The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are by Janell Williams Paris. InterVarsity Press, 2011. 160pp.
How we understand our sexual identity and how we perceive ourselves as sexual beings is too significant to be left unaddressed by the church in America today. Jenell Williams Paris’s The End of Sexuality: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are is a welcome addition to this conversation. The evangelical church has often painted with broad brush strokes when discussing sexuality, resulting in polarizing debates. Paris’s work seeks to move beyond such debates, urging us to carefully re-consider how elements of sexual identity are also associated with culture, power, and privilege.
Paris begins by highlighting how sexual desire is often equated with human identity in our society, so that sex or sexual attraction is often made out to comprise the totality of who we are as persons. She contrasts this societal norm with attitudes in the church, where sexual desires are often repressed and sexual identity ignored. Viewed on a spectrum, these positions represent two extreme options that Christians in North American culture have to choose from as they think about sex and sexuality. Paris’s intention is to broaden and deepen how Christians think and talk about sexuality, and she presses her readers to consider how we are responsible for what we make of sex as a church culture. Instead of these two extreme options (sex defines all that you are or you ought to generally deny your sexuality), she observes that we need to create space for “complicated desires, inconsistent behavior and complicated sexual journeys. And if we really receive them, we’ll realize that they are us.”
Next, Paris reminds us that labels such as “heterosexual” and “homosexual” are categories that refer to more than one’s sexual orientation—they are also embedded with societal norms and expectations. For instance, many Christians approach the term “heterosexual” as a neutral term, when it really is not. Paris explains, “heterosexuality is a concept that is barely a hundred years old, and its meaning has changed even in that brief time. Today it is a concept that breeds hierarchy, moral superiority and inauthenticity, and is not a good enough value to prize, seek after and organize life around.”
Furthermore, the term “homosexual” (as it is often used by Christians) is often an evaluative term that reduces a person to their sexuality. Paris argues that we cannot claim to know the full measure of a person on the basis of sexual desire or actions. She correctly notes that the debate about homosexuality in the church has often become a focal point, and one that risks neglecting the more important issues of how people understand themselves as sexual beings created in the image of God. She re-directs our attention to what it means to first find our identity as creatures in God’s image.
Furthermore, she discusses the distinctive cultural components by which Western society defines and understands our sexual orientation and sexual identity. For example, Christians frequently assume that terms we use such as “homosexual” (or other terms like “body” or “soul”) are the same categories and terms used by biblical authors. Paris reminds us that they are not, and she directs our attention to the lens our culture provides—a lens through which we see and label the world, whether we are aware of this bias or not. She says that perceiving the “social construction of sexual identity categories may lead to deeper considerations about the social construction of gender roles, gender categories, sex categories and ultimately, everything else.” The benefit of this is that it avoids evangelicals’ tendency to downplay the complexity of one’s sexuality—or the tendency to reduce sexuality to sexual orientation.
This work will most likely receive a great amount of attention (and questions) because of Paris’s attempt to move beyond labels of both heterosexuality and homosexuality (she personally rejects the label “heterosexual” altogether and chooses to be “unlabeled” in her sexuality). Moreover, there will be those who only see this book as a response to various debates about homosexuality in the church.
However, to focus only on these items misses one of Paris’s key points: Sexuality cannot be separated from one’s personhood, and in many ways conversations thus far in Christian communities have often missed the actual people and the real stories. As Christians, we must first spend time understanding how our identity (and sexuality) is informed by being “beloved” by God. Thus she writes, “If heterosexuals minimize the importance of the categories that empower them to think of themselves more highly than they ought, they just might find themselves in the same boat with those who have been seen as lowly, damaged or damned.”
Many evangelical churches have neglected to address the role of feelings and emotions in our humanity, and this has led to even greater difficulties in knowing what to do with sexual feelings. God created humanity with a capacity to enjoy intimacy, closeness, and connection with other human beings—and if we forget that sexuality is supposed to move us towards others in connection and closeness, we forget part of what makes us human.
In Christian circles, sex still remains a topic that is often discussed in the abstract, and understanding one’s own sexuality is more difficult than many North American Christians have typically made it out to be. Paris is right to direct our attention to the importance of these matters, and her work does move us closer to having an honest conversation about sexual identity, in a thoughtful, clear, intelligent way. She calls Christians to examine how their spirituality informs their sexuality, and she correctly helps readers re-consider how sexuality is integrated into their lives. While no book could attempt to answer all of the questions that relate to Christianity, sexuality, and culture, Paris’s work makes many valuable observations—from both theological and anthropological perspectives—that are worthy of consideration.