Sexual Identity: a socio-cultural label that helps people communicate to others something about their sexual preferences (e.g., “gay,” “straight,” “bi”). It may be based upon a person’s sense of his or her biological sex (as male or female), gender identity (as masculine or feminine), direction and persistence of sexual attractions (sexual orientation), intentions and behaviors (what one intends and chooses to do with the attractions one experiences), and beliefs and values about sexual behavior (Mark Yarhouse, Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling, vol.59 (no. 3): 201-212).
Over the last several months, we’ve been defining and discussing what sexual identity is and the various components that make it up. Mark Yarhouse’s definition gives us a breakdown of some of the facets that I unpacked in my last article: Biological Identity (designated sex, male and female), Gender Identity (masculinity and femininity), Sexual Attractions (sexual, romantic, physical attractions), Sexual Expression (behavior) and our faith, values and relationship with God. I’ve also added an extra category, “Other things that can influence our Sexual Identity.” This includes a wide array of things like abuse, trauma, sexual addiction, the culture we grow up in, our family’s views, and the attitudes about sex and sexuality in our church. All of these can skew our vision of ourselves, our bodies, and our sexuality.
In a perfect world we would experience our sexuality with a solid sense of congruence and wholeness. But sadly, the world we are living in is far from perfect. In a broken world we experience many conflicts and inconsistencies within our sexual identity. Let’s unpack some of the battles we face:
Our Behavior Can Be in Conflict with Our Faith and Values This conflict is usually easy to spot and is the very thing that brings men and women to Where Grace Abounds. Some type of behavior is troubling us because we feel we’ve crossed the boundaries that God has ordained around the expression of our sexuality in particular or personhood in general. Conflict inducing behaviors often begin with sexual addiction: binge viewing of pornography, compulsive hooking up, or sexual infidelity within or outside of marriage. Non-sexual addictions, such as binge drinking, drug use, eating disorders, gambling etc., also produce internal conflict. And then there are relational problems like emotional dependency and the way we treat one another. Remember, Jesus upped the ante when it comes to our behavior: calling someone stupid is the same as murder and lusting after someone is the same as adultery. These sins begin in the deep places of our hearts. In this broken world, we live on a battle ground most minutes of our day. Thank God for His Grace!
Our Attractions Can Be in Conflict with Our Faith and Values Obviously, many people don’t experience any conflict caused by their attractions. But some who do seek out Where Grace Abounds to find an environment in which to sort through confusing attractions and their possible meanings. I came to WGA many years ago because I was living in the Gay community in Denver, but had a conversion experience to Christianity. Suddenly my questions about sexuality, attractions, and sexual behavior with men were once again on the table. It was important to have a place to talk about this area of my life. There isn’t anything inherently culpable about same-sex attractions in and of themselves. Attractions and sexual orientation arise out of a mostly incomprehensible interplay between developmental and environmental issues. It’s what we do with our attractions that can cause conflict— are we lusting after someone, making someone uncomfortable or crossing boundaries? Everyone has some pain and confusion in this area: we may experience attractions to the wrong kind of people that set up destructive patterns and inflict wounds. We may be attracted to those who aren’t our spouses and create painful and messy situations if we act on such attractions.
Our Biology and Gender Identity Can Be at Odds with One Another Regarding those who experience a disconnect between their Biological Identity (being physically male or female) and Gender Identity (how masculine or feminine one feels and fits within a culture’s gender roles and stereotypes), we often think of Gender Dysphoria or Transgender. Dr. Yarhouse’s definition of Gender Dysphoria is “the experience of distress related to having a psychological and emotional gender identity that doesn’t match ones biological/ birth sex.” Not all who experience Gender Dysphoria become Transgender and not all who consider themselves Transgender feel the distress and conflict associated with dysphoria (obviously this is very multifaceted). But for those who do, disconnect compounded by distress is agonizing. As I mentioned earlier, so many things can destructively inform how we feel about our bodies and as men and women: abuse, trauma, negative views of our bodies and sexuality from our church and family. Hopefully, an environment like WGA’s can offer a place to seek healing from these wounds.
So, when we look at the various components of our sexuality, understand them and then consider all the possible conflicts that can arise within our sexual identity (we’ve only explored a few of the potential struggles), we find the playing field is more level. As a dear friend of mine once said, “When it comes to diverse types of brokenness— we’re not on many different boats on different rivers. We find ourselves all on the same boat with the same need for grace, truth, and healing.” Now that’s comforting and humbling.