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The End of Sexual Identity

The End of Sexual Identity November 16, 2011

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).

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