The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are

  • Jenell Williams Paris
  • May 14, 2012
  • Series: Volume 15 - 2012

Jenell Williams Paris, The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are, Downers Grove: IVP, 2011.  Paperback, $15.00.  160 pages.  ISBN 978-0-8308-3836-3.                                                   

EndofSexualityJenell Williams Paris is professor of anthropology at Messiah College. At the beginning of the book, she assures the reader that she is an evangelical heterosexual married woman with three young sons committed to the traditional evangelical standards of sexual behavior (18, 20, 43, 85). The origin of the book as related in the preface was a conversation of twenty years earlier when she inadvertently shut down a friendship with a bi-sexual person who asked her, “Does Christianity really condemn homosexuality?”  Paris regretted her response:  “It’s not that it was wrong of me to say that Christianity forbids same-sex sex; it just shouldn’t have been the first and only thing I had to say” (8).

Romans 12:1-2 is the “text” of the first three chapters where Paris describes the “pattern of the world.” The chapters are dense with anthropological studies of sexual behavior. Unless the reader has an interest in anthropology, these chapters are not critical to understanding the final point. Her purpose is to encourage conversation to include acknowledgement of the complexities of human sexuality within the context of Christian discipleship (27). At the end of chapter one, she brackets out the question, “Is homosexuality a sin?” thereby putting the controversy on hold (34). She may appear to be forming a platform of sympathy for same-sex sex, but the reader must persevere through a few more chapters for the outcome and may be forgiven for skipping to the last chapter for reassurance of her conviction. She is setting the stage to turn around the well-worn evangelical conversation.

Chapter two, “The Trouble with Heterosexuality,” points out that the terms “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” were used primarily as medical terms until the 1930s (42). Essential to understanding her argument, the reader must grasp the concept of sexual identity as based on a person’s desired sexual partner. The framework of identity based on desire is a relatively recent development, which only solidified after the easy availability of oral contraceptives.  Since the 1960s sexual identity became linked to feelings (39). Previously sex was oriented to others in the form of reproduction, family, and religion. Since that watershed, sex is a force separated from procreation. People are described by who they want sexually, which then becomes the measure of who the person is (42). This chapter points out the “plank in the eye” that heterosexuals do not acknowledge when they place themselves in a privileged position of moral superiority over others.

To level the playing field, chapter 3 turns to “The Trouble with Homosexuality.”  She says the term is falling out of use because of the diversity of sexual behaviors lumped together in one category (59). Homosexuality in modern Western culture commonly is used in reference to exclusive same-sex attraction between equal partners, but this is too specific an understanding for cross-cultural and historical use (69). People are grouped as those who are like “us” or heterosexuals, and everyone else, who are “them” known as homosexuals. By forming groups of people into “us” and “them,” we are “othering” and designating a subgroup of humanity: “they” deserve less than “us” (71). The take-away from this chapter is, “When it comes to sex, there is no privileged, holy ‘we’ and no sinful, troubled ‘them’.”  By lumping diverse individuals into one category, “homosexual,” Christians are solidifying the connection between sexual desire and identity (70).

In chapter four, she urges the readers to wean themselves from the pattern of the world, again referring to Romans 12, and instead rise to a higher level of sexual holiness. In case the reader has lost sight of her evangelical orientation at this point, she assures: “Same-sex attraction and behavior still matter, but not as identity-constituting characteristics, and not as points of theological disagreement that warrant separation or exclusion” (83). Paris does not take a stand on whether anyone on grounds of sexuality should be excluded from the pastorate or church offices. She claims, accurately, that sexuality has become an idol (83). By chapter five, understanding the sexual identity framework is clarified as the source of the problem as she sees it, because it labels a person by that person’s object of sexual desire, and often ignores the more important aspects of the person (95). Identifying a person by what they desire is very fickle; she draws upon James 1:14-15 and Romans 7.  The Christian community must form new identities for people, which would be as “beloved human being” illustrated when Jesus had compassion on the multitude in John 9:36 (97).

By chapter six, the thesis of the book becomes much clearer when Paris applies the principle to married sex. By now the dangers of the sexual identity framework, on which she bases her premise, will make sense, if it has not before, as when she points out the damage it does to married couples (112). If sexual feelings define one’s identity, then these feelings are overvalued and expectations for marriage become distorted (118). When sexual fulfillment becomes an idol, it tends to disappoint (112). The conflict occurs when culture says that everyone has the right to be sexually satisfied. The Christian evangelical culture maintains that chastity before marriage will result in great marital sex. However, when sexual fulfillment is measured against the standards set by a culture, which hangs identity on an impossible standard of complete sexual fulfillment, then most married Christian couples will face disappointment (114). Many will seek sex outside of marriage for this unattainable goal. As interventions for those with same-sex attraction vary according to individual situations, the variety of counseling for heterosexual challenges requires situation-specific strategies.  Again, she evens the playing field between sinners and reminds the reader that heterosexual marrieds do not hold the higher ground (122).

In a culture obsessed with sexual identity based on entitled fulfillment, a celibate life seems unattainable.  Support from the Christian community is often very meager against the challenges of the current sexually-charged culture (126). Celibacy as an honorable choice is considered an absurd and impossible lifestyle today (128). In chapter six, Paris notes that at the same time churches uphold sexual purity as the ideal, they are unchaste in their practice toward those practicing celibacy, which includes both those with same-sex and opposite sex desire (132). It is incongruent that people are commanded to abstain from sexual intimacy, but then their access to the advantages of family is limited, including human touch, children, and such benefits as the financial advantages of group rates (132). Christians should provide communities where the sexual holiness of unmarried people is plausible and practical (135).

In the epilog, Paris points out how Paul condemned the use of an outward “flag” for cultural identity and exclusion of others: the sign of circumcision (143). This was an immodest presentation of an “unpresentable” part, referring to 1 Corinthians 12. The current corollary is to treat sexual desire as a “flag” for human identity, which is only a part and not the full indication of who a person is (143). Consider how women often are graded as “virgin” or “non-virgin,” and every other quality is secondary. As with every other aspect of sexuality, it is demeaning and dehumanizing to minimize other important qualities. Sexual identity is not a badge of who is “in” and who is “out” of Christian fellowship. The first identity in the Christian fellowship is beloved of God (96).

This book is vulnerable to criticism on points such as the exegesis of Paul’s texts on homosexuality, and her historical analysis of homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world. Her explanation of the historical development of terminology such as “homosexual” and “heterosexual” is tedious, but is not essential to the argument, as well as the extensive anthropological material. This reviewer would have preferred more on the discussion of how sexual identity labels people and limits their access to the Christian community. Information on how the church can support the sexuality of Christians who are widowed, chronically ill, physically and mentally disabled, infertile, as well as those actively looking for a marriage partner would be a good addition to the book. 

These items may be weaknesses, but do not distract from the final conclusion: a person’s first identity is not their sexuality. “Normal” should truly not be the norm. If an entire church community claims to be opposite-sex oriented, married, and rearing children, then too many people have been discouraged from joining.

Mary A. Hanson
Denver Seminary
May 2012

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