Lust and public policy

Here is a conundrum.  On the one hand lust (or sexual desire if you prefer a less medieval term) is a powerful driver of human behaviour.  On the other hand, policy makers ignore lust when devising policies designed to influence behaviour.

For example, lust is largely absent from attempts to explain why teenage boys join gangs, or take drugs, or get into fights or drink too much.  Lust is given no role in debates about promoting families even though sexual jealousy and infidelity undermine relationships.  Even in more directly related areas lust is absent.  The UK Government’s sexual health framework fails to mention lust (or any synonym of lust) in its sixty-one pages.  Instead it focuses on education about the consequences of unsafe sex and the resources required to deal with these consequences.  These are sensible areas to discuss but are incomplete.  They deal with the symptoms of sexual behaviour and not the cause.  It is hard to imagine any other area of public policy being approached in such a narrow way.

There are three reasons for this absence.  Two are bad, one is potentially valid.  The first bad reason is squeamishness.  Lust is still not an easy topic to discuss in serious policy circles, particularly for politicians who will be alive to the possibility of ridicule. 

The second bad reason is ignorance about lust.  We know roughly what happens chemically when the human body experiences lust but we are still in the foothills of understanding how people experience lust differently (not least men and women) and how and why levels of lust vary.  As a result it is difficult to have meaningful discussions about how much lust contributes to society’s negative outcomes and almost impossible to devise policies that might be helpful. 

The third – and most valid - reason is that it may not be appropriate or even useful for the state to intervene in such a personal area.  The trouble is that we cannot tell yet.  Few of us would willingly invite the Government into our bedrooms, or anywhere else for that matter, to delve into our sexual desires.  But if lust is linked to behaviours which cost billions and bring misery to millions then it deserves to be taken seriously by policy makers.  We need to find out.  

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4 Comments

FM
Former Member 4 Years Ago
Hi Alexander, I think you have highlighted an instance of behaviour that shows that the assumed rational approach to policy making does not always produce desired results. Behaviour science has been very successful in recognising how instinctive and emotional responses influence our behaviour. Using randomised control trials, alternative policies have been tested to see the effects. This suggests that there may be a fourth reason why lust is not discussed - it may be very difficult to measure and test different responses. Although I'm sure that someone somewhere is carrying out some research into lust.
Alexander Stevenson 4 Years ago in reply to Former Member .
Thanks Alison. Thanks for your response. Yes, I'm a huge fan of the work being done by David Halpern and his colleagues and the Behavioural Insights Team (the Nudge Unit). Indeed I have discussed lust with him! But you are right that without being able to measure, or indeed define, lust it is hard to know where to start. I'd love more research to be done into these measurements/definitions. The best I've come across is this on the impact that lust has on decision making: http://people.duke.edu/~dandan/Papers/PI/Heat_of_Moment.pdf
David Donnelly 4 Years Ago
Thanks, this was an interesting piece. I guess my question would be: "What is lust itself a symptom of?" People lust after many things - material as well as interpersonal - and it tends in my view to be a dissatisfaction with one's own circumstances. In other words, there's a strong desire towards acquisition (for wont of a better term) of some thing or someone that is not, as yet, gained. And that wider context feeds directly into your questions of why people might join gangs, or take drugs, or get into fights, etc. Among other things, it's dissatisfaction with the here and now. If public policy were to be directed at root causes instead of material symptoms - if more energy were to be focussed on shutting off the leaky pipe than on vigorously bailing out the water - then I think policy would be more effective in the long term. That said, the challenge is in communicating that narrative in a way that makes this concept appealing, rationally, and not something woolly and intangible. People like immediacy. They like action and results.
Alexander Stevenson 4 Years ago in reply to David Donnelly .
I wonder whether the move towards measuring happiness rather than GDP - still quite a long way to go - might help us think more about underlying causes rather than material symptoms?