Review: The End of Sexual Identity

Earlier this spring, Jenell Williams Paris published the book, “The END of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are”. I was intrigued when I heard about it – but my premonition that I wouldn’t like it very much. To be truthful, there just aren’t that many books from a Christian perspective about sexual identity that I feel I can recommend without reservation. I thought it only fair that I read the book before making any comments – and so made the amazon purchase and finished it while camping. I was pleasantly surprised by the generous and humble tone of the book.

Paris comes to the topic as an anthropologist. This is a good starting point. Additionally, she is candid about her bias and assumptions, identifying herself as a wife and mother who, along with her husband, care for preschool twins and a toddler. She says, “My life stage and family commitments shape my views on sexuality, and you’ll see that influence throughout the book.” (p. 20) She also is upfront about her evangelical background and the fact that she has spent her career as a professor in Christian colleges. She doesn’t, however, reveal her position on sexual intimacy within same-sex relationships until page 85. There 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.” While I can imagine that Paris was hoping to earn a reading without the limitations of people’s opinions about her particular views on appropriate sexual intimacy, and while my sense is that her commitment to be as generous and nuanced as possible within her views is genuine, I can’t help but feel that her particular view influences the book more than any other assumption and readers would have been well-served for her to identify this back on page 20 with her other assumptions.

Paris, in a refreshing departure from typical messaging in the evangelical church, does acknowledge the reality of straight privilege when she says, “On one hand, same-sex sexualities are normalized in mass media, and public school students are taught to be accepting and tolerant of all forms of diversity, including sexual. But on the other hand, heterosexuality continues to be the privileged norm, so much so that adolescent sexual minorities experience hatred and violence.” (p. 38) And, “because sexuality has moved center stage in defining human identity, heterocentrist theology constructs a hierarchy of persons. Even humble heterosexual Christians who make every effort to be kind and gracious toward homosexuals are not really reaching out; they’re reaching down from a place of moral elevation.” (40) In an effort to demonstrate the social construct behind this privilege, Paris tells her students that she is coming out as no longer heterosexual. She claims that she doesn’t “want to get life, secure in 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.“ (p. 43) She goes on to say that she sees heterosexuality as a concept riddled with problems and even calls it an abomination. In an ideal world this might be a route to attempt to deconstruct a false sense of privilege that permeates much of the Christian church. And it may be an effective teaching tool to help students consider the way such privilege acts in opposition to the message of the gospel that we are all one in Christ Jesus, that there are no favourites, and that in God’s Kingdom the last are made first and the first are made last. But I have to wonder whether, in the real world of heterosexism and the elevation of such privilege in the Christian community, such a gesture has any potential to produce sustainable change. Paris herself recognizes that to attempt to strip oneself of a heterosexual identity whilst being married to an opposite gender spouse and holding the role of wife and mother is “inane”.

Paris suggests that, “The major problem for Christians with heterosexuality, 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. No pattern is perfect, but this one isn’t even close. And “Christianizing” sexual identity – whether by affirming or negating the morality of various sexual identities – doesn’t help, because it doesn’t address the faulty connections that sexual identity categories make between human desire and identity.” (p. 43) Paris attempts to describe the problem by initially talking about heterosexuality. One of the limitations of her premise, however, is the reductionism of linking simply desire to identity. A more fair treatment of our sexuality would consider the variety of ways our sense of sexuality influences the manner in which we navigate the world of people and relationships. To describe one’s sexual identity with the social construct of heterosexual or homosexual is not merely a statement of the direction of one’s sexual attractions. Rather, it is an attempt to authentically articulate the particular manner in which one feels completed through union with another human being. Since this is more fluid than binary for many, particularly women, it is understandable that in queer studies there is the ongoing attempt to move past black and white categories of gay or straight. While such fluidity inevitably increases the complexity of the questions of identity, fluidity itself does not alter the reality that the search for a sense of resolution in one’s sexual identity is about much, much more than the direction of desire. Opposite-sex, same-sex or bi-sexuality might be better described as the drive to overcome our aloneness by completion with another, the peculiar manner in which we express ourselves in relation to men and women at the progressive levels of intimate relationship, and impact on the manner we relate our personhood to the world around us (ie. Through our creativity, humour, stewardship, communication etc.). Such a definition does not deny the reality that sexual identity is built on social construction – but it does recognize that sexuality is much more robust than merely desire or genitalized behaviour. It could be argued that the departure point for Paris is the social construction of identity because she seems to develop a broader sense of sexuality as it connects to our humanity. She writes, “God created sexuality. People created sexual identity. For Christians, developing ethical understandings is always a task of cultural deconstruction, but grounding sexual ethics in our humanity more than in contemporary sexual identity categories would be a starting point closer to God’s created order.”

On the tired question of causation of same-sex desire, Paris offers a nuanced and inconclusive response that considers the tremendous complexity of this question. As an anthropologist, she makes a direct connection with the influence of culture on our expressions of sexual behavior. In connection to this, she has this to say about the question of sexual orientation change: “….it is all too easy for Christians to claim that homosexuality stems from “nurture”, and therefore that all homosexuals need to do is choose to change. This is a vestige of premodern Christian thought, when same-sex activity was thought of purely in terms of behavior and in religious terms: the sodomite needs to repent. That line of reasoning simply doesn’t fit the world today. Even scientists who emphasize “nurture” agree that homosexuality is not always freely chosen, or that it’s not always possible to change orientation.” (p.61)

Paris shines particularly in her treatment of sexual holiness. She writes, “When distorted, holiness is used as a synonym for morality, when it’s really about being more and more in love with God and with humanity….. When sexual morality is elevated to an idolatrous place, it diminishes people’s sense of being loved and being able to love, instead of being put in its place by love.” (p. 83) If such a Christ-centric and love based idea of holiness actually permeated the church, we would be able to navigate our disagreements with one another with much more humility and gentleness. Paris goes on to say, “Maligning those with whom we disagree, even to the point of questioning the validity of their faith or salvation, is counterproductive and damages the witness of our religion as a whole, which is supposed to be comprised of believers from many times and places united in their devotion to Jesus, not to a set of beliefs about sexuality.” (p. 85) As I have often said, the hope of uniformity on the question of committed same-sex unions is an unrealistic one. We should, rather, focus on the question of, “How now shall we live together? Pursue mission together …. Pursue justice together ….. Worship together” Paris echoes this when she says, “The world in which Christians all agree about sexual issues is an imaginary one. Love of God and neighbor, the heart of holiness, has to be practiced in the real world in the midst of these disagreements.” (p.86) Paris posits that the Christian community would benefit from a renewed focus on sexual holiness as she describes rather than using sexual identity categories as the primary grid we read back into scripture and through which we view and evaluate people. She suggests that, “In the post-sexual identity church, there’s no moral high ground for heterosexuals and no closet for homosexuals. There’s just people, each of whom is lover and loved.” (p.92) She reiterates what many of my gay Christian friends have told me, that their primary identity is that they are the Beloved of God. But while it would seem that Paris would seek to erase a secondary manner of identification as connected with one’s sense of completeness and family in intimate, committed and consummated relationship, for my gay friends this continues to be significant as they seek to live honest and authentic lives in a hetero-privileged context.

As Paris begins to talk about sexual desire, I found a sense of seemingly reductionistic thinking that is not consistent with the experiences of individuals I have been in connection with. When she speaks of sexual identity being based on feelings, the object of one’s desires, there again seems to be a disconnect with a more robust understanding of same-sex sexuality as being a more integrative part of our personhood than merely the one aspect of sexual desire. The example used, of a young man mired in promiscuity and longing for God to intervene so that he can experience intimacy in a monogamous relationship seems to minimize the potentially pervasive impact that same-sex sexuality may have on the young man’s sense of personhood. By suggesting that his alignment with a gay identity is “conforming to the pattern of this world” but is understandable since the church hasn’t provided an alternative, Paris seems to be leveling the same kind of judgment that she encouraged Christians to eschew in the first half of the book.

In speaking about the way judgment assesses sexuality, she looks at both extremes of seeking to amputate sexual feeling that the individual deems inappropriate and full affirmation of desire (in particular same-sex desires). Her suggestion is that both lack discernment, however, I think such a suggestion makes unnecessarily sweeping assumptions. Even where there is affirmation of the acceptance of same-sex sexuality and committed same-sex unions, there can still be discernment around the stewardship of desire, intimacy, relationships around values of fidelity, humility, honouring and giving to another. Paris says, “In contrast to judgment that assesses a person’s sexuality as good or bad, discernment honours the paradoxical way that blessing and suffering coexist in a holy life. Though sexual attractions and behaviors will never reach moral perfection, our sexual lives can be congruent with our spiritual lives, characterized by mercy, forgiveness, sin and restoration, love, joy, peace, patience, and self-control.” (p.107)

Paris rightly lays out a realistic portrayal of sex within heterosexual marriage. She describes situations and circumstances in which sexual intimacy is negatively impacted and rightly suggests that good marriages are sustainable even when sexual intercourse is infrequent, painful or unsatisfying. She says, “It just isn’t true that, in order to be a happy, healthy adult, a person must explore his or her sexual feelings, choose a corresponding sexual identity, and live out that identity through sexual activity.” While I agree with this sentence, I am concerned about the insinuations that arise from it. Same-sex oriented people who seek a same-sex partner with whom they can enter a life-long committed relationship are not just exploring feelings, choosing an identity and engaging in sexual activity that corresponds. Long-term committed gay couples that I know acknowledge the same reality of sex within their relationship having its disappointments, seasons, and challenges. But like any other committed person in an opposite gender relationship, they assert that their relationship is about much, much more than sexual activity. They too share life at multiple levels, being companions for one another, sharing decision-making, sharing joys and sorrows, navigating challenges together, serving others together, extending hospitality together, perhaps raising children together – or mentoring, fostering or otherwise investing in others’ lives. The glue that holds their relationships together is much more complex and multi-faceted than simply shared sexual activity. Additionally, gay Christian couples I know share a similar mature Christian understanding of sex that she describes as, “… the center of sexual love is neither orgasm (as the pinnacle of fulfillment) nor sexual feelings (as the center of personal identity). Holiness in sexuality is the same as holiness in any part of life; it’s the life of love, centered in Christ.” (p.118)

In her chapter on celibacy, Paris nuances the topic well. She is attuned to the common lack of not only a support system for those who are celibate, but the lack of plausibility in our current social and church cultural contexts. She writes, “It’s another thing, however, for a persistently same-sex attracted Christian in his thirties or forties to choose against sexual intimacy. In this case, saying no to sex means also saying no to partnership, intimacy, and all the other social and economic benefits of long-term sexual partnerships and/or marriage.” (p. 136) Paris seems to be articulating some of her own cognitive dissonance. She has stated clearly that it is her conviction that sexual intimacy be reserved for marriage between one man and one woman. At times, she seems to articulate a simplistic or reductionistic idea of same-sex sexuality as being merely about the object of one’s desire. At other times, she seems to well acknowledge that same-sex oriented persons have legitimate human needs that go far beyond genitalized sexual activity. She acknowledges that same-sex attractions may not undergo radical change in direction. She seems to recognize that involuntary celibacy in a context that is unsupportive can be harmful. She then quotes Martin Luther in this manner, “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world….. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard, for you are quite a sinner.” She then says, “It would be better to sin and experience the immensity of grace than to avoid sin for fear of disapproval, banishment, or loss of employment or leadership roles in the church.” (p.137) The reader is left wondering what Paris is actually recommending. Should Christians who experience persistent same-sex attraction sin boldly? What does this look like? What effect does this have on the discernment and discipleship that Paris has taken pains to emphasize throughout the book? And how does that connect to her conclusion that imposed celibacy either within marriage or singleness can be viewed as crucible, akin to Paul’s thorn in his flesh, and therefore a means to grace?

I appreciate Paris’ final sentence at the end of the book, and truly hope others in the Christian community will heed her call. “When disagreements about same-sex sexuality are just differences, not divisions, and when we share mutual affection and bestow honor on those with whom we disagree, we’re already living beyond the end of sexual identity.” (p. 144) In the book, Paris attempts to open the conversation at the intersection of faith and sexuality with a fresh, creative, and charitable tone. She laments the prescriptive and definitive nature of social construction of