The End of Sexual Identity

Once upon a time I was in the practice of saying that the church has something wonderful for GLBT people–the same thing it has for folks who consider themselves heterosexual; namely, that your sexuality is not the most important thing you have to say about yourself.

Your sexuality is a part of who you are, but you are more than the complex of desires, experiences, abuses, successes, fulfillments, frustrations, satisfactions, brokenness, wholeness, sinfulness, and fidelity that pertain to your sexuality.

Jenell William Paris thinks that an uncritical acceptance of the notion of sexual identity is at the core of the church’s problems in its thinking about sex. In her book, The End of Sexual Identity, Paris uses her training as an anthropologist to help us step back and see that the ways we so easily fall into talking and thinking about sexuality are culturally conditioned. And in this case, the church has too readily adopted our culture rather than creatively developing a more healthy and holy Christian counter-culture.

In laying out the problems with sexual identity, Paris begins with the troubles with heterosexuality.

There are several problems with the idea of heterosexuality. One of these is that it presumes a binary of homosexual / heterosexual, whereas the range of human sexual desire falls along a continuum with several intermediate stages between.

A further problem is that this binary has a particular function. It was created, in the past one hundred years, as a way to distinguish what was labelled “deviant” behavior from “normal” desires and behavior. Thus, it was created to be a label that communicates moral superiority.

This last point has a further implication: the idea of “being” homosexual or “being” heterosexual is new–and is therefore an anachronistic grid for reading scripture. More importantly, it elevates an identity based on sexual feelings to a place that scripture assigns to our belovedness by God.

Who are you? The answer to this question should not be, “heterosexual,” and therefore beloved of and faithful to God; instead, it should be, “beloved of God.” Once we cling to heterosexuality as our identity marker, we then create communities where this is required to the extent that we are not able to tell honest stories of struggle–or of grace.

The book offers a pervasive dismantling of simplistic assumptions about sexuality. In her chapter on homosexuality, Paris reminds us that there are different ways to configure homosexual activity. Though we base the label on desire for a same-sex relationship among equals, in the ancient world there were age and power dynamics that sustained homosexual activity; others who engage in same-sex sex might do so for professional reasons: in some cultures religious reasons in others as professional entertainers or prostitutes.

In place of sexual identity, Paris advocates that we strive for sexual holiness within our fundamental identity as God’s beloved children. Sexual holiness will wrestle with issues of behavior, desire, hopes, histories, choices, relationships, and others as well.

With such a reconfiguration, we are faced with two important outcomes: (1) sexual identity does not become an identity marker for the people of God such that we exclude, include, divide, and the like based on the category of sexual desire; and (2) we are freed to respond to one another, and grow in community together, as people who are all in some ways more and in some ways less healthy, holy, broken, whole, sinful, and faithful in different aspects of our sexuality.

Put differently: if we could stop acting like calling ourselves “heterosexual” meant that we were sexually whole and holy, our sexuality could become a growing and more healthy component of our identity as God’s beloved children in Christ.

Who should read this book? Pretty much everyone. If I were a campus minister, I would read this with my leadership groups, and then have my small groups study it. I think all youth pastors should read this so that they can start thinking about how to transform the minds of their students. I think all pastors should read this so that they can help their churches avoid the pitfalls of reifying notions of identity that cut against the grain of biblical descriptions of identity and wholeness.

I think you should read this so that you can help me continue to think through the issues Paris raises and how her insights clear the way for a better way forward as Christians who celebrate sex as a gift given to us by God and yet have found it very difficult to integrate sexuality into our understanding of our selves as those beloved children of God who were created good, but have fallen, and are now being restored in Christ.

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