Questioning Sexuality

April 27, 2017

Questioning Sexuality

Andrew Sloane

Australian society is in the midst of a serious conversation about sex and sexuality. We can’t escape questions of sex and sexuality. And Christians shouldn’t seek to avoid them—not if we intend to connect with the culture in which we live. But have we already said too much? Christians are increasingly being asked this question in a variety of forms: what right do churches and other religious groups have to impose their morality on others? How can we deny people the freedom to express their love? How can we refuse to acknowledge who they are as gay or lesbian people? How can such attitudes be allowed to control the laws of a secular society? And overarching it all: what role should religion play in public discourse? These are great questions, and thoughtful Christians have always asked them. But these questions shape our discussion in powerful ways. Is it worth stopping for a moment and wondering, what questions are we missing?

Good philosophy and theology begins with asking good questions—something Socrates famously exemplified.

Here’s one neglected question: what is sex for?  This question has dominated the historic Christian conversation about marriage, sex, and procreation. But it also contributes to broader discussions of sex and sexuality. By asking about the purpose of sex, theology has a real contribution to make to our cultural conversation.

Sitting with that question for a while might lead to other interesting questions that are not being asked. For instance, is there such a thing as sexuality? As sexual orientation? If so, are they fundamental to our identity? Does our understanding of our sexuality enhance or inhibit our flourishing as persons and in relationships? And what does that flourishing entail?

Michel Foucault, while no friend of traditional sexual moralities, draws attention to the way sex has become entangled with social control in modern discourse. He argues that definitions of sexuality and sexual orientation were inextricably linked to bureaucratic control and medicalised power.[1]

As we see the ceding of that power from government and the law to the market and consumer choices, perhaps we should wonder whether our categories for thinking about sexuality have become shaped by patterns of consumption and use? Do these categories, when combined with late-modern capitalism’s obsession with the unconstrained will-to-consume, turn important aspects of our bodily existence into commodities that we consume?

That seems to be the case with the cosmetic surgery and anti-ageing industries (note the term ‘industry’). Particular patterns of bodily form are not only idealised in culture, but become goals we attain by purchase of physical technique (say, a personal trainer or a skin-care product) and surgical intervention, such that we impose sexualised (and highly gendered) bodily stereotypes on our own physique. Whether we are the primary consumers of this biomedical product or whether they’re aimed at actual or desired sexual partners, we commodify ourselves, thereby reinforcing these stereotypes and perpetuating a market for the products that allow us to attain them.

Are similar forces at work in the very ways we think about sexuality and sexual orientation? Are we at risk of ceding this important feature of human relationships to the market at the very time we’re wresting it out of the hands of government and the law?

These are big questions, seldom addressed. Perhaps, indeed, questions of sex and sexuality ought to prompt us to ask other questions, deeper questions, about what it means to be human, what it means to live in community, what role our bodily existence plays in the fostering of good social relationships, indeed, what constitutes good social relationships?

Perhaps these are odd questions. Be that as it may. Spend a little time listening to the questions that are and are not being asked, and then gently ask those questions that no one seems to be asking, and see where that takes the conversation.


[1] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume I: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley (Pantheon, 1978).

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