This is a review of The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are (just so you aren’t mislead by the blog title about what you’re getting yourself into– this is not a personal confession blog).
In Katy Perry’s 2008 hit that really put her on the map, she sings, “I kissed a girl and I liked it… I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it…” She goes on to talk about “trying the girl on,” not even knowing the girl’s name, but instead playing an “experimental game.”
Jenell Williams Paris, the author of “The End of Sexual Identity,” comments on the biblical use of the term “knew” to mean sexual intercourse. For Christians, sex is about knowing and being known, unlike what our commodity culture tells us: we can “have” sex (ownership), we can “do it” (casually), we can “make” love (commodity)– ultimately, sex is about what we desire to have, and when we receive the object of our desire, then we’ll be fulfilled and happy. Katy Perry’s lyrics are a helpful illustration once again: “Us girls, we are so magical; soft lips, red lips, so kissable; hard to resist, so touchable– too good to deny it.” The chorus line as well talks about the “taste of cherry chapstick.” Perry buys in quite easily to the pornographic illustration of a woman as a sex object, and if you look at how she presents herself in public you can see she is trying to become that in an original way, but so that she doesn’t just be the object herself, she objectifies other women and becomes the active consumer as well (at least her character in the song does). In fact, one blogger has a great comparison between Katy Perry’s sense of personal style and food, saying that watching Perry’s “California Girls” was almost like a late night raid of the fridge: http://groovyfoody.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/katy-perry-a-visual-feast-for-your-foodie-eyes/
If sexuality is about knowing and being known, that means we cannot relate to one another as inhuman objects of desire; instead, our treatment of sexuality should restore humanity. So why, then, do Christians (and others) resort to narrowing down a person’s identity to one thing– their sexual desire– by creating sexual identities for people: homosexual or heterosexual? By calling someone homosexual, we are saying that they are who they desire. But the problem is, desire is not as straightforward as that. Every person desires multiple things, and is in fact, desired by God. Why does that not become the foundational identity shaping characteristic of our lives?
Paris argues for the eradication of “sexual identities,” and as an Evangelical married woman with three children, she is content to self-identify as a woman (not arguing for the eradication of gender– gender differences gives us good things; when men and women have sex, they make babies! hooray!), as someone who is married, and as a mother, but not as a “heterosexual,” because by labeling herself that way, it’s giving power to her and disempowering another group of people (cf., Judith Butler). She also uses her training as an anthropologist to show us that a two-gendered society is a social thing; one culture has five genders in which there is a range of feminine and masculine traits displayed in the other three genders.
Similarly, it is a contemporary cultural creation to have a society that has two modes of people: homosexual and heterosexual. There were no homosexuals in the time when the Bible was written, she argues, because there were also no heterosexuals. There were men, and there were women; but sexual normalcy at that time was around procreation, and even though sexual desire was very important (i.e., a woman orgasming during sex was thought to increase her chances of becoming pregnant), it was all centered around the stability of the family. So words like sodomy and adultery and masturbation described sexual deviance. In the 1930s, the terms homosexuality and heterosexuality began to be used in medical contexts, but both were describing groups of sexual deviants. These were people who engaged in sexual acts that were not for the purpose of procreation. But the way we use the terms today is so different from then, because we use them as identity shaping categories.
Identity shaping categories are not bad in and of themselves, we need something to tell us who we are and to which community we belong; what becomes a problem is when we privilege one identity group over another. In fact, her biblical exegesis of 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10
is that they are talking about a cultural practice in which older men would have sex with younger boys. This was seen as a good thing in Greek culture, because they believed women were deformed creatures, and that sex between men was the purest form of friendship one could have. But there was still an active and passive role at place; the men were the active participants and the boys were the passive ones (which NIV has a footnote on the 1 Corinthians passage saying: ”The words men who have sex with men translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts”). To protect the young boys, then, Paris argues Paul was saying this practice should be ceased.
Now I would probably agree with a review of Paris’ book that says more biblical exegesis would have been helpful; the most interesting part of the book was the first three chapters and after that she didn’t really hold my attention well. She also didn’t give a lot of specific instruction for churches who are wrestling with the issue of same-sex relationships; even if we get rid of the vocabulary and attitude of treating people as either “homosexuals” or “heterosexuals” it still remains to be figured out whether same-sex relationships are God-honoring or not, and she does not give a lot of help, just saying each situation needs a case by case treatment.
I appreciated this book a lot, and would recommend it. Whether we are attracted to people of our same sex or opposite sex, or we desire to have children, or be in a monogamous relationship, or serve God– all of these things can be mixed together in who we are. Paris cites Paul, reminding us that our desires aren’t always to be trusted. Instead, we should trust in God’s desire for us, knowing that above all, we are his beloved.