“Sex is (Not) a Big Deal”
A review of
The End of Sexual Identity:
Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are
By Jenell Williams Paris
Reviewed by Shaun C. Brown
Anthropologist Jenell Williams Paris begins The End of Sexual Identity with a story many Christians can relate to—a gay friend asking, “Does Christianity really condemn homosexuality?” (7). In her response, Paris made some references to biblical passages in Leviticus and Romans and concluded, “I don’t have the right to just reverse what most Christians in most times and places have believed” (8). This confrontation led to a broken friendship. After years of studying sexuality and social constructions, Paris says she would answer the question differently, and this book would be her response.
Paris notes that sex is viewed differently in the contemporary Western world than in the past. In some ways, people see sex as more important, in other ways less. At the same time that many view sex as central to their human identities, they may also see sex as a mere recreational activity. Paris too believes that sex is important and unimportant, she does so differently. She expresses this by using the phrase “sex is (not) a big deal” and similar phrases throughout the book. She argues that sex is a good gift from God for humanity as embodied persons, but sex should not be viewed as “the measure of our true selves” or as an idol (12). She calls Christians to make a holy sexual culture within the church in sensible ways.
Paris shows the ways in which a person’s sex and sexuality are not universal, but instead are always culturally mediated. While many want sexuality to be a fixed categories, she shows that all conceptions of sexuality are socially constructed. For example, she discusses the Bugis tribe in Indonesia which believes in five genders, men, calabai (feminine men), bissu (perfect combination of male and female), calalai (masculine women), and women (26–27). Western concepts of sexuality are also social constructs. She demonstrates this by showing how Western culture’s sexual dimorphism makes it difficult to understand how to treat intersex people.
Most people in the history of the world have not had a sexual identity or a sexual identity category, such as heterosexual or homosexual. To further illustrate her point, she notes the ways in which people in various societies throughout history have participated in same-sex sex, but they often did not define themselves by their sexual practice. Paris critiques not only the notion of homosexuality (or gay, lexbian, bisexual), but also heterosexuality, because both terms imply “that what you want, sexually speaking, is who you are” (43). Christians should critique these terms because, “A pervasive biblical theme . . . is that human desire is fickle, a mystery even to ourselves” (43). You can see the biblical warnings concerning desire in the biblical stories of David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11) or Shechem raping Dinah (Gen 34), or within passages like James 1:14–15 and Romans 7:18 (Paris does not conclude that the Scriptures always discuss desire as evil).
She also critiques heterosexuality and homosexuality as scientific categories, for “human sexuality is better conceptualized as a continuum than as two or three discreet categories” (44). Dividing people into stratified groups and giving them labels also makes it difficult for Christians to minister to them. Paris thus calls on Christians to betray the concept of sexual identity, and instead understand themselves and their sexuality as followers of Christ and by their roles (man or woman) and life station (single or married). Christians should, however, at the same time seek to understand social constructions in order to minister in a caring way to others.
Paris calls all Christians to sexual holiness, by which she means, “[W]e seek to give and receive love with God and with other people in and through our sexuality” (83). The end goal of sexual holiness is christlikeness. While Paris does believe that only a married man and woman should have sex, she does not want to malign the faith of those with which she disagrees. At the same time, sex as not only an individual matter, but also one of “public, corporate concern” (85).
Paris also calls upon Christians to have realistic expectations about sex instead of conforming to “cultural myths about sex being easy, fun, and free” (112). These myths often lead people to turn sexual fulfillment into an idol. Paris instead calls both single and married people to a life of sexual holiness, which is not centered upon sexual fulfillment or orgasm or upon sexual morality, but upon love toward all others. Paris also calls the church to see celibacy as an honorable lifestyle, despite the ways in which western culture sees celibacy as nonsense. Paris concludes the work by saying, “We could make more of sexuality, that is, show it greater honor, by making less of sexual desire” (143). Her provides a needed corrective to negative views of celibacy not only in western culture, but within many Protestant traditions as well.
While The End of Sexual Identity may have benefited from additional exegesis of relevant biblical passages, as seen in works like Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Paris makes a challenging contribution to conversations about sexuality in contemporary churches. She provides critiques of current views of sexual identity in a pastoral and respectful way. While she does write from her perspective as an academic, she also writes accessibly and so The End of Sexual Identity could be read and appreciated by a variety of people. The book also concludes with some discussion questions to correspond to each chapter, so a Sunday school class or small group could read the work together.
Shaun C. Brown is Associate Minister of Youth at Central Holston Christian Church in Bristol, TN, where he lives with his wife Cassandra and cat Tonks.