“It seems that more than ever the compulsion today is to identify, to reduce someone to what is on the label. To identify is to control, to limit. To love is to call by name and so open the wide gates of creativity. But we forget names and turn to labels.” –Madeline L’Engle
LGBTQ is the latest in a long list of labels used to identify people with sexual orientations that differ from the heterosexual norm. I can never quite remember the right order – or even the right list, so I looked it up. LGBTQ is an initialism that represents Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer or Questioning. And questioning is exactly what Jenell Williams Paris does so well in The End of Sexual Identity. As a professor of anthropology, Paris thinks in terms of culture. As an evangelical who was “carried in utero to Sunday morning worship and Wednesday evening prayer,” Paris is a native of evangelical Christian community. But, she’s not a “nice” Christian. Paris writes, “Nice Christians pretend things are fine when they are not, say one thing and do another, and avoid difficult conversations.” (19) Paris dives into the deep end of the conversations around sexuality and challenges her readers to question the sexual identity framework – the cultural pattern by which people understand their sexuality.
Early on, Paris defines terms, explains culture making, and gives an overview of the gender binary system we currently inhabit. She invites the reader to “imagine a different cultural world, one in which human sexual differences are not understood in binary categories, but as a spectrum.” (33) Paris then goes on to set up the problems she hopes to solve by rejecting sexual identity labels as she lays out the trouble with heterosexuality as well as the trouble with homosexuality in chapters two and three. Paris offers strong words against the “thought” of heterosexuality – even calling it an abomination! (43) I’m sure this has gotten her into quite a bit of trouble with those who are fervent in their efforts to label homosexuality as we know it today as an abomination. In her treatment of the historical ideas of homosexuality, I find Paris a bit lacking, but she makes up for her lack by excelling in her area of expertise – anthropology. Looking at the origins of homosexuality from an anthropological point of view sheds new light on oft-shrouded topic.
After setting up the problem with the sexual identity framework, Paris offers a view of sexual holiness that she hopes will refocus the conversation from labels that limit and control to a view of evaluating sexuality that devotes “proper attention to all the dimensions of human sexuality.” (82) Her focus on holiness is not about morality. As she puts it, “when distorted, holiness is used as a synonym for morality, when really it’s about being more and more in love with God and with humanity.” (83) Her view of sexual holiness is generous, born out of a Wesleyan understanding of holiness. In the last few chapters of the book she applies this ethic of sexual holiness to sexual desire, sexual intercourse, and celibacy. Paris does some good cultural work in these chapters, but she fails to convince me of the importance of sex as she seeks to answer the question implied in the subtitle of the book, “Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are.”
Paris offers some inspiring ideas in her chapter on celibacy, especially in her discussion of plausibility structures. A plausibility structure is “a concept that describes how a group of people come to share a sense of what is believable, or plausible.” (129) Many of the arguments in The End of Sexual Identity look to creation as a basis for understanding human sexuality, but I wonder how our plausibility structures would shift if we looked to the not-yet Kingdom to help us understand human sexuality? Instead of looking to what has been or what is, how will we imagine being human in a world where sex no longer defines us? Paris proposes a tearing down of the sexual identity framework to allow room for creating a culture where sexual identity does not define us – and it’s a good start, but we still have much work to do.
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