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The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are

Jenell Paris Williams
Published by IVP Books in 2011

A Christian master teacher can render challenging technical material in understandable, thought-provoking prose, arguing for her thesis in an edifying way that deepens the reader’s understanding, all while sustaining a theologically- and biblically-grounded engagement with her topic. Jenell Williams Paris gives evidence of being such a Christian master teacher in this attractive volume replete with discussion questions suitable for churches and Christian colleges.

The topic she examines is paramount in contemporary culture, and of crucial and strategic importance to the Christian Church: What role should sexuality (sexual orientation or sexual desire in particular) play in constituting personal identity? Paris, a cultural anthropologist, brings the rich resources of her discipline and of collateral disciplines to bear upon this question. Her conclusion, encapsulated in her title, is thoughtfully argued.

Paris challenges the “sexual dimorphism” (31) of our culture, the sorting of humans into binary heterosexual-homosexual category types defined by the dominant direction of our sexual desires. Christians, she argues, have erred by allowing our responses to sexuality and identity to be defined by such dimorphism: “Instead of questioning the validity of sexual identity altogether, Christians have mostly focused on either morally elevating heterosexuality over homosexuality or equalizing all sexual identities as blessed” (41).

Such dimorphisms are breaking down as, on the one hand, a cacophony of categories proliferate (Paris discusses the most complete contemporary identity acronym, LGBTQQPA(H)BDSM: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, pansexual, asexual, heterosexual, bondage, domination/discipline, submission, sadomasochism (72). On the other hand, if two types are inadequate, why should a mere 13 categories be adequate? Paris points out that increasingly, “people are refusing to pick sexual identity categories for themselves” (73). Indeed, some declare their independence from any delimiting identity label. Paris aligns with this latter instinct, issuing a clarion call for Christians to lead the way in eschewing grounding identity in sexuality at all.

Why?

Sexual identity is a Western, nineteenth-century formulation of what it means to be human. It’s grounded in a belief that the direction of one’s sexual desire is identity-constituting, earning each individual a label (gay, lesbian, straight, etc.) and social role. Perceived as innate and as stemming from inner desire, sexual identity has to be searched out, found, named and expressed in order for each person to be a fully functional and happy adult (41).

Paris mounts an argument grounded in cultural anthropology but which draws upon broader sociological, psychological, and particularly biblical and theological resources to undermine the validity of this historically novel notion of sexual identity. She establishes that construals of sexuality vary considerably across human societies and are deeply intertwined with cultural understandings of family and religion. The contemporary independence of our understanding of sexuality from reproduction and family life is a uniquely modern phenomenon, one grounded in Western individualism and the development of the contraceptive revolution. She notes that

as contraception became more accessible and reliable, sexual identities became linked almost entirely to sexual feelings, as they are today. … And sexuality has taken on new meaning as an essential force that exists not between persons but within each individual, one that is expected to provide personal identity and happiness (42).

“Thus, the notion that people have sexual identities is a social construct: because people believe it, it becomes real in its effects” (60). But should we believe it?

No, because sexual identity is problematic for Christians not just in terms of the resulting understanding of homosexuality, but equally our understanding of heterosexuality:

The major problem for Christians with heterosexuality [and for homosexuality as well], and sexual identity in general, is that it is a social construct that provides a faulty pattern for understanding what it means to be human, linking desire to identity in a way that violates biblical themes (43).

Paris documents how the sexual dimorphism implicit in this pattern of construal is problematic scientifically (given the demonstrated complexity and multidimensionality of human sexuality) and theologically.

The heart of this volume is built around laying out the anthropological and theological challenges to the very concept of sexual identity. After problematizing sexual identity, her conclusion is built around three complementary foci. The first is an articulation of an alternative base for personal identity for Christians as the beloved of God; “Sexuality … is better understood in light of our beloved created nature, not in light of sexual desire. Identity comes from God, not sexual feelings” (51). Secondly, Paris discusses the phenomenon of change of sexual orientation, articulates an empirical basis for some possibility of change, but also suggests that the phenomena of change is grounded in the fluid and fickle nature of sexual desire. She challenges the obsession of the conservative church with change of orientation on the basis that a shift in the very grounding of identity in being beloved by God may undercut the necessity of change to heterosexuality as a prerequisite to holiness. Her third concluding focus is a discussion of Christian sexual morality not built on sexual dimorphism but on an embrace of “holiness” as defined by the Scriptures. She distinguishes holiness from morality, defining holiness in the context of a love relationship with Jesus Christ and noting that “love draws us towards morality and right behavior” (83).

The point of most significant reservation for me regarding Paris’ theological analysis was her failure to incorporate a fundamental dimension of scriptural teaching in her elaboration of a biblical perspective on sexuality. While commendably insisting upon reproduction as a basic biblical aspect of sexuality, she was silent on the biblical teaching that sexual union creates a “one flesh” relationship between humans. Given that this teaching is central to the creation account (Gen. 2), to Christ’s teaching on adultery and divorce (Matt. 19), and to Paul’s prioritization of sexual purity (1 Cor. 6), the absence of any reference to this fundamental reality was puzzling.

A relatively brief work such as The End of Sexual Identity will necessarily leave issues undeveloped, and this was so particularly with several aspects of her concluding ethical reflections. First, Paris maintains a credible emphasis upon the demands of Christian discipleship, for instance criticizing a generic, identity-based ethic of mutual respect and permissiveness because such a position “neglects more specific and distinctive elements of the Christian tradition” (86). That said, her discussion of “dimensions of sexual holiness” (84-91), while intriguing and thought-provoking, lacked the concreteness, immediacy, and poignancy of the kinds of behavioral instructions that we find in Scripture itself, such as to “flee fornication.”

Second, Paris prioritizes eschewing fractiousness and divisiveness, arguing that “weaning ourselves from sexual identity categories transitions Christians from investing energy in moralizing and making divisions among believers toward really pursuing sexual holiness in our own lives and in the world” (91). Moralizing and divisiveness, in her view, seem uniformly problematic, but should they be? How do we balance a biblical emphasis on unity among believers (John 17) and on remaining without offense before nonbelievers, on the one hand, with the apostolic realism that the gospel and its moral demands will always be a stumbling block and scandal that divides? Her analysis begged for elaboration of how far to go in minimizing divisiveness, especially when GLBT advocacy often makes a fine art of victimhood. If we can be backed away from apostolic moral teaching by any accusation of divisiveness, we may be making non-divisiveness an idol above faithfulness to the moral demands of scriptural teaching and faithful discipleship.

In this light, Paris’ harsh reception by some conservative Christian review-ers becomes understandable. Peter Jones excoriates Paris for her lack of concrete moral teaching.1 That he lambasts her for never saying “homosexuality is a sin” shows, at some level, his failure to grapple with the core argument of the book. On the other hand, she does invest considerable energy in complexifying/obscuring moral discourse (see, for example, pages 65, 70, 121) without ever providing a more defensible concrete moral teaching (would “intimate same-sex sexual union is always sinful” work?). Further, her occasional moral formulations tend to be informal, seemingly apologetic, but most importantly non-normative (“My views are conservative – I’m a ‘sex only within marriage between a man and a woman’ kind of Christian;” 85). That Paris, with all her obvious expertise, would be unclear about moral boundaries may communicate to some readers that the moral conclusion of her book is nothing more than an invitation to an endlessly inconclusive conversation about moral boundaries. One could, as I am inclined, take the overall trajectory of the book – with its passionate exhortation toward holiness, and concluding chapters about sex in the crucible of monogamous male-female marriage and the validity of chastity for the unmarried – as an articulation of a traditional sexual ethic. But the ambiguity created by a selective and seemingly intentional silence is troubling.

Finally, this book advances but does not settle the conversation about sexual identity. Wesley Hill’s thoughtful review exemplifies the complexity of these is-sues. While Paris and many conservative Christians emphatically eschew sexual identity labels, Hill embraces chastity, embraces a biblically informed rationale for viewing homosexuality as a form of brokenness, and, in tension with Paris, embraces the identity of a “gay Christian man.” He states:

For myself, using the term “gay” has enabled me to attain a greater depth of honesty—with myself and with others. It has given me a way to achieve greater accuracy in naming the persistent, exclusive nature of my desires where a term like “same-sex attraction” seems too weak. Furthermore, claiming the “gay” label has allowed me to begin to discern a vocation… [to, in this particular vulnerability] receive and reflect [Christ’s] grace and embody the “perfection” of his strength.2

While acknowledging that sexual orientation can be identity-constituting in simplistic, totalizing, and destructive ways, Hill challenges Paris’ conclusion that the proper response to this reality is the “end” of sexual identity in favor of the possibility of subverting inappropriate use and the subsequent re-appropriation of sexual identity to redemptive purposes. Paris herself signals that this is possible—“Believers today can do as Jesus did – use cultural categories strategically, filling the useful ones with better meaning” (53). I have for many years supported Paris’ fundamental conclusion, and am still inclined in that direction, but am listening with care to arguments like Hill’s. For instance, I have long resisted the claim that heterosexuality is constitutive of my identity, but an honest grappling with the pervasive if secondary impact of marriage, fathering, and maleness on my identity, even my Christian identity, demands examination. I found myself, in pondering Paris’ argument, wondering whether she was extending to all of life in an unsustainable way the mindset of the cultural anthropologist as the abstract observer/theoretician. To what extent must we rise above, in the power of the gospel, the identity-constituting forms thrust on us by worldly culture; yet to what extent must we adopt and yet redeem (in and yet not of the world) as incarnational givens these same identity-constituting forms, this in order to live life in the finite, contingent and concrete givenness of our daily, lived realities? These are complex and fascinating issues.

Footnotes

  1. See Peter Jones, “Evangelical Author: ‘Heterosexuality Is an Abomination,’” available at http://www.worldviewweekend.com/worldview-times/article.php?articleid=7248.
  2. Wesley Hill, review of The End of Sexual Identity; available at http://tgcreviews.com/reviews/the-end-of-sexual-identity/ (April 25, 2011). Hill is the author of Washed and Wait-ing: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

Stanton L. Jones

Stanton L. Jones is Provost at Wheaton College.