Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Invention of Sexual Identity...

An interesting interview with cultural anthropologist Jenell Williams Paris can be read about or listened to here.  She has a book, too, The End of Sexual Identity.  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?

She writes and speaks convincingly of just how new the idea of sexual identity really is and yet how pervasive this idea is today.  Speaking personally, I can identify with how she charts the change in thinking.  Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I do not think I ever thought about sexual identity.  I was who I was -- an identity that was largely shaped by and changed by association -- I was a child and son of my parents, a Christian and student, single and later married.  It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that the categories of heterosexual or homosexual even began to enter the framework of this identity.  As Paris recounts, those born after those years think of themselves first in terms of sexual identity and only later in terms of an identity shaped by association.  So powerful is this transformation in thinking that the categories of sexual identity introduced into medicine and psychology have become the dominant topics of conversation both in and outside of church and family.

Paris does a good job of distinguishing behavior from identity and framing out the some of the history that preceded our present day preoccupation with sexual identity as opposed to a concern for sexual behavior.  "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."  This has shifted the whole framework of the discussion away from association and behavior to what is individual and felt by the person.  We seem locked in a way of thinking about sexual identity that is foreign to the Scriptures and distracts the Church from the message of the Gospel. 

Paris suggests that the point of the Gospel is not to make people heterosexual but to the make them holy in Christ.  The shape of this holiness is not self-realization or the freedom to act upon feeling, impulse or desire but to "training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age" as St. Paul counsels in Titus 2.  Yet, the Church has been extremely distracted by this attention (should we say "invention") of sexual identity and the message of the Gospel has been transformed into either a rejection of the sexual identity of some or the liberation from all restrictions or boundaries on sexual identity.  The point is not about sexual identity but about the holiness imparted to us in Christ and the work of the Spirit to lead us past simple assent to desire or feelings and to lives marked not by freedom for self but by service to others.

Think how different this perspective is, say, from the counseling services offered by a major university:  Sexual identity is life long process of discovering and celebrating your sexual orientation.  Today there is a variety of sexual orientations on the sexuality spectrum.  Students can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or questioning.  Sexual identity is an important piece of an individual’s overall health and learning to recognize and celebrate one’s sexual identity is an important part of becoming a mature adult. According to this offer of help from the student counseling services, the first and biggest step to becoming a mature adult is learning to recognize and celebrate one's sexual identity.  Is it no wonder that youth and young adulthood is stressed?  In the vulnerable time of young adulthood, fraught with more than temptation but a whole new burden -- beyond figuring out how to be independent of parents and home, deciding upon a career path, and socializing with peers -- teens and early twenty-somethings must also figure out their own sexual identity and then learn how to celebrate it.  Good thing I went to college when costs and grades were about my most important concern.

I have not read her book but it sounds very promising....


Ted Badje said...

Look for alot of confused people, especially those who go to college. This does not bode well for our country, or the world. It is a form of demographic suicide.

Sage said...

I don't understand how it came about but it's going to have such an impact on our society in the near and distant future. We've made babies irrelevant by abortion, we're working on the disabled and elderly with euthanasia, marriage is no longer an institution and now gender is choice.

They (whoever they may be) prey on the confused, hormone laden youth and convince them that it is a choice and encourage same sex relationships even if for a "trial" to determine if you like any or all sexes. I liked Pr. Fisk's reply via Paul to the issue, that the Lord has just turned them over to a depraved mind, following their lusts.

Soon, we'll be commenting on even more depravity, which will make homosexuality seem bland by comparison.

Anonymous said...

The role of strong Christian parents
has a tremendous influence on their
sons and daughters. Sons who have
a strong role model in their father
are not confused about their gender.
The masculine traits are passed on
as a natural outcome of Christian
family interaction. Sons actually
want to be like their father. My
father stressed academic excellence
and sports. So I was an honor student
and played baseball and basketball.

Most important of all, my father
lived the Christian lifestyle and
we were active in our Lutheran
church and attended worship every
week. Faith in Christ was the key
to our family unity, mother and
father and children.

Matt said...

I don't know if you look back at posts that are three weeks old but I want to point out a vital q/a in the interview:

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.

Let us not forget that this process of defining people by their sexuality is not only a matter of secular schools and our society - the Church has also played its part in defining people by their sexual feelings.

Pastor Peters said...

Good pick up....