The Middle of Sexual Identity
A little while ago I mentioned that I finished Jenell Williams Paris’s recent The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are. That post was about a totally different topic, so here is my actual review.
Paris teaches anthropology at Messiah College in PA, and her book is pitched at an audience, I think, roughly similar to her students: young, well-meaning American evangelicals raised within the American evangelical hothouse. A good portion of her book is dedicated to showing that our culture’s division of humanity into gay and straight isn’t some kind of Aristotelian discernment of natural kinds, but rather a culturally-contingent process with a troubled history. She shows that there are many alternative ways of explaining and categorizing human sexual desire.
This approach is necessary, given that a lot of our current debates about homosexuality simply assume that Western sexologists unlocked the true, hidden meaning which same-sex desire has really always had. I can’t tell you how often I’ve read sentences which start with things like, “In medieval Europe, gay people….” Unless your book is time-travel science fiction, I’m gonna stop you right there. This “history is just like us, only smaller” approach cramps our imaginations. Paris is attempting to liberate those imaginations.
And I know many people who have found her book liberating. People who find contemporary sexual identity categories and questions exhausting and rigid may find a lot to relate to here. That includes people sick of being told that they’re “really gay” and just need to find a great man and settle down, or they’re “not really gay” because they’re celibate for religious reasons; or people who are tired of hearing the bizarre claim that religion is a choice, so it can be changed, but sexual orientation is not (when neither one is really a “choice” in the most important senses).
There are good points in the book about the need for evangelicals to recover not only a theology of celibacy but a community in which celibate people are embraced and welcomed. Ditto Paris’s points about the idolatry of marriage. Her chapters on marriage and celibacy are too short to be more than suggestive, but they are worth reading for anyone embedded in the culture from which she’s speaking.
But there are some major problems with Paris’s slim, frustrating book.
Paris doesn’t account for why the Western gay/straight division has proven so attractive. Specifically, she glosses over the way that division has been embraced by people from very, very non-Western cultures. She has to argue that gay activists in (to take a non-random example) Uganda are mere microphones of the West, rather than people who have found something of their own experiences and struggles reflected in the admittedly insufficient Western framework.
In general Paris just does not seem to understand why and how gay people use the sexual identity framework. She simply dismisses the one actual gay person she quotes describing his reasons for identifying that way. There’s no sense, in her book, of how discovering gay culture and history can mean discovering that one’s own life and emotions aren’t entirely unprecedented; that there’s a community and an imaginable future for you; that there’s a language, however inadequate!, for some of the things which separate you from those around you and even from your own parents.
This book has, honestly, the problems you might expect from a book by a straight, married woman who chooses not to self-identify as “heterosexual.” The book quotes literally no named, rather than pseudonymous, self-identified gay or same-sex attracted people discussing their identities or their faith. It’s just weird that their voices are so thoroughly missing. Paris offers no sense of what “getting beyond” the sexual identity framework looks like in practice. If I wanted to start living my life in accordance with Paris’s insights, I have no idea what exactly I would change–other than that I would stop calling myself gay.
I agree with Paris that our contemporary “gay vs. straight” framework had a beginning, and it will have an end. In 100 years, even if the Messiah tarries, I doubt we will still be considering ourselves gay and straight. But I think the best way to move toward a better future is to focus on a) vocations (an area where Paris’s book does some good work), and b) what it looks like to express or sacrifice our eros in accordance with our faith. History is a terrific resource here, especially when it’s done with a sense of how different the past is and a humble willingness to take dead people on their own terms–I will once again recommend Alan Bray’s beautiful The Friend, a truly imagination-expanding work.
Trying to end the sexual identity framework by direct attack, as Paris does, risks navel-gazing special snowflakery (because what it focuses on is still how you “identify”) and an inability to notice one’s own blind spots created by privilege.