I’m well aware of this topics’ controversial nature. In fact, that’s part of the reason I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while. What I do not want to do is quote verses or provide what I think ‘the Bible says’ about this issue. Of course, I do have a view on that, but that specific pathway into this topic has been almost ruined for all kinds of reasons, not least simplistic applications of various texts. As with any other discussion, the use of words is key. At one extreme, the sheer number of terms being created (‘pangender’, ‘omnisexuality’ and ‘heteronormativity’ to name but a few) does not seem to help fruitful discussion, but at the other extreme, many can fail to appreciate the complexity of the issues being discussed. Because of this complexity, it would be easy to spend huge amounts of time trying to address everything that has ever been said about human sexuality. But, of course, that’s the job of a lengthy dissertation or something. My hope is to fruitfully contribute to the conversation. Quite simply, I want to raise two concerns I have relating to human sexuality.
Just one thing before I get going. Much harm has been done in this area. For all variety of reasons, people have said things in ways that are careless, abusive, condescending and just plain hurtful. To say that only religious people have done this would of course be inaccurate. The issue is far more complex than that. It’s not simply a matter of Christians ‘versus’ homosexuals, or whatever. It’s fathers against daughters, communities splitting, families and relationships crumbling and various cultures defining and redefining themselves. Many people of all persuasions simply need to apologise for what they’ve said and done. That is a bigger concern than any that follow… But, alas, the issue is important and simple answers to complex questions will not do. Now, finally, here are two concerns to consider…
Concern #1 – Sexuality needs guidance like all other human activity.
I still remember hearing her say it. The younger (20-ish) of two women was sharing her inner pondering as to her own ‘sexuality’, and the older (50-ish) woman assured her, ‘...whatever decision you come to will be the right one.‘ One would struggle to imagine a more relativistic statement.
Also, I read a brochure from an organisation seeking to support youth dealing with these issues. It shared the same assurance: “…whatever you are, it’s a perfectly natural part of being you.” I talked with a representative from this organisation, and politely asked if there were any sexual activities that they did not approve of. What advice, I asked, would they give to youth feeling that they most identified with things such as incest, pedophilia or sex with animals? The reply was that these were not supported, and that youth wishing to identify with these things would be ‘referred to a counselor.’ This, of course, means that this organisation is not as all-approving as their brochure would suggest.
Guidance, leadership and direction happens in all areas of life, but when it comes to sexuality (especially in rich, western affluent areas, for some reason…), for some reason the only tolerated thing to do is to throw up your hands and say, ‘whatever you think…‘ Why is this?
Now, I’ve not mentioned any specific sexual behaviour(s) so far – I’m just raising the concern that this is an area which I think needs guidance. For example, while I’ve never heard anyone suggest that heterosexuality in and of itself is ‘wrong’, there are indeed examples of heterosexual actions which most would say was indeed wrong; incest, pornography, pedophilia, etc. While the basis against such things may vary (which is a key question), most would agree, I suspect, that we need some kind of ‘guidance’ here. Three examples may be helpful here.
Men who are in a marriage (or committed partnership) with a woman will admit that women other than their wife or partner are still sexually attractive. But most (especially the wives or partners of these men!) would say this is one attraction which would be ‘wrong’ to follow through on!
If one objects that the first example is a result of ‘the socially constructed idea of commitment’, then consider this example. A man attracted to a woman who doesn’t desire intercourse with him must also answer his desires with a firm ‘No’.
If one should still object on grounds that all sex between consenting parties is valid, then consider the next example. A man attracted to a consenting 13 year old girl must also control himself.All three above examples, by the way, are between men and women, who have what I like to call ‘genital compatibility’, yet they show a need for personal restraint and self control – even in view of such ‘compatibility’. Indeed, the bodily organs would function quite aptly; but the answer to these desires is still a firm ‘No.’
Further, very few people would deny that at least some desired sexual actions could be – at least in principle – harmful, dangerous or wrong. Nobody would suggest that desire alone ensures that a given action is a good one. If we made the rest of our life decisions that way… well… we’d buy, eat, use and do whatever we wanted. We understand the need for restraint and self-control in other areas of life – why do we so often neglect this need with sexuality?
Concern #2 – Personal identity based on sexual desire/attraction is problematic.
When people identify themselves as a “_____”-sexual person, they are identifying with a sexual attraction, and that attraction obviously implies a desire to follow-through on that attraction. That’s the thing about desire; it’s not desire just to have a desire – it’s desire to actually do something. When we don’t follow through on our desires – we don’t like it; we’re not getting what we desire. It’s quite simple, really.
The reason, I suggest, why basing personal identity on such desires or attractions is problematic is this: because we don’t always get what we want. For example, imagine someone who’s personal identity was based on a specific sexual desire (whatever that might be). Now, if that person is not able to have the specific sexual experience they desire, then they are not able to fully express themselves according to what their personal identity has been based on. A person who identifies their whole self based upon their sexual desires, who is not sexually active, is not actualised in their person-hood. They are only a “_____”-sexual person in theory, and not in reality (like a firefighter who never fights fires, or a seamstress who never sews). Again, I’ve said nothing about any specific kind of sexual activity being ‘wrong’; this concern is specifically about basing one’s personal identity on desire or attraction.
A helpful chapter called ‘Angels and Animals’ in Rob Bell’s book ‘Sex God‘ highlights two extremes for understanding ones’ sexual self or identity. For one extreme (‘animals’), he cites the example of two movie stars who ‘hooked up’ (in spite of a marriage), who later said, ‘We just couldn’t help ourselves.’ This is a case of seeing yourself as an animal – with sexual ‘animal instincts’ which cannot be harnessed. The other extreme (‘angels’) is to reject one’s sexuality altogether, perhaps even viewing it as bad or evil. The healthy middle between the two is when sex is protected, valued and respected.
Western culture inundates us with messages via advertising (billboards, magazines, commercials), movies and television programmes which all too often present sexuality as a ‘no holds barred’ arena. The more active you are, the better. Go out and have a good time, enjoy yourself; oh, and by the way, don’t get caught – whether that means the sexual partner’s spouse catching the two of you, the sexual partner getting pregnant or either of you getting ‘caught’ by a sexually transmitted infection/disease.
We need help. The human race, obviously, is kept going because of sex. It’s a good thing. But used poorly, it can make families, communities (even nations?) unstable – and harm individuals along the way. There are big questions here, and simple answers just won’t do any longer.