Sexuality as Identity?

Sexuality and the proper exercise thereof remain matters of deep contention within our society. The challenge of the discussion has been compounded by a shift in attitudes over the past two hundred years from an understanding of sexuality based in behavior to one based in identity: many people today think of sexuality primarily as something you are rather than something you do. According to such a perspective, to disagree with someone’s sexual behavior is to challenge their very identity and the core of their being, and the matter is compared to the sins of the past when people experienced discrimination based upon identity markers over which they had no control. Should we be defined by our sexuality: are we who we decide to sleep with, if anyone?

Many believe themselves to “be” a certain type of sexuality because they experience sexual desires: if one desires a person of the opposite gender, he or she is reckoned as heterosexual; if one desires a person of the same gender, he or she is reckoned as homosexual. Yet is it a good idea to define ourselves by our sexual desires?

Identity is a complicated concept: we all have all sorts of characteristics which we use to define ourselves by some degree or another. Many of these characteristics are innate: our race, ethnicity, birth nationality, and our physical characteristics. Some of these characteristics are consciously chosen or maintained: our language, class, religion, present nationality, etc. We can identify ourselves by some of our activities–profession, moral or immoral conduct, and so on–but we tend to place more weight on other characteristics in order to define ourselves. Therefore, whereas we have varying levels of control over various aspects of our identity, we always maintain the choice over which aspects of our identity we privilege or emphasize and over which aspects we place less weight or emphasis.

The Bible teaches that God made humans with sexual desire and that said creation was very good (Genesis 1:26-27, 31, 2:24). God also made humans with other desires as well, and they also were considered as good. Yet once the first humans sinned, human desire was corrupted by sin and often directed in ways which God did not intend for them to go (cf. Romans 1:18-32, 5:12-18). Throughout both the Old and New Testaments people are not defined as “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” or “other” but are all humans who choose whether to behave sexually or not and with whom.

The Bible’s focus, therefore, is on proper sexual behavior opposed to improper sexual behavior: the only proper sexual behavior is between a man and a woman whom God has joined together in marriage (Matthew 19:1-9, Hebrews 13:4), and all other sexual behavior represents inappropriate exercise of sexual desires. This is why the Bible condemns homosexuality along with adultery, sensuality, and licentiousness, and, for that matter, idolatry, outbursts of anger, contentiousness, and so on: condemnation is not based on who people are but on what desires upon which they act to decide (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:19-21).

Attempts to define people based on their sexual behavior cannot be consistently carried out in good conscience. If a person has a desire for children or for animals, does that mean that they should be defined by that desire, or should exercise it? If a person desires to have sexual relationships with multiple partners at the same time, is that “who he/she is” as a person? And what is to be done about those who choose not to be sexual at all, like the Lord Jesus?

Ultimately, sexuality is based less in identity and more in behavior. Humans were not designed to be lustful animals acting only on impulse; God made humans in His image to discipline their passions through self-control and sober thinking (Genesis 1:26-27, 1 Peter 4:7). We are not a certain sexuality like we are a certain race, ethnicity, or nationality; we are people who choose to behave in sexual ways properly, improperly, or not at all, as with consumption of alcohol, the use of speech, and other similar behaviors (cf. Galatians 5:19-24). Let us recognize that the exercise of sexuality is behavior, not identity, and seek to honor and serve God through our choices regarding sexuality!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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