Thursday, April 19, 2012

Goodbye, Sexual Identity

Sexual identity radically shapes Western culture. Men and women must meet certain expectations if they want to maintain their cherished image of heterosexuality. Men usually receive the shorter end of the stick as heterosexual woman can cross gender boundaries without raising eyebrows.

Just to be clear, sexuality identity is not the same as sex or gender. Sexual identity refers to how we define ourselves based upon our sexual desires and behaviors. Though I would add that gender roles are part of how we conceptualize identity. Again, men have it rough when it comes to sexual identity. Society creates cookie cutter guidelines about male activities, interests, hobbies, appearance, and so forth. Stray but a little, and one’s sexuality is called into question. Women probably experience this frustration a little, but for whatever reason not at the same intensity as men do. For all the so-called advantages of being a man, sexual identity is not one of them.

I mentioned before that I’m reading a book called The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are by Jenell Williams Paris, a Christian anthropologist and professor. The thesis of Dr. Paris’ book is that we need to move beyond sexual identity labels: “I don’t want to be heterosexual. I don’t want to get life, secure my moral standing or gird my marriage with a social identity that privileges some and maligns others on the basis of inner desires and feelings” (Paris 43). Just to clarify, Dr. Paris is a woman married to man, a mother, and a Christian who teaches at a Christian university. Paris is making a case not only for those who experience same-sex attraction to cease using labels to define their lives, but also for the majority of those who have sexual feelings and desires for the opposite sex.

Dr. Paris’ reasoning for the eradication of sexual identity includes plenty of factors. As the above quote mentions, the terms themselves and the focus on sexuality has created “heterocentrist theology” which in turn leads to “a hierarchy of persons” (Paris 40). Even in secular culture, the LGBT community experiences an incredible amount of prejudice, ostracism, and hostility by Christians and homophobic jerks. Labels have a knack for creating discrimination and misunderstanding. An end to sexual labels for all creates equality. It’s an interesting point, but probably one that doesn’t resonate with the LGBT community who often live in a cultural bubble (like all of us) that promotes their self-identified status.

Dividing and separating people into categories creates other problems for societal labeling. Dr. Paris gives the example of “Michael” a student whose sister came out as lesbian. His sister’s new identity creates feelings of isolation for Michael, not so much because of his or her beliefs, but “because the sexual identity categories themselves [creates] a chasm between lesbian and straight (Paris 40). This wall of separation divides Michael from his sister, and as Paris notes, also influences the church. Paris continues, “The problem isn’t only that heterosexual Christians are self-righteous; it’s that they’re heterosexual” (Ibid). This hierarchy of sexual sins we create separates people as categories instead of humans made in the image of God. The hierarchy militarizes Christians to perceive an “us versus them” mentality towards gay people. Christians who see themselves as straight ministering to the LGBT community may have difficulty conceptualizing the other as a complete equal in the family of God. What is Paris’ solution? “Heterosexual” Christians need to stop using the label, which only promotes self-righteousness and hypocrisy, and not follow the social constructs the culture dictates. A person’s sexual choices and desires do not define his or her essence—we are all human, made in the Imago Dei.

A Christian reading Paris’ work may or may not find those points very compelling. Scripture esteems sexuality between men and women, so what’s biblically wrong with the self-identification of heterosexual or straight? Well, actually, quite a lot. “Heterosexuality implies that what you want, sexually speaking, is who you are. A pervasive biblical theme, however, is that human desire is fickle, a mystery even to ourselves” (Paris 43).  Jeremiah writes, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17: 9 ESV). And Paul adds, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7: 15, 18-19 ESV). Paris notes that this hierarchy of sexuality even influences the Church’s view of sin. If we consider heterosexuality above homosexuality, then those who commit heterosexual sins such as premarital sex, pornography, etc, could be seen as more permissible than homosexual sin. The heterosexual offender may receive discipline and continue in church fellowship, after all, everyone relates to his or her struggle. However, the homosexual offender may get thrown out of church even if repentant and desirous of help. The Bible doesn’t present humanity in divisions of sexual orientation, but as children of God. Sin is sin, regardless of who commits it. We’re equally condemned under the law, but also equally loved and forgiven through Christ.

Dr. Paris sums it up well in this paragraph:

Christian communities can’t afford to play out cultural scripts, honoring heterosexuals and maligning homosexuals, seating the supposedly sexually pure at the table and leaving the sinners out in the cold. Bob Davies said it well: for all of us, redemption is incomplete. We need to set a place at the table for people with conflicted desires, inconsistent behavior and complicated sexual journeys. And if we really receive them, we’ll realize that they are us (Paris 109-110).

It’s time for Christians to be countercultural and reject the societal need of sexual identity. Our sexuality is an important part of who we are, but as Paris notes throughout many chapters of her book, it’s not that big of a deal. Sexuality has its place in marriage; singles, daters, celibates, and the widowed still have some sense of maintaining a sexuality of their own apart from intercourse. Our sexuality is only one compartment of our being; sexuality cannot begin to encapsulate our entire identity. Sexuality as an identifying label only severs the body of Christ. No one is better than anyone else based on their feelings. We are one body but have different roles. Equal, NOT separate.


Paris, Jenell Williams. (2011). The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are. Intervarsity Press. Downers Grove, IL.

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