An Aspen in a Forest of Pines

In an interesting piece in The Atlantic last week (“Life Without Sex: The Third Phase of the Asexuality Movement”), Rachel Hill highlighted David Jay and his organization, the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network:

But what all asexual people have in common — and what defines asexuality as an orientation — is that, while they may have a desire to connect with other people, asexuals have no desire to connect with them sexually. Asexual people are not the same as celibate people: it’s not that they are purposefully or unintentionally abstaining from sex they would otherwise like to have, but rather that they have no interest in it.

The article is fascinating on several levels: its examination of asexuality as a “sexual orientation,” its exploration of the idea that for some people, sex just isn’t that important (however odd that may seem in our society), and its recognition that a sex-defined culture is perhaps not always beneficial. Hill’s conclusion is a bit breathless in its hope that this small but growing group of people who identify themselves as asexual will serve as correction to the current tendency to reduce personal identity to sexual identity:

In other words, you might want to have sex five times this week, or you might not want to have sex at all. Your experience of desire might be intensely physical, or it might be indistinguishable from emotional attachment. You might experience next to no attraction for years, and then find yourself consumed with another person. At one point in your life, sex might be the ultimate thrill; at another, it might be boring and routine. And all of it is okay, and none of it marks the essence of who you really are.

I’m not convinced: asexuality may be a negative definition, but it’s still an identity in sexual terms, as highlighted by the author’s comment that, “turning [asexuality] into a positive identity was a radical act.” No doubt it was; to reject the prevailing culture narrative is a brave move – but the author misses the forest for the trees. Yes, the asexual movement stands out against the sexual obsession of our age, but as an aspen in a forest of pines. They’re both still trees. Asexuals are still self-identifying in explicitly sexual terms, even if those terms are negative. In a post 1960s world, any negation of sex seems shocking, but the movement offers only antithesis; synthesis remains elusive.

Put bluntly, that is our fault. When David Jay creates an organization to gather and support asexuals, he highlights the church’s failure to present the truth that is most apparent in Jesus himself: sex is not the sum of our existence. Even in his embrace of asexuality as an identity, Jay remains trapped by sexual centrality in our culture.

One of the most important points Matthew Lee Anderson made in Earthen Vessels is how the church has completely bought into our culture’s outstanding narratives about sexuality and identity. Rather than offering up a Christ-centered vision of human flourishing and personal being that includes but is neither grounded in nor circumscribed by sexuality, the church has kowtowed to a cultural vision in which we basically are our sex drives. The Christian sex manuals and sermons and seminars are our way of shouting to the world, “Look, we like sex, too! We have good sex, too! And ours is actually better than yours, because we’re good Christians who got married before we had sex! (Well, maybe.)”

The problem with this, at Matt pointed out in a chapter that ought to be required reading for everyone, is that it simply does not match the picture God paints for us in Scripture. Yes, sex is good; and yes, it is an enormous blessing in marriage. But sex is not essential to human flourishing. This should be obvious, and if we had a more robust Christology and a more thoroughly biblical anthropology, it would. If Jesus is in fact the ultimate man, the living, eating, breathing definition of human flourishing – and he is – then his chaste celibacy matters. It stands as a stunning rebuke to American society’s obsession with sex and our proclivity for self-definition in terms of sexual motivations.

Consider not only the extent of sexual saturation in society, but also the extent to which the entire gay rights movement is predicated on the notion of sexuality as central to identity. The primary thrust of the various queer arguments in the public square is simple: “This is who I am. How dare you criticize that?” If the church often seems unable to mount a coherent response to this argument, it is because the church, in its teaching and its approach to sexuality, basically agrees. No amount of shouting, “Christ is your identity!” will overcome decades of practical push in the other direction. In its attempt to overcome apparent (and sometimes actual) prudishness, and in its rush to defend marriage against a culture assaulting it, the church has centralized sexuality in most Christians’ understanding of their lives. As Matt put it:

We implicitly convey to young people that sex is a need by marginalizing those who are single or cordoning them off in singles groups so that they hopefully will get married. Then we expect them to live some of the most sexually charged years of their lives without yielding to temptation. No wonder young people struggle to stay sexually pure: either sex is essential to their flourishing as humans or it isn’t. And if everyone who is married thinks it is, then young people will too—regardless of whatever else we tell them.

This places an enormous burden on those who remain single, as the church has offered no intellectually or emotionally compelling alternative to the narrative of marital sexuality for personal flourishing. In a culture whose chief idolatry is sex, this is catastrophic. The church has no prophetic answer where it is most desperately needed. Again:

I realize there are deep difficulties here, not the least of which are discerning the call of singleness and establishing structures and systems of support within the church for those called to it. But the absence of visible, lifetime singleness within our communities suggests that our affirmation of marriage and the goodness of sexual pleasure have overstepped their boundaries. We cannot affirm the goodness of the created order as Christians without also seeing how it has been caught up and renewed in Christ—which those who are called to celibacy bear witness to by their lives and their love. A church without singles has lost one of its main ways of warning against a sexual idolatry that has driven the whole world mad.

The tragedy is all the greater because the church has a unique capacity to speak to precisely this issue. Only Christianity both values human sexuality as a genuine societal and personal good and values celibacy as a genuine societal and personal good. Paul can write to the Corinthians both that he wishes all were single as he was for the sake of the kingdom and that marital sex is good and to be given freely and joyfully between spouses. Scripture paints a full picture of human sexuality – from the debased to the beautiful – and at the same time provides striking images of God-glorifying celibate men and women.

The church can offer powerful comfort and encouragement to men and women who do not experience sexual desire: this is not a bad thing, whatever our culture may say. Moreover, we have the resources to offer this encouragement without the sort of sexual equivocation Hill offers in The Atlantic. This “orientation” is not good simply because all orientations are good; it is good because it is a gift, meant to be used for the glory of God (see Matthew 19:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 7:7).

The church has an answer for the sexual maladies of our culture, but we must first jettison the idea that we’re going to win people over to the church by being sexually hip, and we must reject our culture’s toxic equation of identity with sexuality. To reiterate a point I made earlier: we need a more robust anthropology, one that is grounded in a more robust Christology. Christ’s humanity, his incarnate life, is not less significant than his death and resurrection. There is no better picture of human flourishing than in Jesus. Accordingly, there is no better prophetic answer to our culture’s obsession with sex than to get back to Jesus. He made sex, and he lived in chastity. Only in Christ can we see how sex and chastity are both truly good without being ultimate. I’ll let Matt close, as he said it better than me: “Marriage points to Genesis, singleness to Revelation.”


Further reading:

Discussion

    • Thanks – that was the intent, of course. And I really am deeply indebted to Matt; a lot of the material in Earthen Vessels was right on target and needs a much, much broader hearing. The chapter on sex was the best in a very good book.

  • Rem Anon thought to say:

    It’s great to hear a Christian perspective on asexuality for a change. Thank you for writing this! It provides some excellent food for thought.

  • I don’t know if I got all the details so I say this comment with that in mind but I did catch you say, “If Jesus is in fact the ultimate man, the living, eating, breathing definition of human flourishing – and he is – then his chaste celibacy matters.”…..if he is the ultimate than we would be wrong in marrying according to that logic. We should aim for the ultimate, I always want to aim for the ultimate….which is celibacy according to the logic you asserted that shows Jesus as the definition of human flourishing. That is not to say that Jesus isn’t the ultimate God-man, but he instructs us that Gods design of marriage and seeing people become one flesh…..sex….is a good thing. It supposedly is the ultimate demonstration of Gods love for the church. Gods marketing tool to show the world how much he loves the church. Though sex isn’t marriage, I cannot imagine you telling me its not a part of it.

    I don’t mind people shouting….“Look, we like sex, too! We have good sex, too! And ours is actually BETTER than yours, because we’re good Christians who got married before we had sex!” Chris, you say it very demeaning, but I think it is the answer in one arena, and we can shout that for money, for food, for employment, for disappointment, for suffering, for cancer, that we are so satisfied…..you wouldn’t have to diminish someone because they are trying to find fulfillment in wrong areas, but you can give testimony for the joy you have found in Jesus as his direction for what sex could be. People are trying to get happy, and they are sucking at finding it in the right places. Speak truth in love, but speak truth. Christians need to hear it too. I hope that Christians are so overwhelmingly happy with these areas of God ordained life that their lives shout and testify to that fact. But they aren’t always….christians need to be encouraged in this too. Christian dudes aren’t satisfying their wives because they are finding it in other ways. So instead of being that marketing tool for Jesus we suck it up at times too. Keep going back to Jesus for your satisfaction and in ways that he has revealed will bring that lasting happiness and fulfillment. These should be areas that are in a sense, marketing for the gospel. Our lives are that billboard displaying they are better and lastingly good and fulfilling.

    My buddies look and say, dude how are you having sex with the same girl every week and be happy about it? You mean you didnt have sex before you got married? and your happy? Man I wanna shout it! That Jesus is so satisfying in all areas of life, and yeah….sex too dude. But I do appreciate that last comment that though on this earth marriage is a major tool that God has chosen to display his love for the church Revelation is an eternity of satisfaction in God that shows the brevity of earthly satisfaction in marriage.

    • David, thanks for dropping by and interacting. I’ll try to keep my response to you brief, though I’ve been thinking about it for a couple days.

      First, I think if you reread the article, you’ll see that I’m not in the least saying that sex in a Christian context is a bad thing. I do want to celebrate sex in marriage, and hold it up as the good and beautiful thing it is. However, even the way you respond here highlights the concern I have: that too often, we’re responding to the world on its own terms.

      Here’s the crux of my argument about the way we’ve approached the world about sex: we’re still trying to play the game on the world’s terms and win that contest when we should be saying, “Your game is terrible; I’m not playing.” To trace that out a bit: I don’t think the answer to the world’s affair (heh: terrible pun) with sex is to proclaim that our sex is better, it’s to proclaim that Christ himself is better. We don’t defeat an idol by proclaiming the supremacy of our version of that idol (“Our work/sex/marriage/family/entertainment/art/name-your-poison is better than yours!”) but by rejecting the idol and proclaiming instead the supremacy of Christ.

      Again: I fully believe that the Christian view of sex is vastly better than the world’s, and we shouldn’t be ashamed to say so. But that cannot be the extent of our response, nor should it be the foundation. That’s just a prettied-up version of the prosperity gospel: “Look, you can have everything you want, just better and no worries about hell! Better work! Better sex! Better life! Jesus is the ticket!” Most of us aren’t so crass, but too often that’s what it boils down to.

      My scorn, then, is not for the idea that sex is better when in the context for which God designed it – of course it is, and again, we should say as much – but for the way that the Christian response to the world’s view of sex ultimately embraces that idolatry rather than serving up a prophetic rebuke that says that a life without sex but with Jesus is infinitely better than a life with the best sex and no Jesus.

    • Eric Dorbin thought to say:

      These kind of comments are great for clarifying an argument. One thing I would add to Chris’s response is in response to your response to Chris saying Christ’s celebacy matters.

      Christ certainly did not think we shouldn’t pursue marriage, and I think what Chris was getting at is just that the fact that He didn’t shows us that being celebate can be an equally valuable way to live. Additionally, while should certainly strive to be as Christ-like as possible, we should not try to copy his every move.

      What I mean by that is we shouldn’t make all the exact same non-moral descisions he did i.e. we shouldn’t ALL be travelling missionaries/teachers, we shouldn’t ALL eat the same meals He did, we shouldn’t ALL learn carpentry growing up, we shouldn’t ALL have exactly 12 disciples, and we should ALL remain unmarried. Obviously these things are good most of the time, but other walks of life can be equally good. One must be extremely cautious with this idea though as most of what Jesus did we should copy in some manner or another and any of these things could be a moral descision for some people.

  • Eric thought to say:

    I absolutely love your comments and it is true I am an asexual person and I feel like the asexual definition is still too tied into the idea that sex is all that matters which is not true. I am also a christian and I agree with your analysis that the church should not attempt to be hip and bend over to the sex obsessed culture.

    • Eric, I’m glad to hear that my comments encouraged you. I’d love to hear more from your perspective on life in the church, if you’re interested. I think Your comments are welcome here, of course, but you can also email me (see the contact section below) if you’d prefer to interact in private, and of course I won’t be offended at all if you’d rather not. But as a guy interested in being involved in pastoral ministry in the future, your perspective would be particularly valuable.

  • Thanks for your excellent and articulate post. The ace community has been wanting to start a real dialog with Christian communities for some time now, and are just now beginning to find leaders in Christian communities interested in having that dialog. Lots of aces identify as Christian (just as lots of aces identify as queer and many identify as both), and intelligent Christian discussion about asexuality could be of enormous benefit to both of our communities.

    In particular, I want to agree with a few of the points that you’ve made here:

    Consider not only the extent of sexual saturation in society, but also the extent to which the entire gay rights movement is predicated on the notion of sexuality as central to identity. The primary thrust of the various queer arguments in the public square is simple: “This is who I am. How dare you criticize that?”

    I understand if you haven’t been following things that closely, but this kind of a post-identity argument has been a central thrust of queer politics since the late-90s. (Queer politics as distinct from gay rights politics, which is much more identify focused.) We don’t think sexuality defines who we are, and we resent when other people label us by our sexuality rather than seeing us as complex and complete people. The only reason we bother to talk about identity is to get people to challenge their assumptions. If I don’t use the word “asexual” everyone assumes that I’m someone who’s failing to get laid or get married, they assume that there’s something wrong with me. Using words like “asexual” is the only way to get them to realize that I might be different then them and that that might be ok. I’d LOVE it if people had the wisdom to accept that being single or nonsexually married were valid life paths, but that’s not the world we live in (Christian or otherwise.)

    Also, you raise a point that I’ve been wanting to talk about with Christian leaders for years:

    We implicitly convey to young people that sex is a need by marginalizing those who are single or cordoning them off in singles groups so that they hopefully will get married.

    YES. I couldn’t agree more. I have spent a lot of time building communities where people can explore and celebrate nonsexual intimacy, and it’s always perplexed me why Christian communities (especially Christian communities on the right) don’t do the same. In the asexual community (and increasingly the queer community in general) we see intimacy as a primary goal: intimacy with partners, intimacy with communities, with ourselves, with whatever God or Gods we believe in. If I’m in a partnership with someone and we don’t have sex it’s not a big deal, because there are still plenty of other ways for us to be emotionally intimate that are all equally valid.

    In contrast, Christian dialogue often seems to conflate sex and intimacy. There’s this message that real, powerful emotional connection with another person will ONLY happen when you get married and have sex, and that the job of young people is to sit around for years being desperate for sex/intimacy and not reaching out to grab it. This seems like a great way to make young people obsessed with sex, and a really bad way to make them comfortable not having it. Are people open to discussing new ways of addressing these issues?

    • David, I appreciate your stopping by and your own thoughtful comments here – I’m sure you’re quite busy. (I do profoundly enjoy the fact that he internet can connect us.)

      I tend to agree with you that a more robust (or, from what you’re saying, more extant) dialog between the ace community and Christians would be a very good thing for both communities. I think quite a few Christians – including in my quite conservative circles – recognize that the evangelical approach to sexuality has missed a few steps along the way in the last half century. And I suspect that, unlike the hostility that has (unfortunately) been inherent in most of the interactions between conservative Christians and the majority of the queer communities, this interaction could be a good deal more friendly. As I noted in my post: Christians of all people have enormous intellectual and spiritual resources for supporting the ace community.

      I understand if you haven’t been following things that closely, but this kind of a post-identity argument has been a central thrust of queer politics since the late-90s. (Queer politics as distinct from gay rights politics, which is much more identify focused.) We don’t think sexuality defines who we are, and we resent when other people label us by our sexuality rather than seeing us as complex and complete people. The only reason we bother to talk about identity is to get people to challenge their assumptions. If I don’t use the word “asexual” everyone assumes that I’m someone who’s failing to get laid or get married, they assume that there’s something wrong with me. Using words like “asexual” is the only way to get them to realize that I might be different then them and that that might be ok. I’d LOVE it if people had the wisdom to accept that being single or nonsexually married were valid life paths, but that’s not the world we live in (Christian or otherwise.)

      First, let me say I’m glad to hear this. It’s not something that gets any press time; your distinction between “queer politics” and “gay politics” is an interesting one that I’ve never encountered before. (I haven’t been following the queer community except occasionally and very much from the outside, though, so it’s no surprise that the distinction would surprise me.) This is also, in my view, a good sign for future interactions between evangelicals and the queer community.

      The main difficulty I’ve had in attempts to have reasonable discussions with gay-identifying people over the last half-decade has been the issue of identity: whereas I don’t see sexuality as determinative of sexuality, every SSA-identifying person I’ve spoken with has, and that’s a pretty big hump to get over in a conversation. The radically different starting points load the conversation for conflict even before we get to any substantive interactions, which is too bad. Mix together (real or perceived) “homophobia” with sexually-grounded personal identity, and, well… the outcome hasn’t been pretty. Asexuality doesn’t have the perceived “eww” factor (which, I should note, is a poor excuse for the way too many Christians have approached homosexuals and other queer-identifying people; we need to be much more Christlike), and can have a real place in conservative Christianity without “reorientation.” It could also be a point of safe contact between the queer community more broadly and Christianity in a way that is good for both groups’ perception of each other. Hate, alas, isn’t going anywhere, but the more non-hostile contact between these very separated communities, the better in my view.

      YES. I couldn’t agree more. I have spent a lot of time building communities where people can explore and celebrate nonsexual intimacy, and it’s always perplexed me why Christian communities (especially Christian communities on the right) don’t do the same. In the asexual community (and increasingly the queer community in general) we see intimacy as a primary goal: intimacy with partners, intimacy with communities, with ourselves, with whatever God or Gods we believe in. If I’m in a partnership with someone and we don’t have sex it’s not a big deal, because there are still plenty of other ways for us to be emotionally intimate that are all equally valid.

      In contrast, Christian dialogue often seems to conflate sex and intimacy. There’s this message that real, powerful emotional connection with another person will ONLY happen when you get married and have sex, and that the job of young people is to sit around for years being desperate for sex/intimacy and not reaching out to grab it. This seems like a great way to make young people obsessed with sex, and a really bad way to make them comfortable not having it. Are people open to discussing new ways of addressing these issues?

      You’ve got me, man. I’m asking some of the same questions. I suspect part of the answer, as I outlined in my post and in my response to the other David above, is that Christians have operated on an attractional model that basically tries to say to non-Christians, “Look, we’ve got what you’ve got, and our version is better!” You can se this not only in our approach to sex, but to music, clothing, even coffee bars in churches. So when culture at large falls in love with sex as ours has, the church has followed. That’s a tragedy for the church. I wholeheartedly think Christianity is and always has been at its best when it’s sticking to its guns: Jesus as both personal savior and cosmic king. That message doesn’t need to look like the surrounding culture to be compelling, and history would suggest that it’s least compelling when it looks most like the surrounding culture instead of sticking out in all the weird ways Jesus does.

      Obviously, I think Christian conservatives are going to come to a fairly different conclusion about the acceptability of all forms of emotional intimacy, but I heartily agree that the reduction of emotional intimacy to sex does no one any favors. One of the most quietly detrimental movements I see in the church right now is the tendency say that your spouse has to be your closest friend in every single area of your life – we’ve all but lost the idea of emotionally deep and meaningful friendships outside the marriage. The old idea of a man being closer to his best friends than his wife is nearly inconceivable. (Nor am I necessarily arguing for that, exactly, but something needs to give to find a point a bit more balanced between the two, I think.)

      That’s a bit of a long way to say: yes, I think a number of Christians are open to discussing new ways of addressing these issues. The answers Christians and the queer community come to are certainly going to be different, but I’d certainly be curious to see how we might all benefit. Of course, that presupposes that disagreement doesn’t automatically entail hatred – something, again, that your comment gives me hope might actually happen here.

      Thanks again for stopping by, and also for bearing with this hopelessly long comment. I look forward to seeing this dialog develop further in the future.

  • Just so everyone knows… I will be responding to these comments. I was out of town this weekend, but I’m hoping to tackle them tomorrow. Sorry about the delay! The thoughtful interactions are much appreciated, and I look forward to interacting with everyone at the length they deserve. Tonight, however, I’m going to prioritize sleep.

Discussion is closed at this time.