A Review of “The End of Sexual Identity” by Jenell Williams Paris

endofsexualidentityHow should Christians think about the rather young concept of sexual identity? How should we think about orientation, desire, and identity? What framework will guide us into thinking about the relationship of these concepts? What framework will guide us into thinking about sexual holiness? These are all the sorts of questions that Jenell Williams Paris seeks to answer in her work The End of Sexual Identity. As the title suggests it is a book on sexual ethics, but more than that it is a book that pushes us to reconsider major issues in sexuality.  The End of Sexual Identity deconstructs the modern paradigm for sexual ethics.

Paris seeks to help Christians think with greater clarity about the issues surrounding homosexuality. Using Romans 12:1-2 as her guide she outlines the sexual ethical pattern of our world, its implications for us, and in the latter half of the book seeks to test and approve what is God’s good and pleasing will. Chapters 1-3 reveal sexual identity as a social construct, not a natural phenomenon. Paris writes:

Though these categories [of heterosexuality and homosexuality] claim to be natural, neutral descriptions of human beings, they are actually concepts created by people within the last two hundred years. (15)

She deconstructs both homosexuality and, to the surprise of some Christians, heterosexuality. “When Christians develop theology and ethics about homosexuality and heterosexuality, then, they are really evaluating elements of culture, though they often mistakenly believe sexual identity as we know it today was given by God at creation” (15). Chapters 4-7 shift the focus to matters of sexual holiness. In these chapters Paris helps readers live in a post-sexual identity world. As her subtitle says, “sex is too important to define who we are,” so Paris helps us to think Biblically and carefully about the nature of sexual desire, celibacy, and marital intimacy.

Her deconstruction of sexual identity stands out as one of the most significant features of book. “Contemporary Christian dialogue about sexuality is limited,” she says, “because it is framed by contemporary Western notions of sexual identity.” It’s not that it is wrong to say same-sex erotic behavior is sinful, but we should be able to say more than this and give a more holistic picture of the Christian sexual ethic. This requires us to abandon the relatively young model of sexual identity. She continues:

It seems virtually impossible to find fresh ways to move forward when our imaginations are bound by the culture that shaped them. For example, Christians often become absorbed in either affirming or negating the morality of same-sex sex and related issues such as ordination of gay and lesbians and same-sex marriage. While these issues certainly are important, we must also address the underlying problem that drives these disputes. These “fixed position” debates are binary: first, framing the issue in terms of homosexuality and heterosexuality, and then asking for only affirmation or negation of same-sex sex, without more complex dialogue about human sexuality and Christian discipleship. (27)

Paris aims to help us engage in this more complex dialogue. Saying yes or no to same-sex sexual behavior is not a sufficient engagement. In particular, Paris argues that we need to rethink the entire sexual identity paradigm

In previous generations, she says, people saw sex as an important issue related to procreation and communion between spouses. People might have a host of sexual desires – indeed even sinful desires, but these desires did not communicate anything meaningful about their person. To say that “what you want, sexually speaking, is who you are” is to default to an entirely unbiblical pattern of self-understanding. And this, Paris says, applies to both heterosexuals and gays and lesbians. She writes:

The major problem for Christians with heterosexuality, and sexual identity in general, is that it is a social construct that provides a faulty pattern for understanding what it means to be human, linking desire to identity in a way that violates biblical themes. No pattern is perfect, but this one isn’t even close. And “Christianizing” sexual identity – whether by affirming or negating the morality of various sexual identities – doesn’t help, because it doesn’t address the faulty connections that sexual identity categories make between human desire and identity. (43)

Some readers will have difficulty following Paris down this line of logic, but she makes a convincing and compelling case against sexual identification of any kind. She helpfully reveals the blind-spots some of us have as it relates to our own sexual identification and clarifies the subject well.

Paris is first and foremost an anthropologist. She shines as she interacts with various culture understandings of sexuality, directs us to consider attraction on a spectrum instead of simple binary, and as she demonstrates amazing charity towards those with whom she disagrees. She may serve as a good model of what charitable and respectful engagement looks like, especially as it relates to this hot topic. Despite her skill as an anthropologist, however, she is not always very clear on her theological grounding. There are times where it is not entirely clear what conclusions she intends for her readers to draw. So, though she is conservative in her sexual ethic, she is “aware that Christians of good faith disagree about the meaning of personal sexual holiness” (85). Her conclusions about Paul’s teaching on homosexuality, particularly in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1, are misguided (64-65). In her efforts to be respectful it seems that she sometimes attempts to say less than the Scriptures do about the nature of same-sex sex. She continues to insist that she is, herself, conservative, but she leaves a bit too much wiggle room on the issue. Readers should be discerning as they work through Paris’ latter developments on sexual holiness.

Overall this is an insightful book. It pulls back the curtain on the sexual identity paradigm that the culture and church have unwittingly bought into. She encourages an honest reconsideration of this paradigm. Her chapters on celibacy too are equally helpful, encouraging readers to reconsider this subject in light of a new paradigm. I believe that Paris’ book will open the door to some better, healthier conversations regarding sexual ethics. She has done some fine work, not without it shortcomings, but a book that may yet spark deeper discussions.

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