What Is Sexual Identity Anyway?

They called me the Sexpert. Catchy, eh?

That’s what happens when you’re the speaker at a junior high retreat in the mountains, talking about God’s design for sexuality. It was a lot easier (though plenty awkward) doing Q & A with teenagers about oral sex and masturbation than it is to weigh in on the nuances of sexual and gender identity and the bible. But here we go anyway.

Bear with me because I obviously have so, so much to learn still. For this blog, there are just two things I want to say.

1. Labels Are Often Unhelpful

The first is that sexual identity is a social construct. In other words, we made up the labels we use, like ‘gay’ and ‘straight.’ And actually, it’s not just that we invented the labels, but that we also invented the categories of sexual identity (gay, straight, queer, transgendered) as a way of explaining and exploring things that we saw and experienced in the world.  Jenell Williams Paris, a professor of anthropology at Messiah College writes:

Of all humans who have ever lived, very few have had sexual identities.  Defined in a wide variety of ways, social identities related to sex (such as male and female) and gender (such as boy and girl) are common across world cultures.  Identity categories based in sexuality (such as heterosexual and homosexual) are much less common.  Most cultures that have ever been present on the earth, including biblical ones, didn’t have heterosexuals.  They didn’t have homosexuals either, because heterosexuality requires homosexuality; each makes sense only with reference to the other. (1)

The reason this is important is that sexual identities like ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ are not very good social constructs. They tie one’s identity to the object of their desire. Our labels are only useful in so far as they help to express something about a particular sexual attraction. When we start to use them to define the entirety of who a person is, we lose something. Theologically speaking, that’s defining the imago dei more strictly than is warranted by the bible, especially since desire is so fickle. Our imago dei does not stem from the social constructs applied to our lives. It resides in the fact that we reflect the person of God.

The Kinsey Scale, though problematic in many ways, was helpful in introducing modern science to concept of a continuum of desire; namely, that there is variation in sexual attraction amongst a significant minority of people. Basically, not every human being can be defined as either homosexual or heterosexual. The ancients understood this, and though it may make us uncomfortable, a spectrum of sexual desire was assumed as normal. Plutarch wrote in the 1st century A.D. that:

the noble lover of beauty engages in love wherever he sees excellence and splendid natural endowment without regard for any difference in physiological detail. The lover of human beauty will be fairly and equably disposed towards both sexes. (Moralia, 767)

As if that sort of attractional variety weren’t enough to set our preconceived notions of sexuality on fire, the bible itself fans the flames.  It uses the subversive category of eunuch to undermine the binary sexual identity we commonly assume today. For example, in the same breath as he talks about marriage and quotes the creation account of ‘male and female,’ Jesus references three types of eunuch (including those who were “born this way” – which suggests that Lady Gaga plagiarized Jesus! – see Matthew 19:12). Eunuchs in the ancient world were considered neither male nor female.  They occupied a space somewhere in between, bending both sexual and gender norms, often criticized and marginalized. But as theologian Megan DeFranza points out:

[Jesus] did not ridicule them, as did Jews, Romans, and Greeks; nor did he speak of them as “proof of the Fall.” …Jesus heals the blind, the paralyzed, the possessed, the fevered, the leprous, the hemorrhaging, even the dead, in every case restoring them to full societal membership. In the case of the eunuch, however, there is no implication whatsoever of ‘illness’ or social ‘deformity’ in need of restoration. Instead, the eunuch is held up as the model to follow. (2)

All this is to say that the way we understand sexual identity today is distinct from the way that sexual identity has been understood throughout most of history. We have created categories and labels for discussing sexual identity that are specific to our place and time in history, and it is helpful for us in the midst of these conversations to remember that fact.

2. Some Distinctions that Bring Clarity

The second thing I want to say is that attraction is not the same as orientation, and that orientation is not the same as identity. The reason I want to say this is because our culture often confuses these three, and clarity here can really help people.

Mark Yarhouse, a research psychologist, does a nice job unpacking these distinctions. Building off of some of the ideas of the Kinsey Scale, he points out study after study that show there are a far more people who experience some attraction to the same sex than who have a same-sex orientation.  He defines orientation as desires that are “strong,” “durable,” and “persistent” – meaning that the sexual desires last, are regular, and are powerful. Yarhouse then clarifies a third category, identity, which he defines as “a socio-cultural label that people use to describe themselves… imbued with meaning in our culture” (3).  His point is that having a sexual identity comes with a whole lot of baggage.  When you say you are gay or straight or bi or whatever label, you lump yourself in with the cultural understanding of those terms, which often includes a sort of ‘script’ (a term Yarhouse uses) that tells you who you should be – and inevitably that cultural script differs from the biblical script. Needless to say, there’s a lot to unpack in this argument, and he gives it a good shot in his book (referenced below) – and there are plenty of sides to that discussion.  I find his three circles helpful in describing realities I come across as I engage in more and more of these conversations.

circles

I think of a young woman who told me a while back she was asexual. I didn’t doubt her experiences that led her to that conclusion, and I was genuinely curious about her story. However, since I knew her and her family well, I couldn’t help but think to myself, There’s so much cultural freight that comes along with such an identity. You’re not even twenty years old yet – are you certain you’re asexual? And numerous studies actually show that younger people often have even more varied sexual attractions and experiences than older people (and that by the age of 25 the typical person has generally stabilized in their orientation).  All of that to say, I wasn’t surprised last week when I found out that she was indeed no longer identifying as asexual, had broken up with her girlfriend, and was about to start dating a male. Needless to say, she’s moved away from defining her experience as an identity (‘asexual’) to now just describing who she’s attracted to.

I share these thoughts about the attraction-orientation-identity distinctions because I find them helpful in framing questions when I talk with people about their sexual feelings, thoughts, and experiences. I’m far more inclined to ask questions about attraction and experience and far less hasty in drawing conclusions by saying things like, “Oh, so you’re gay.”

Two Takeaways

The first is that I’ve got a lot of work to do in thinking about what it means to be made in the image of God. I’m going to have to explore that in a future blog because it runs deep, and it’s connected not only to God’s original design in creation but God’s ultimate design for the new creation.

The second is that these conversations work best in relationship. Recently I applied to Evangelicals for Social Action for a spot at their Dialogue about Sexual and Gender Diversity in the Church roundtable. I was plowing through the questionnaire and hit this question: How do you view people who are transgender? Because I was up against a deadline, I hurriedly wrote down what came first to mind: As my friends. Hmm. That thought had never occurred to me before. That question tapped into the reality that I now have a friend with whom I go out to coffee regularly, and we’ve had some fascinating conversations, not just about their experiences as a transgender person but about their experiences of life in general.

There’s so much to learn and so much to unlearn.

I’d highly recommend the three books I quoted from in this piece.  They are:

  1. The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are, Jenell Williams Paris. IVP, 2011 (quote from page 41).
  2. Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female and Intersex in the Image of God, Megan DeFranza. Eerdmans, 2015 (quote from page 104).
  3. Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends, Mark Yarhouse. Bethany House, 2010 (quote from page 42).

 

Special thanks to Erin Arendse for her input and edits on this blog.

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Author: Bill White

I am a pastor at City Church of Long Beach, a friend to many LGBTQ people, and a conversation partner for people all over the spectrum of beliefs about how being LGBTQ and Christian fit together.

2 thoughts on “What Is Sexual Identity Anyway?”

  1. Curmudgeon is still with you. I like the Eunuch reference. Broadens our horizons to find some common ground, but how on earth can we make sense of some delusional identity that is based on some whimsical quirks in every geek’s imagination. I can be geeky, too. Don’t assume this is derogatory. The strange pathways of juvenile maturity are going to have hundreds of self expressions. It seems these days that every strange self identity is going to require some cultural inclusion or normalcy. I don’t think this is healthy, nor even possible. It’s cultural dominance of civility, instead of Christian grounding of civility….It’s chaotic….

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  2. Your comment on Jesus’ acceptance of eunuchs is particularly interesting to me. You can see this automatic acceptance of gender fluidity in other cultures today as well. Eunuchs are fairly common in India, where they play a number of interesting social roles. While I was living in India, it seemed to me that even though India in general is pretty resistant to gay sexual orientations (this is shifting slowly), eunuchs inhabit a legitimate space on the gender spectrum. It’s also [generally] seen as okay to have gay sex with a eunuch, since they occupy what is seen as a sort gender-fluid space. (Eunuchs are often prostitutes.) If you are a man who has sex with a eunuch, it’s not always really considered gay sex because the eunuch, in spite of being technically genderless, is kind of a woman. However, a eunuch is also considered a cross-dresser (they typically wear women’s clothing) because they are also kind of a man. I mostly mention this because India (up until very recently) has also been stalwartly resistant to European Rationalist / Enlightenment philosophy. In Indian philosophy, there’s more space for gender-fluidity, particularly in spaces that are spiritual or mystical (eunuchs are deeply associated with superstitions and the spiritual world). This demonstrates that gender-rigidity is not just a Modern construct but a Euro-centric one as well.

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