
What all of this suggests is that teaching people that all of their sexual thoughts are “dirty” or “impure” has problematic consequences in that it can lead to an obsession with those thoughts that ultimately harms their mental health.
As I argue in my book Tell Me What You Want, this is precisely why we need to stop suppressing our sexual thoughts and fantasies and, instead, come to terms with them. When we run from our sexual fantasies, that’s how we lose control of them and they start to control us. To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to act on any and all of your sexual fantasies—just that you need to acknowledge and accept that sexual desire is a part of you, and a part of being human.
Justin Lehmiller is a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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