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.

8 thoughts on “The End of Sexual Identity”

  1. Perhaps this is just me, but I find myself agreeing and disagreeing all at the same time.

    I agree that our primary identifier as Christians should be our relationship to God, not a marker of our sexuality, and I think we do this. I do not walk around thinking of myself as first and foremost heterosexual (in fact just typing it sounds silly). I see myself as redeemed, holy, and beloved. These things classify who I am.

    As a holy one, I find my life transforming into what God calls it to be. I pattern my life after holiness because I am made holy already. This is where I find your synopsis of this book troubling. It seems to desire to minimize sexual differences to create unity, but sometimes the Bible speaks plainly on sexual issues. Certain sexual desires are holy, others are not. Marital sexuality was holy. Prostitution, homosexuality, incest, and many others are clearly declared unholy. My past with any of these does not transform my relationship with God. Our relationship with God, rather, transforms our relationships with these activities.

    I think this sounds like an interesting book. I will add it to my reading list.

    1. Matt, I don’t think she’d disagree entirely. Perhaps she’d emphasize or nuance a bit differently, but for all this she thinks that heterosexual marriage is the God-given space (crucible) for sex.

  2. Thank you for the reference. I hope to read the book.

    Just guessing by feel – is this a social constructivist anthropology? It’s not like assortative mating and sexual polarization is really going to fly out the Darwinian window into a reproductive black hole of sexual lostness anytime soon, right? – isn’t it a bit dicey and potentially misleading in counseling and in legal advocacy (since one topic here is gay marriage) to use anthropology to reduce theology to a lowest common denominator, “beloved of God?” – and even if such beautified theological language really is a valid end result of using the erotic poetry of constructivist anthropology, then what ought clergy (say in pre-marriage counseling), and lawyers (say in drafting pre-nups), and clinical Christian counselors (say in attachment theory or sexual orientation issues) – what should Christian practitioners in the trenches of praxis really counsel individuals (individuals: the unit of natural selection after all) who are sexually ramped and sexually revved and who really are – sexually polarized? Innately?

    I don’t mind the moralizing of virtue ethics. But virtue ethics here is hardly the point. Pardon my eudaemonia (good spirit of virtue ethics) – which I love too.

    This bugs me, Daniel. Since you evangelicals are awfully late to the sexual identity party (kudos to you Daniel! – this is not a harsh byte), do you ever feel a little guilty about theological – promiscuity – or theological-to-academic promiscuity – promiscuity in borrowing from non-theological sciences in order to justify a nearly asexual lowest common theological denominator here (“beloved of God” – who the hell is not beloved of God, when you get right down to it?)? – a bit of academic promiscuity in order to justify your theological justification of gay marriage?

    Daniel, please see this as a friendly push back. Not as a settled position.

    I’m all for exploration. That’s why – a little exploratory social constructivist – field ethology and anthropology of my – foolish – own.

    Cheers,

    Jim

  3. One of things that I know has been a big topic of debate in the past few years is the whole notion of the “self” or personhood and the changing understandings of what constitutes that–or if the concept of a “self” itself isn’t a fairly recent phenomenon (in the grand scheme of things).

    The above review doesn’t really give me a sense of where she stands on this–perhaps because the book isn’t really clear.

    I’m not at all an expert on the debate (perhaps others can helpfully chime in), but it seems as if that is a crucial aspect to clarify for whatever argument one wants to make about the relationship of identity and sexuality.

  4. Interesting. I’ll have to learn more since few people write this way. As long as “sexual identity” doesn’t define “gender”, I think I might be good with this.

  5. Wow! I’m really excited abt this book! I’m an evangelical with a Master’s in American Studies (cultural studies of the US, past and present), and my brief forays into the land of gender and the history of sexuality have brought me to many of the same conclusions as Ms. Paris seems to have, according to your review, and I have made similar ties with Christian theology as a result. It sounds like she has really fleshed out these ideas, and I look forward to reading her book! I think her ideas (if actually engaged by a significant number of evangelicals–could take a while…) could help our Biblical exegesis of how we conceptualize our identities as individuals, and how we are to express our sexualities in Biblically faithful and Christ honoring ways. Not only can these ideas bring healing and emphasis correction to those with same sex sexual attractions, but can reduce some of the arrogance and feelings of innate superiority and holiness that many hererosexuals in the church carry. As my pastor has said before, all of us need to surrender our sexuality before Christ, because all of our sexualities are broken and in need of healing and redemption. Hopefully, this book will be a brick in the wall of rebuilding healthy sexuality (and people!) w/in Christ’s church.

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