Sex in the iWorld (Part 2)

If lust is the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, what might we say about same-sex couples?  Even if we agree that some sexual behaviors are unhealthy or immoral, who could possibly throw rocks at a same-sex couple living in a committed relationship?

WHAT IS SEXUAL ORIENTATION?

To help us frame our discussion, we’ll start by examining some of our terms.  It’s become more common to speak of one’s “sexual orientation,” which the American Psychological Association defines as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions.” [1]  These attractions may be to the opposite sex (heterosexuality), the same sex (homosexuality), or both sexes (bisexuality).  However, contemporary psychology suggests that “for some people, sexual orientation is continuous and fixed throughout their lives.  For others, sexual orientation may be fluid and change over time.” [2]  Therefore human sexuality tends to be seen as something of a spectrum:

Thus, terms such as “homosexual” or “heterosexual” are best seen as classifying broad patterns of behavior.  Many see sexual orientation as evolving with age and time, though most would agree that one’s orientation becomes most clearly defined during adolescence.

What causes homosexual orientation?  Is it a choice?  Or are people simply “born this way?”  Contemporary research has pointed to a variety of biological, psychological, and social factors.  No factor seems dominant, and each of these factors is hotly debated.  It may therefore be appropriate to speak of factors that influence rather than actually cause sexual orientation.  This also means that sexual orientation defies simplistic explanations to genetics or to personal choice.

How might Christianity understand these ideas?  Traditional Christianity would maintain that homosexuality represents a violation of God’s design.  But if sexual orientation is not a simple matter of personal choice, how might we understand this?  In James’ letter to early Christians, he warns that a person “is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin” (James 1:15-16).  If we read this carefully, James labels some desires as “evil,” but he still sees desire as separate from actual “sin.”  Thus it may be appropriate to look at establish a distinction between sexual orientation and sexual behavior. 

  • Sexual orientation refers to the broad pattern of our sexual desires
  • Sexual behavior refers to the acting out of our sexual orientation

Let’s make no mistake: sexual brokenness is not reserved for homosexuality.  As we saw earlier, the Bible labels many forms of sexuality as sinful.  But among them is homosexuality—therefore same-sex sexual behavior is unequivocally sinful and wrong.

In the tWorld—the world of tradition—this conclusion would have generated almost no objection.  But in the iWorld—the world of the individual—we might find ourselves faced with many objections.  Paul endured something of this when he wrote a letter to the over-sexualized culture of Corinth.  Apparently some of the early Christians had made a habit of indulging their desires with local prostitutes.  Paul records that when challenged, they responded with two principle arguments: (1) “all things are lawful” (1 Corinthians 6:12) and (2) “food is for the stomach and the stomach for food” (1 Corinthians 6:13).  We’ll use these to help frame some similar arguments about sexuality in the present day.

“ALL THINGS ARE LAWFUL:” LIVING IN A “CONSENT CULTURE”

If “all things are lawful,” then it means that we’ve removed any absolute measure of what’s right and wrong.  Indeed, if you recall, Dale Kuehne had suggested that sexual morals in the iWorld could be reduced to the following:

  1. One may not criticize someone else’s life choices or behavior.
  2. One may not behave in a manner that coerces or causes harm to others.
  3. One may not engage in a sexual relationship with someone without his or her consent.[3]

In recent years, third-wave feminists have taken to adopting the phrase “consent culture” as a counter to the so-called “rape culture” that victimizes women.  Consent has become something of the final sexual boundary for today’s society.  So one might wonder: “who should judge what goes on in the privacy of a person’s bedroom?”  “What goes on between two consenting adults is no one’s business but their own.”  To this we might see several things:

  • “Consent” does little to truly liberate women

First, a word on language. The reason I hate the phrase “consent culture” is because it limits sex to only what is permissible.  Yes; rape is a horrible blight on human societies, but I strain to understand how we empower women by simply making them gatekeepers to male libido.  Mere consent fails to celebrate the beauty of human sexuality.

  • Sexuality is never private

Second, we must remember that sexuality is at least part of the family unit.  It’s how we reproduce; it’s partly what sustains a marital bond.  For these reasons, sex is never wholly private.  Our sexual relationships form the family structures and institutions that shape contemporary society.  So, for instance, if Johnny goes to his first-grade classroom, he might discover that his teacher mentions his “partner” or his “husband.”  Sexual orientation doesn’t have to work hard to become public—who can go for very long without mentioning their spouse?  So no; sex is never private.  We may debate about whether or not this is good or bad for society, but what we can’t say is that it will have a neutral effect on society.

  • Freedom is unsustainable

Finally, freedom of this nature is simply unsustainable.  True, values work on something of a sliding scale.  In Superfreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner point out that prostitutes once charged more for acts regarded as “taboo.”  Yet these acts are now among the least expensive.  The formerly shocking becomes the present norm.  We’re like the dwarves from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels.  They delved deeply, looking for treasure.  The problem is that they “dug too greedily and too deep.”  They awoke a “Balrog,” a foul, unearthly creature impervious to traditional assault.  Why would we assume that same-sex marriage is the full extent of our sexual freedom?  After all, the whole basis is that marriage is a human invention and subject to re-inventing.  Why are we not also free to re-invent our values with regard to child pornography?  Rape?  Keep in mind that historically speaking, there have been societies that have willingly embraced and endorsed both of these behaviors.  So if morality is merely the reflection of a society, then we have no way of drawing absolute boundaries.

“FOOD IS FOR THE STOMACH:” “IT’S ONLY NATURAL”

Paul’s audience would also have said that “food is for the stomach”—meaning that our sexual appetites are no different than our physical hunger.  We might say that if sex is “only natural,” then why stand in the way of nature?  We can say several things.

  • Unknown cause of sexual orientation

First, we need to observe that there is no absolute “cause” of sexual orientation.  The fabled “gay gene” has yet to be discovered.[4]  One important study evaluated twins that had been raised apart.  If one twin identified as gay, the other twin did not—indicating a clear lack of genetic influence. While it would be an unhelpful stretch to assume that this means sexual orientation is an actual choice, we can’t say that homosexuality has a conclusive biological origin.  In fact, many would point toward environmental and social factors.[5]

  • What’s natural isn’t necessarily healthy

Secondly, even if we could conclusively identify a “natural” basis for sexual orientation, we mustn’t confuse “natural” with “healthy.”  We romanticize “natural” foods—forgetting that while apples may be “natural,” so is cyanide.  One pair of historians suggests that this owes to the fact that since the days of Aristotle, we’ve been assuming that “natural” is another word for “objective”—that is that what’s natural is neutral.[6]   But nature can’t be looked to as an ethical framework.  Nature just is.  Christianity would even say that nature—though created “good” by God—now experiences Eden’s curse.  So just as the ground would produce “thorns and thistles,” so too might our DNA, our neurobiology, everything, be “subject to futility” (Romans 8:20).  Christianity would therefore say that some things may be natural but fall outside of God’s original design—things such as cancer, genetic disease, etc.

  • Many natural behaviors in animals are morally objectionable in humans

In 2000, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer wrote a book called A Natural History of Rape.  In this controversial book, they reasoned that rape may have an evolutionary advantage.  After all, in the world of nature, it doesn’t require “consent” for genes to be passed along.  Many species of animals do this—ranging from species of insects to even some higher-order primates.  True, such behavior isn’t typical—even animals are selective of their mates—but it remains a part of the natural world.  So even though we can observed examples of homosexual behavior in animal species, we must remember that this doesn’t mean that such behavior warrants our blessing.  Because if nature is our only standard, we are left with the unsettling conclusion that rape is “natural.”  Thankfully, we strenuously object to sexual assault in all its forms—but as Christians we do so because both men and women bear the image of God, and therefore cannot be dehumanized as victim and victimizer.

SEXUAL BROKENNESS

It’s important to remember that everyone is—in every possible way—horrifically broken.  The reformers of centuries past used the phrase “total depravity” to describe mankind.  This means that there’s not a single part of our lives untouched by the curse of sin.  We’re broken.  So on the one hand, it would be wrong to suggest that homosexual brokenness was somehow worse than heterosexual brokenness—or from any of the sins you and I may struggle with.  On the other hand, it would be wrong to think that any of us gets to come to Jesus and walk away unchallenged and unchanged.  The gospel says that we are more than our sin, more than our sexuality, more than our labels.  Tomorrow we’ll look at how the gospel helps us navigate the complex relationship between orientation and behavior.

 

[1] “Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality,” http://web.archive.org/web/20130808032050/http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/sexual-orientation.aspx

[2] http://www.camh.net/Publications/Resources_for_Professionals/ARQ2/arq2_question_a2.html

[3] Dale S. Kuehne, Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationships beyond an Age of Individualism., p. 71.

[4] Richard Horton, “Is Homosexuality Inherited?” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/assault/genetics/nyreview.html

[5] See Richard Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice for a list of relevant (and extensive) studies.

[6] Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, p. 110.

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