The Invention of Homosexuality . . . and Heterosexuality
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The Veritas Riff is a group of friends who combine deep faith with world-class expertise in subjects ranging from politics, science, culture, business, medicine, and more. They offer their informal take on the big questions facing us all.
Sexual identity has split the Christian Church like no other issue has in recent years. Entire denominations, and the relationships between churches and the broader culture, are fracturing around questions like "Should gay priests be ordained?" and "Should gay marriages be recognized?"
But what if this very thing that is the source of so much contention, this thing called "sexual identity," doesn't really exist? Or what if it doesn't exist, at least, in the way that we Christians have been brought up to believe? How would that change how we wrestle with these conflicts? Jenell Paris, a cultural anthropologist teaching at Messiah College, has posed these questions and provided her own answer in her recent book, The End of Sexual Identity. Her book makes the historical argument that the very concept of a homosexual versus heterosexual identity is a relatively modern invention.
Can you say more about that historical invention process?
Let's start by looking at a particular historical moment. In Colonial America, people who engaged in same-sex sex were labeled "sodomites." So the label for a certain sexual practice was thoroughly religious and it wasn't a whole identity category. You could move in and out of the category "sodomite" depending on your behavior. Probably the more important identity category is gender: being a man or woman. In the 19th century, medical sex researchers created the categories "heterosexual" and "homosexual" in an attempt to make sense of proper or deviant sexuality. Those categories have shifted over time. They have meant different things. We now have different words like lesbian, gay, and bisexual added to the repertoire. But the concept that sexual feelings are linked to identity is a 19th-century medical concept.
Was it also the 19th century when these labels gained currency in the broader culture?
Those didn't really influence the general public until the 1930s, when those words became a more common part of American discourse. So in thinking about even my own family, just to take an example, we could say that my grandfather who came of age in the 1910s probably didn't have a sexual identity. He was a fundamentalist minister, but he was a man, he was a Christian, and his sexuality got wrapped around those concepts, not his identity understood in terms of his sexuality.
My parents remember getting a sexual identity in the 1960s. So these ideas came a little late for them but they both can talk about realizing, "Oh, I am heterosexual; there is such a thing and I am going to claim one of those labels for myself." I, growing up in the ‘80s, always had a sexual identity. So we can see across the 20th century there has been a deeper and deeper entrenchment of that concept in American self-understandings.
And these changes correspond to how different generations have understood the role and meaning of sex in human life?
Right. If anything, sex was considered a more communal element of life. It had to do with reproduction, with family, with extended family, and with church and community. Sexual identity categories radically individualized the meaning of sex in the human experience. So the meaning of sex is now located primarily within the individual and her private, innermost feelings.
As an anthropologist, why do you think these changes occurred?
I think there are many different social factors around increasing individualism, even urbanization and other factors that don't seem directly related to sex. Urbanization made it possible for people to move far away from their families and have relationships or sexual experiences that their kin would never even know about. So people were gaining more freedom to cultivate sexual experiences that were more individualized, and I think this influenced the scientific community to categorize sexuality in ways that were more individual and less religious and less communal.
Where did the scientific community locate this thing called sexual identity? Where does our sexual identity reside?
Often it has to do with sexual feelings. We are encouraged to think about what our sexual feelings are and choose the category accordingly. So a person could be gay or straight without having any sexual experience; it is simply based on their thoughts and feelings. Some people base it more on sexual behavior and experience. But there is disagreement in the scientific community, such that if you ask sex researchers today, "What percent of the population is gay?" you would get a response of frustration like, "Well it depends on what you mean by ‘gay.' How exactly do we define that term?" Different scientific studies will define sexual identity based on thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and self-identification and get very different answers depending on how the term is defined.
It sounds as though definitions would naturally be unstable if we're using such a precarious point of reference as feelings.
Absolutely, we trust feelings. We definitely give them a lot of authority, saying "What you feel is who you truly are." But at the same time feelings are fickle. We see in Scripture that feelings are described as fickle and unstable. Not many people experience fluidity in their sexual feelings but some do, and that's a growing area of research. We're finding that these feelings can really change with context, and can change with age as well.
The church has largely accepted this sexual identity framework. What have been the consequences and implications?
The church has bought into these identity categories for the last hundred years. The turmoil we're experiencing in the church today is a legacy of that acceptance. On an individual level people feel judged not in their behavior where there are choices, but instead in their very essence, in who they are as persons. And there is the idea that some people are better than other people by virtue of sexual feelings that they didn't even choose. On a corporate level we have organizations like churches and colleges and non-profits that use stances on homosexuality as part of their defining characteristic and that is resulting in divisions and heightened conflict.
Leaders in some of those institutions would say, "We're standing up for truth in an age of moral relativism." And those leaders might argue that you're "going soft on sin."
One of the frustrations that led to me writing this book was feeling bullied by the question "Is homosexuality a sin?" I picture a tug of war where that question is being shouted from a megaphone and people are forced to get on one team or the other and start fighting. That is so limiting. I think opening up the cultural dimensions of sexuality is the required step: not just asking, "Is homosexuality a sin?" but questioning "What is homosexuality? What is heterosexuality? What are these labels and where did they come from?" Starting to get underneath those questions can open up new opportunities, new discourse, new ways of thinking, new ways of living.
Another parallel intrigued me. The question of software and music piracy appears, on the one hand, to be a fundamental moral issue because of the commandment, "Thou shalt not steal." Yet some people treat the lines as fluid, as though it's acceptable to pirate from a major record label but not a small one. Yet we rarely treat pro-piracy or anti-piracy as identity labels. Is that analogous to your vision of what could be the Christian discussion about sexuality? Where there are still moral categories, but they're not made into identity categories?
That's a beautiful analogy and I think that kind of openness is already happening in many places around sexuality. Homosexuality and heterosexuality are not simple labels. You can imagine someone who is labeled heterosexual but has a lot of same-sex feelings or even practices. You can imagine a person labeled homosexual who might have some fluidity or some choice in their sexuality. People's back-stories on how they got to their current place are very different; the choices they face are very different. I think ratcheting down the stakes in a sense would allow us to see the complexity of people's stories and allow for a more complex, more real discussion. It doesn't make it less morally significant, but it makes it more true to what our experience really is.
What do you say when a student asks you, "What is God's best desire for me in my sexuality?"
I think God's best for us is not that we become heterosexual. I don't think that's the point. God's calling for all of his followers is to holiness, to live lives grounded more and more in the love of Christ. With respect to sexuality, I think God's best is sex within a marriage between a man and a woman. In the book I lay out a whole chapter on sex within marriage and a whole chapter on celibacy -- in both chapters, really thinking about what is the place of sexual desire.
Well I encourage our listeners to get your book to dive into your treatment on these very nuanced and complex topics. Jenell, congratulations on what I think is a helpfully provocative book and thanks for coming on the Veritas Riff.
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