The End of Sexual Identity

This post is by one of my students, Kellie Carstensen. She and some of her friends routinely meet with me to discuss a variety of ideas, and this review grew from one of our discussions.

Upon first glance at the book The END of Sexual Identity by Jenell Williams Paris (professor at Messiah College) the cover image evaded my understanding. Shopping bags? What does that have to do with anything? After reading it however I was amazed that such an obvious comparison had eluded me: in our world today sex sells, and the reason sex sells is because it has become intrinsic to who we are, except not in a good way.

Paris describes the root of this problem when she says “Whether it’s in the area of shopping, sports, jobs or sex, Western values encourage people to discover what they really want and then go for it; the happy person is one who can freely do what he or she wants to do. Desire and action are closely linked, so harmony between wanting and doing is believed to bring fulfillment” (pg 126). This understanding may be the norm for us living in the Western world, but it shouldn’t be the norm for those of us who want to live in the kingdom. Everything about Christianity involves giving up what we want and doing the will of God instead – sexuality is included here. Human desires are fleeting, but God’s intentions remain firm.

Originally, I began reading this with an interest in sexuality and how it has grown to define who we are. I was unaware that a decent portion was focused on homosexuality, yet I found that the overall theme is more on sexuality as a whole; so for those who aren’t as interested in the topic of LGBT issues Paris still has a lot to say beyond that.

Here’s two questions for today: How much does sexual identity shape who we think we are? How does our sexuality shape our own sense of identity? Where do you see heterosexuals shaping their identity by their sexuality? (Men, women.) How does this distort our true (beloved) identity?

The book is separated into seven chapters and an epilogue, but those chapters primarily look at two main ideas. First is the idea that sexual orientation, or even just our sexuality in general, shouldn’t define us because it can be hurtful not only personally but also to the people around us. This is the section where she primarily talks about the influence of identity in relationships between Christians and the LGBT community. Second she looks at all the dimensions of how sex and sexual desires are at the same time important and unimportant depending on how we approach them. For Paris, sexuality (the way it exists in our culture) is not a big deal and we overemphasize it to the point that it harms the way sex is actually very significant if seen as God originally intended it. Combining these two problems Paris suggests we shed our sexual identities and mainstream views of sex so that we can understand it as part of the human condition, but with the center focus always on God.

Someone I discussed this book with made a valid point: the overall idea is nice but it is too idealistic, and thus, improbable. I bring this up now because as you read on I want you to remember: even though something is ideal that doesn’t mean it is impossible – for in fact, the Kingdom of God is ideal, yet it is exactly what Jesus tells us is possible through Him.

Paris creates an argument that is well rounded and well supported from a social science view, her anthropology background is certainly evident, and also from a Christian theological standpoint. The social science approach is well-suited for the topic considering that blanket theories or conclusions about such a controversial issue would be invalid and inappropriate, then the addition of the Christian perspective was very helpful as well. Whatever your beliefs might be about homosexuality, this book is not one to disregard. Paris herself doesn’t explicitly state her stance on the subject until pg 85 where she says “My views are conservative- I’m a ‘sex only within marriage between a man and a woman’ kind of Christian – but I am well aware that Christians of good faith disagree about the meaning of personal sexual holiness.” I appreciated the humble stance she took and thought she developed an approach based more on love than judgement. Paris includes the issue of homosexuality mainly as support for her argument that making sexual orientation or behaviors the identity of an individual can be very harmful.

Having sexual identity can be of great comfort to some people. Thus, there are those who wouldn’t want to completely eradicate such a label. It provides them with a community of support, other people who are like them and share similar experiences or values. In this way though, is sexual identity any different from racial identity? Or gender identity? Or religious identity? I could go on with the categories but I won’t. What’s clear is that this is an element of human relationship that is so natural it is almost impossible to stop – the motivation to surround oneself with other people who are similar to ourselves. Here is the problem with all of it: any identity besides one in Christ secludes us from other people, the people God instructs us to love despite differences, for “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all on in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). I would guess that Paris might add “heterosexual nor homosexual” to this list. Paris acknowledges the desire for identity when she says “people need identity categories that give a sense of self and community,” but she says the problem is that “Christians haven’t offered an alternative” (96).

Paris uses the analogy of two grocery bags to describe this dilemma of identity accurately. When the two bags have no labels on them, it is impossible to decide which one you would pick because you don’t know what is inside of each. If they have separate labels on them – she uses the example of “homosexual” and “heterosexual” – you still don’t technically know what is inside, and thus you still can’t truly know which is better. If you start to take things out of the bags, you will find similarities and differences inside of each – things including behaviors, relationships, memories, hopes, and desires. Paris explains this saying that “sexual identity categories offer a shortcut for evaluating sexuality that doesn’t devote proper attention to all the dimensions of human sexuality” (82). Instead, if one looks at the specific parts of sexuality it is possible to find important areas for healing and growth. This can apply to all people, rather than blanketing them with a problem that is too unclear or vague to actually sort out. Paris later adds that“When we allow sin to become the criterion by which people are labeled, divided and judged, we are actually proclaiming sin to be the victor over people, not showing how Christ is the victor over sin” (137).

I agree with this, and with her conclusion that instead we should simply see everyone through the same label of “beloved” – this is the alternative she suggests for Christians to approach each other in love.  For “love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). Therefore if we are going to see each other all as “beloved,” the way Jesus taught us to, sexuality becomes only part of the whole person that we must wrestle with, be patient with, and not boast in our place but all be equal in God’s eyes. Through such a perspective there is no good or bad, everything is about understanding the elements that make up our sexuality to follow the command of loving God by loving our neighbors. That we can sort out the difficult parts of sexuality together, all of its complications and versions of holiness, to learn how to appreciate it in the right ways as God intended.

Paris believes that our culture over-values sex in a way that isn’t actually as important as we make it. She described this when she wrote“Sexual feelings are important, but when they’re taken for more than they really are (to establish human identity) they disappoint. What is true of sexual feelings is also true of sex. It is important and good, but it can’t be taken for more than what it is. Sex may be meaningful, intimate, procreative and even sacred; in these ways, it is a big deal. But when sex is expected to deliver self-actualization and consistently out-of-this-world physical pleasure, it tends to disappoint” (112). She further discusses the true importance of sex as God originally intended it, intentions that do make it “a big deal.” Paris points out the reasons why we value it today, such as for identity purposes and personal fulfillment, and how they aren’t actually important, we just inflate the value of sex in a way that distracts our foundation of self away from God. Using the idea of a solar system orbiting around the sun, Paris relates this concept of identity saying that “When desire is seen as the sun around which identity orbits, both become rigid and unassailable; to question desire is to question a person’s selfhood and worth. However, when desire is seen as a shifting planet that moves around the stable sun of belovedness, one’s identity as a child of God can remain in place regardless of how desire changes (or doesn’t change). And when desire is respected as a site of conflict and a venue for grace, it remains responsive to discernment and care” (98). On this image is where Paris’ view of sexuality anchors – the idea that our identity in God should be our focus so that desire can be an area of healing and understanding. In that way we can also bring sexuality back to its rightful place of importance as a valid part of us, but not the center.

I appreciated that Paris discussed this within homosexuality, but also that she went further to include the dimensions of sexual desire, actual sex in marriage, and celibacy. After all, sexuality is not either/or but fleeting desires that cover many different situations. Thus the book expands to look at how it is important and unimportant in our various levels of relationships and desires. In doing this she demonstrates her idea that“We could make more of sexuality, that is, show it greater honor, by making less of sexual desire,” thus we need to “redefine sexual desire as simply a part – not the whole – of who we are” (143).

Here is the conclusion some friends and I came up with: different is not unequal. Just because I am white and you are black, or I am heterosexual and you are LGBT, or I have had certain sexual experiences or desires that you haven’t, we are all still equal in the eyes of God who loves us all. It is natural for us to create different categories, but once we let those categories become our identities we cling on to the “us versus them” perspective where one situation is better than the other, and that judgement is the opposite of a love that welcomes all people. We can’t let our differences become divisions, and Paris accurately describes this situation specifically for sexuality so that it leaves room for healing and true holiness of purity in God’s will.

Whatever your belief is on sexuality, the point of this book is to open up the conversation. Sexuality is what we make of it, so as Christians it is time we take all of these things out of the closet and learn how to discuss every part of human nature, even those that make us uncomfortable, in a way that sees every person as God’s beloved. As Paris notes early on in the book“We’re responsible not only for what we do sexually, but for what we make of sex. In working together to make meanings of sexual wholeness and holiness in our time and place, we extend an invitation to acknowledge the myriad ways that sex is [and is not] a big deal” (13).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Mick Porter

    The point that our culture over-values sex is a good one. Perhaps some of the recent trends for certain churches to focus (positively) on sex is potentially misguided.

  • Rick

    Interesting topic, and I too agree with the “over-value” aspect.

    The historical look at sexual identity, or the lack thereof, is interesting, and discussed in an interview the author had (just 12 minute interview) at Vertis Riff.

    http://veritasriff.org/archive/10-the_invention_of_sexual_identity

  • Mike Atkinson

    Exceptional evaluation, Kellie!

  • Stephen Neynaber, Ed.D

    Self-image & Self-Identity; Overcoming Stereotypes;
    Sexuality vs. Sensuality; External Beauty vs. Inner Beuaty;

    Enjoy this short presentation and then ponder upon how many potentially GREAT relationships we have missed developing because we pre-judged a book by its [disabled] cover:
    Shelley Baer – The Beauty of Disability
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xX1Job6O60E

  • Scott W

    From reading this post, I’d emphasize a different point: sexuality is intrinsic to our identity as human beings created in the image of God. On the other hand “genitality” or sexual expression does not occupy that central aspect of our identity, or shouldn’t. But a large part in the emphasis on “genitality” is our consumeristic orientation central to resolving these “identity issues”. This transcends sexuality; it’s as much a part of how many people view religiosity too. People are in search of the latest, the best, the purest, the most profound experience which will satiate their deepest desires and somehow reveal who they are.

  • Joe Canner

    I agree that over-valuing s*x and over-emphasizing s*xual identity are important issues and that the Church needs to do a better job of ignoring societal labels for people and ministering without distinction to the whole person.

    I think the argument about s*xual identity is too often used, however, to marginalize the LGBT community and to stifle conversation about their human rights. It is indeed unfortunate that the word “s*xual” is so prominent in the labels used in these discussions, because s*x is only part of the story. It is just as much or more about emotional intimacy, companionship, who I want to spend the rest of my life with, etc. S*x is usually introduced into the discussion in order to stigmatize and marginalize. It is no wonder that, under these circumstances, gays choose to identify more strongly with each other.

    Moreover, even without intentional stigmatization, our society is so oriented towards opposite-gender relationships, that gays will stick out like a sore thumb regardless of how overt or subtle they are. So, it is not enough to sweep the differences under the rug; there needs to be positive discussion and action aimed at giving same-gender relationships the same social status as opposite-gender relationships. (This mirrors the discussion over the last 50 years about whether racial inequalities can be addressed by becoming a “color-blind” society or by taking active steps to repair and redress centuries of oppression.)

    So, yes, in an ideal world s*xual identity should not be an issue, but in the meantime there is hard work to be done and these issues cannot be conveniently ignored.

    ***Sorry for the censorship, apparently all this talk about s*x makes the software think I’m too “spammy”.***

  • dopderbeck

    Great summary — ordered the book!

  • Joel

    Lauren Winner points out that sex is both overvalued and undervalued in our culture at the same time. It is both supremely important and basically meaningless at the same time.

  • http://www.teachsundayschool.com/ MK @ Teach Sunday School

    I’m so glad that you chose to share Kellie Carstensen’s post. I have always been fascinated by and interested in gender studies—even as a college student—so I found that Kellie’s post was well-thought-out, thought-provoking, and full of little nuggets of wisdom and concern. I look forward to reading more from her.

  • Anneke

    Interesting perspective! I especially liked:

    “Paris believes that our culture over-values sex in a way that isn’t actually as important as we make it. She described this when she wrote ‘Sexual feelings are important, but when they’re taken for more than they really are (to establish human identity) they disappoint.’ “

  • http://www.communitycovenantchurch.org/ Brian King

    Thanks Kellie, I especially appreciate your statement about living the “ideal” life: “,,,I want you to remember: even though something is ideal that doesn’t mean it is impossible – for in fact, the Kingdom of God is ideal, yet it is exactly what Jesus tells us is possible through Him.”

  • Joshua Wooden

    A very comprehensive and well-written summary. I was curious, however – what are the theological foundations of the book? Does the author go to the Bible for support (beyond an affirmation of sex within marriage between man and woman), or is this based more on sociological/anthropological concepts and trends?

  • Tom F.

    I like that the question highlights the ways in which sexual identity is not something which only people in the GLBQ community do, but something that everyone does.

    I wonder though about how much distance you can put between s*xual desire and the center of human personhood. Sexual desires are not incidental to being human. Sexuality represents an area where so many fundamental human questions are asked and answered. Am I lovable? Am I desirable? What is the response of those around me when I move towards that which I desire? It would be wrong to say that they are “ultimate” questions, but I think it would be unfair to characterize them as any less than “penultimate”, that is, s*xual desire and s*xuality intrinsically approach more ultimate questions of meaning and value and yes, identity.

    I wonder how fair evangelicals would really be willing to take this critique anyway. It is commonly said that only heterosexual marriage can resonate with the scriptural metaphors about marriage for the divine-human relationship. It would seem that this is a powerful way of saying that s*xuality is very closely related to “ultimate” questions of identity and meaning. So, in a way, aren’t GLBQ simply mirroring what traditional people have always done in making s*xuality a central part of identity? That they do so in non-traditional ways is an issue of content, but in method, both they and evangelicals as a whole both place s*xuality very much at the center of identity.

    I got the spam message too…

  • Tom F.

    Last paragraph should read= “how FAR evangelicals would really be willing to take this critique..”

  • TJJ

    “Paris includes the issue of homosexuality mainly as support for her argument that making sexual orientation or behaviors the identity of an individual can be very harmful.”

    I agree with this. And this I thnk is essential in the context of truly seeking to give/reflect the love of Christ to LGBT individuals. But I find that LGBT themselves often tend to make their sexual identitiy central and important and core to everything, and thus that itself becomes another hurdle or roadblock, for me at least, in living out my Kingdom values with them and among them. Not really a judgment as much as an obervation, in my experience at least.

  • Joe Canner

    TJJ #14: I hear this concern a lot, and I have no doubt that it is often true. However, I think we need to try to put ourselves in their shoes. Any marginalized group has a tendency to overstate their case in order to get their agenda on the table. Think about the Black Pride and ultra-feminist demonstrations in the 60s. Once the desired rights are obtained, there less of a need to accentuate the differences and a trend towards integration into society. I’m sure Gay Pride celebrations are uncomfortable for most people, but we need to understand what’s behind them and try to show love anyway.

    Incidentally, I think LGBT public expressions of sexuality are often just mimicking what comes out of the straight community. How can we expect gays to refrain from over-the-top PDA and displaying half-naked pictures of themselves, if this is the norm for the rest of society?

  • http://mikeblyth.blogspot.com Mike Blyth

    I realize this is only a book review and not an analysis in itself, but I’m not quite comfortable with the way in which homos_xuality is on the one hand implicitly condemned (“I’m a ‘s_x only within marriage between a man and a woman’ kind of Christian”) but apparently embraced at the same time as part of our diversity.

    I’m not as certain as I once was that homos_xual behavior is inherently sinful, though like Paris that is still my leaning. Still, it seems wrong to me to say it’s sinful but accept it. Shouldn’t one accept it only after concluding theologically that it is not sinful?

    This is a different question entirely from accepting people with all their sins and imperfections. It’s also different than recognizing as Paris does that “Christians of good faith disagree about the meaning of personal sexual holiness.” If a church and its members through honest prayer and study have concluded that homosexuality is OK for Christians, then it’s consistent for them to accept it. If a church has come to the opposite conclusion, then how can they believe it’s immoral but still accept it?

    What if we replace all the references to “homos_xuality” in the article and comments with, say, “consensual incest” or “slavery,” not because they compare with homos_xuality but just as an exercise in the moral logic being used. Does the logic still hold, or does it require a prior commitment to the idea the homos_xuality is acceptable?

    P.S. Please tell your spam filter to chill or grow up a bit! :-)

  • http://mikeblyth.blogspot.com Mike Blyth

    Here’s an example of the thought experiment I’m talking about in #16. Modify the paragraph in the original post to

    “Here is the conclusion some friends and I came up with: different is not unequal. Just because I am white and you are black, or I own slaves (and treat them very well!) and you are an abolitionist, or I am in a loving, monogamous relationship with my sister while you are married to a non-relative, we are all still equal in the eyes of God who loves us all. It is natural for us to create different categories, but once we let those categories become our identities we cling on to the “us versus them” perspective where one situation is better than the other, and that judgement is the opposite of a love that welcomes all people. We can’t let our differences become divisions, and Paris accurately describes this situation specifically for sexuality so that it leaves room for healing and true holiness of purity in God’s will.”

  • Steve Sherwood

    I tried to post this earlier in the day, but no matter how many letters I substituted for any word that three letter word starting with s and ending with x, the filter blocked it. Here’s another try:

    Yes, the LGBT community over identifies their identities relative to their s-word ending with-ity. But, do they not hear that constantly from the conservative, straight community? In middle school or high school they hear taunts of f-word ending in g. In church they see grace extended to folks with every struggle under the sun except the sin of being g-word ending in-y.

    It seems like we, in the straight community want it both ways. We all too often sum up “them” by their s-word ending in-y, but are offended when they do the same and see that as a good thing. There was a culture of rhymes-with-hay bashing and loathing, long before there were rhymes-with-bay pride parades.

  • Jennifer Ellen

    @17&18 –

    I think there is a distinct difference between something like slavery and what we call “homosexuality.” I don’t think it is necessarily inconsistent to hold a position that sex outside of marriage between a man and a women is precluded by Scripture, and to also insist that those who are attracted to the same sex are equal before God with those who are not. I’m not so sure those attractions are not just as much a part of the diversity of this fallen world as being an orphan or being ADHD.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X