Exploring Sexuality as Language

Several years ago, as I was journeying out of the traditional theological view of gay marriage, I read an extraordinary book by Dr. James Brownson titled Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing The Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships.

Bible, Gender, Sexuality is a thing of theological beauty: elegant, persuasive, and deeply compassionate. It was the book that allowed me to finally pack my bags and walk with confidence into affirming gay marriage and my own gay orientation.

I first read Brownson in 2013, but one passage in particular has remained in my memory and informed my new life as an adult gay man. This passage has had a particular place in forming my sexual ethic when I struggled desperately with understanding sexuality and how to live well.

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Growing up gay in the church presents a difficult dilemma: LGBT people have no sexual ethic other than “don’t.” How do we find an ethic for gay people when we don’t fit the heterosexual mold, or when marriage is not always an option due to laws or culture? And how do we find a life-giving ethic of sexuality beyond promiscuity or repression? I had lived both these options, and I was growing weary, broken, and disillusioned, in desperate need of answers.

Brownson explores the concept of “one flesh” in Scripture, and argues that the sacramental “one flesh” can be expanded to include gay couples. He argues that, within the “one flesh” narrative, “We cannot say with our bodies what we will not say with the rest of our lives.” (pg. 102)

Beginning on page 103, Brownson quotes Rowan Williams’ lecture The Body’s Grace, which I will quote here in full,

Any genuine experience of desire leaves me in this position: I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivializing them. But in this experience we have a particularly intense case of the helplessness of the ego alone. For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, must be perceived, accepted, nurtured. And that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire; my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. As Blake put it, sexual partners “admire” in each other “the lineaments of gratified desire.” We are pleased because we are pleasing.

I was raised with a redemption-less view of my own orientation. There was no potential for holiness, sacred union, or authentic joy in my sexuality. According to the church, the only way forward was to accept that my sexuality was intrinsically disordered, and to wait for God to heal me, either in this life or the next.

Such a life crushed me. In my desperate search for goodness in my sexuality, I found Williams’ and Brownson’s words here life saving. My sexuality had a purpose, a direction it could go in.

Brownson continues,

Williams’ remarkable words underscore the profound connection between sexual union and the wider one-flesh union we have been exploring. Sex is not simply about the satisfaction of desire. To make such a simplistic claim would be the equivalent of the Corinthians’ claim, “Food for the belly and the belly for food.” Sexual desire is, in this sense, radically different from other bodily desires, such as hunger for example. If I am hungry, I can find food on my own and satisfy my hunger. Sexual desire, on the other hand, requires another person, and if sex is to achieve what the body most deeply longs for, one must enter into deep communion with the other – the kind of communion that the Bible speaks of as a one-flesh union. In that union, one relinquishes self-determination, and one’s own happiness is bound up in the happiness of another.

My orientation had always been defined in negative terms: a relationship with a man cannot procreate, and therefore would lack a crucial ingredient for godly sexual union; a relationship with a man would lack the necessary complimentarity of the sexes, therefore disqualifying it before God. My orientation itself was described as a lack of God’s order, as a void not yet filled by the ordering presence of God.

But as I read Brownson’s words for the first time, I started to see my sexuality in a positive light rather than a negative: I may not be able to procreate with a man, but I can share in one-flesh union with him, loving him with my body and my whole being in the sacred connection that brings us both joy. That is a good thing – a redemptive thing – no matter what we may perceive homosexuality to “lack.”

Brownson concludes,

Indeed, sexual desire – the coincidence of the longing to experience joy, and to be joy to another – is what drives us to this union and sustains and strengthens this union. Our bodies know, sometimes more deeply than our minds can acknowledge, what Genesis 2:18 declares: It is not good for us to be alone. This is not to deny the legitimacy of the calling to celibacy, whether this is a temporary calling for some or a lifelong calling for others. But even celibacy cannot be fully lived in isolation, and the language of the body is not limited to sexual union alone. The language of the body – whether it may be a touch, a hug, or in some cases full sexual intimacy – is a language that we cannot and should not avoid. Our faithfulness as Christians depends in no small part on what we say with our bodies.

To think of sexual relations as a language brings with it another important corollary. Sex can bring with it an incredibly wide range of meanings. We may use sex to express compassion, hope, playfulness, dominance, consolation, competition, submission, exploration of new roles – the list goes on and on. To speak of sex as a language is to recognize that there is not one single meaning of mystic union that is conveyed by the language of “one flesh.” Rather, the one-flesh union is the place where human creativity expresses itself: the creativity that results in endlessly diverse cultural forms, both for good purposes and for less admirable ones. Thus Christian faithfulness has only begun when it recognizes that full sexual intimacy belongs in one-flesh kinship unions. The following steps are equally, if not more, important: learning the bodily language for giving and receiving love and using that language to create a space of beauty and love where both partners become more fully the persons God intends them to be.

This view of sex – that it is a language, and a union that requires the sacrificing of self to the joy of the other – is an ethic that is available to all gay people. We are able to cast gay eroticism and sexuality in a positive light rather than only negative terms. This is crucial for the well being of gay people – for our psychological, spiritual, and relational health.

With a few exceptions, people are sexual, and people have sex. This is a central reality of human nature. As long as we malign something so central to human nature, we will destroy people who yearn to know the love of God.


Want to read more of my Exploring series? Click here.

Want to read my interview to Dr. James Brownson? Click here.

  1. I love it.

    One of my big frustrations with the generality of moral doctrine I’ve heard about sex is the total reduction of it to self-satisfaction and the management thereof. Maybe some people experience sex that way, but at least from my perspective–speaking as a woman, and a mostly asexual one–I can say right now that the idea of seeking sex for mere self-satisfaction is about as far removed from my experience of sex and sexuality as any idea is possible to be, and therefore such moral doctrine is irrelevant except as a set of rules. (The “rules” don’t inherently create the right conditions for it, either.)

    I’d love to see more teaching about sex, whether sacred or secular, focus on those aspects of mutual connection, communion, consideration–of being truly with someone in that intimacy. I’d like it to consider, and not just give passing lip service to, the many feelings besides the desire for physical pleasure that are contained in the sexual impulse. Those things matter, and they’re too often ignored in ideological formation on the subject.

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