Monday, March 12, 2007

Duty and Obligation

Timothy Kincaid at Ex-Gay Watch posted this insightful critique of some recent comments by Exodus Youth spokesman Mike Ensley.

Ensley's perspective on marriage matches what I recall from my days in ex-gay programs. "God isn't going to replace one form of lust with another," I was told more than once, which only begged the question of what God was going to replace my same-sex attractions with. Unfortunately that question was never clearly answered. Supposedly I would gain some sort of attraction to the opposite sex, but apparently it would not be a sexual attraction. Presumably it would be more than just liking women as friends, since that was already fully within my capacity.

The implication that underlay everything that I was told on the subject was that all forms of sexual attraction were inherently lustful. Those group members most committed to pursuing "change" seldom talked of merely experiencing a physical attraction to another person; it was always and automatically lust even if that acknowledgment of the other person's attractiveness was immediately set aside before it could grow into fantasy.

In theory, lust is defined as an action; one can be tempted to lust without actually lusting, just as one can be tempted to commit any sin without actually sinning. In practice, though, lust was frequently conflated with temptation, as if merely noticing the attractiveness of an individual (particularly one of the same gender as the observer) automatically caused the observer to sin.

Perhaps there really is some form of non-sexual sexual attraction that an ex-gay can develop over time for an opposite-sex partner that's somewhere beyond mere friendship-level attraction and that makes sex within heterosexual marriage desirable and mutually rewarding even though actual sexual desire is still absent. Or maybe the entire exercise merely exposes the double standard that the church is defending so fiercely on the issue of sexuality.

Read just about any modern Christian book on the subject of marriage, and it will quickly become clear that sexual desire is regarded as a valid and important precursor to a healthy marriage. Once a couple is married it's their responsibility to keep the romance alive, of course, and (under normal circumstances) to remain married even if that desire fades over time.

It would be exceedingly rare, however, to find anyone who would counsel a heterosexual couple to marry in any case where the attraction was not mutual, with the promise that sexual fulfillment will eventually come if both husband and wife faithfully carry out their marital obligations to one another. And yet that is exactly what Exodus and Focus on the Family advocate for any ex-gay individual who isn't sold on remaining celibate.

So is sexual attraction an important prerequisite to marriage or isn't it? If heterosexual marriage is the faithful ex-gay's duty even when sexual attraction is completely absent, does that make it a sin for the ex-gay's spouse to want what she (or he) would otherwise be allowed to expect from a heterosexual spouse - namely that their spouse desire them sexually?

And where does that leave the celibate individual? Historically the church has regarded celibacy as a superior state to marriage, going so far as to brand those who considered marriage to be equal to celibacy as heretics. Marriage was regarded as a concession to those who were too weak to control their sexual urges, but even within marriage sexual desire was seen as inherently sinful. It's only over the course of the last several centuries that the church has begun to elevate marriage above celibacy and even more recent that it has started to celebrate sexual intimacy as a positive component of the marriage bond.

Today, of course, nearly all evangelical Christians (and probably some Catholic Christians as well) hold marriage in worshipful esteem and regard celibacy as though it were a pitiable state. As the evidence has begun to mount in recent years that few gay individuals have any hope of ever developing heterosexual feelings, some evangelicals have begun to view celibacy as a necessity for such individuals, even though most of them would react in horror to the suggestion that lifelong celibacy might also be a desirable option for some of them.

That raises another question, though. If the historical church's low opinion of sexuality even within marriage - a stance that was universally held for over 15 centuries (at least in the Western church - I'm less familiar with the Eastern church's view of sexuality) - really was as backward and wrong as most modern Christians consider it, why should we view church tradition as a reliable authority on any issue regarding sexuality? I present that question without suggesting any answers, but it's one that deserves to be taken far more seriously than most Christians are likely willing.

Interestingly, the Exodus stance as put forward by Ensley comes closer to matching the historical church's position on sexuality than that held by the modern church, at least when it comes to homosexuals. But it's hardly too much to ask that those who see God's rules as being rigid, unambiguous and without exception should display consistency in their proclamations. When, then, can we expect to see Exodus begin to market its vision of duty-driven, desire-free marriage to a heterosexual audience?


David said...

It is interesting how much sexuality is tied to shame. And that's for everyone, not just homosexuals.

I speculate that it may be because we have been taught that the essence of sin - of wrongdoing - is that it is enjoyable. This extends to everything: that food is "sinful" because it tastes good to you (not because you overindulge). How often is the phrase "something this good can't be right" used? How often do we approach life with that lens? How do we think of Jesus, and represent him in art: does he smile, does he have joy, or is he stern and serious? So when we see someone, and recognize them as beautiful, and find in them a enjoyment over that beauty, an instant shame comes in, as we have committed the sin of delight. As a result, ex-gay programs can't promote a new sexuality of enjoying the opposite sex, since it is the very enjoying that causes us to sin.

The church has historically taken a negative attitude toward anything enjoyable, recognizing that it is possible to elevate this above God. So now as a result, we take the gift of sexuality and spurn it, afraid. Duty has triumphed over delight.

Liadan said...

The Reformation played a big part in the "downfall" of celibacy. A lot of Martin Luther's writing is adamantly pro-marriage and pro-sex, in some part because he was backlashing against his own monastic experience.

Pro-marriage anti-sex Protestantism was, I think, more of a Victorian convention, so it's relatively recent historically, but I'll have to read more on that front.

Anonymous said...

Good post man. Remember what the Bible says: We're deadt to sin and alive in Christ. For we were buried into death in baptism and raised out of it tolive with Christ. As a gay young man myself. I want to encourage you to keep pressing on towards change. Feel free to write me at