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InStyle September - Roxane Gay
Credit: Getty

As a woman of a certain age, I am often behind on slang, consulting the Urban Dictionary to understand the language of everyone around me. So I was largely amused when people started using the word “thirst” as a way of talking about unquenched desire. Thirst isn’t just lust … it is something more—desire on the edge of desperation. Thirst is where want becomes unbridled need.

And oftentimes, being described as thirsty isn’t a compliment.

It can be uncomfortable when people honestly and unabashedly make themselves vulnerable with want. We have something of a cultural obsession with the idea of self-sufficiency, as if we become the best version of ourselves when we need nothing, when we are impervious and insular, free from judgment, rejection, or hurt.

In truth, lust often confounds the public imagination, particularly when we are talking about women and what we lust for. There are rather rigid expectations for how women are supposed to be sexual. We should remain virginal until we marry and then we’re supposed to be as sexual as our husbands want us to be.

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There is a commercial, released during the 2017 Super Bowl, featuring a woman watching a lean, muscular Mr. Clean scouring her home. The erotic tension is palpable as he flexes and dances, shaking his perfect ass. This woman’s reverie is interrupted when her husband, a regular Joe, appears, holding cleaning supplies. She is so overcome with lust, she tackles him on the couch, and the rest is left to our imaginations.All too often, this sort of depiction is how our culture thinks about women and lust. What kind of world do we live in if the sexiest thing a woman can possibly imagine is a man who deigns to do housework? This commercial, as charming as it is, nurtures the idea that women lust but we do so chastely, within the domestic sphere, and that the objects of our lust are always our partners. The bar for eroticism should be much, much higher and far more carnal. Women have the imagination and the libido to lust for so much more than husbands doing the bare minimum.

When Fifty Shades of Grey came out, there were countless breathless articles trying to understand why the books were so popular. Most of these articles missed the most obvious explanation—for once, women were offered something (however flawed) that allowed them to be the object of carnal desire, not merely affection. Women were given permission to want, wantonly and without shame. Lust was not an intellectual or domestic exercise. It was not something that needed to be contained. It was boundless and grounded in the pleasures that could, in the right hands, rise from a woman’s body. Lust suddenly became dangerous because when a woman knows what she wants, her partner, in the best of circumstances, has to try to satisfy. The bar is raised, as it well should be.

Image of Roxane Gay for Thirst Essay 
Credit: Courtesy Roxane Gay.

It’s not only women who deal with rigid expectations about their desires. Those over 40 or 50 can be derided when they dare express want, as if sexuality were something we age out of. People also are surprised when those of us with unruly bodies express our desires, as if lust were the privilege of the physically perfect. And then there’s also the matter of how the conversation shifts when people openly encourage desire by posting a suggestive photo on social media. They are accused of setting a thirst trap, of openly inviting sexual attention, as if there were something wrong with wanting to be wanted.

As for me, the older I get, the more comfortable I am with my desires. I don’t try to keep my feelings in check or chastise myself for being a vibrantly sexual being. I have no problem expressing what I want. I couldn’t care less if my desire is perceived as thirst. There’s something freeing in wanting with abandon, in surrendering to the sharp edge of desperation.

I have a great many thoughts about Channing Tatum, his genial demeanor, his thick neck, his arms, dem abs. During the movie Magic Mike XXL, when he is dancing in his workshop while Ginuwine’s “Pony” is playing, I think about him dancing all over me. I enjoy contemplating The Rock’s magnificent physique and making an atlas of his body with my hands. Beyoncé is a goddess, and I want to temporarily ascend to her higher plane to worship her lovely countenance, her incredible thighs. During the NBA finals, I found myself thinking, “Steve Kerr would get it,” because there is something so sexy about how he coaches his team.

Lusting for celebrities is satisfying in large part because stardom offers a blank slate onto which we all can project our desires. It lets our desires be as boundless as our imaginations allow—and I have a very vivid imagination. I can want fiercely, but safely, because these objects of my desire won’t ever reject or disappoint me.

But I do not lust only for physically perfect people, nor do I limit my lust to celebrities. A writer who turns a phrase beautifully can turn me on, as can someone who makes me laugh. And certainly, in a relationship, I lust for the one I’m with. This is my favorite kind—to desire what I can have and to be free to share that want and have it reciprocated.

There should be little judgment when it comes to lust, however we choose to name it. When we thirst, all we are saying is that, like every living thing, we need water.

For more stories like this, pick up InStyle's September issue, on newsstands and available for digital download Aug. 11.