Why it’s WEIRD to be straight

A woman (Christian) I know told me a few weeks ago that she objected to being asked to tick a box on equal opportunities forms that said ‘heterosexual’. Married for over twenty years, she felt that ticking that box implied that she had erotic desires for people other than her husband, people defined by a particular characteristic (being male); this was not her experience of her own sexuality, and she resented being forced to suggest that it was. In the culture I live in this self-narration is deeply counter-cultural; but the culture I live in is weird, or better WEIRD, and that is extraordinarily important. The ‘WEIRD’ acronym was coined by psychologists who realised, rather late in the day some of us might feel, that performing psychological experiments on sample groups who all shared a particular characteristic might distort the results quite badly. Many psychology sample groups are only students, or only people in contact with universities (I receive at least one invitation a week to take part in a psychology study via the university email list); more pointedly, a huge majority (95%+?) of psychological studies have been carried out by Western universities on Western people. Something like 12% of the current population of the planet lives in a classic Western society: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic’ (‘WEIRD’); 88% are not WEIRD, and so are normal. Historically, of course, the situation is even more lopsided: until the nineteenth century, no-one was WEIRD. Now, psychological experiments show that we WEIRD people are, well, weird, in our reaction to all sorts of things. We are, of course, also weird in our construction of cultural norms. In the area of human sexuality, we have constructed a vision which is extremely unusual (this does not mean it is wrong, but it is extremely unusual). Since about 1900 – not much before – we have assumed that all people, or the vast majority of people, are erotically attracted to people of one sex only. Either they are heterosexual, and so attracted to members of the opposite sex, or they are homosexual (gay; lesbian) and attracted to members of the same sex. At some point in the last thirty years we allowed a notion of bisexuality; we pay lip-service, but little more, to transsexuality as well; fundamentally, however, we assume that people (male or female) lust after only males or only females. This is deeply WEIRD. The briefest acquaintance with the anthropology of sexuality (NB, already a WEIRD category…) shows us that most people, in most cultures, across the world and down through history, have not fitted this pattern. Same-sex sexual activity is very common around the world and down through history, and opposite-sex sexual activity is at least common enough to ensure the continuation – indeed explosion – of the human population globally thus far. It is extraordinarily unusual to see these as exclusive options, however; to assume people are straight or gay/lesbian, and therefore can only lust after people of one sex, is WEIRD, not normal. Now, as I said above, being WEIRD does not make something wrong. Democracy is WEIRD; human rights, including rights not to be discriminated against on the basis of sexuality or religion, are WEIRD; universal healthcare is WEIRD; I think all these things are great goods, in each case based on moral intuitions that I think are basically right. It may well be that all across the world, and all down through history, people have been either straight or gay/lesbian, and that cultural norms have imposed patterns of lust on them that were not natural to them; we cannot, and I do not, discount this possibility… …but accepting this possibility already invites us to accept that our patterns of lusting, the shapes and directions of our sexual desires, are culturally malleable. Not, certainly, that individuals have any choice in the matter, but that cultures can create expectactions about patterns of lusting that individuals often successfully internalise. If we accept this possibility, we have to accept also the possibility that our WEIRD sexualities could equally be culturally constructed; if it is WEIRD to be straight, then maybe no-one is born straight, but WEIRD culture somehow inscribes straightness upon them. It seems to me that most moral reasoning I hear – in every direction – assumes the rightness of WEIRD accounts of sexuality. Of course, this is because I live in a WEIRD culture, and so hear the WEIRD voices loudly; if moral reasoning in other cultures looks opaque to us, maybe it is because we have not adequately understood how WEIRD we are. I am not saying WEIRD accounts of sexuality are wrong, but I am saying...

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Baptists and sexuality

UPDATE: I reaffirm everything I said about BUGB handling this discussion astonishingly well, but I now understand that what I heard to be a change of policy was not…

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Gay relationships in the Bible?

I have been reading the new edition of Jeffrey John’s book, now titled Permanent, Faithful, Stable, Christian Same-sex Marriage,in preparation for writing a couple of pieces on human sexuality. In the course of his discussion, Canon John makes brief reference to the miracle of the healing of the Centurion’s servant in Lk. 7:1-10 // Mt. 8:5-13, and draws on Theissen and others to suggest that ‘[a]ny Jew … would almost certainly have assumed they were gay lovers.’ (p. 14) On this basis, and because ‘the possibility that the relationship was homosexual would not have escaped Jesus, Matthew or Luke’ (15), Canon John argues that ‘it is a real question whether we are intended to see Jesus deliberately including a gay couple here as yet another category of the despised and rejected…’ (15) I had heard this line before, of course, although the argument that it fitted a pattern in the healing miracles of extending grace to the excluded was new to me. It occurred to me, though, that it was not a text commonly considered in the literature on theological accounts of human sexuality, and a quick search confirmed that: Stan Grenz noted that the argument had been made in Welcoming but not Affirming; beyond that, as far as I could determine, silence. The text is not even treated in Robert Gagnon’s compendious The Bible and Homosexual Practice (except for a note about God-fearers amongst the Gentiles, with the intervention of the elders in Luke’s version being held up as evidence.) This story seems to play extensively – along with the relationship of David and Jonathan (which gets a bit more discussion – see both Grenz and Gagnon, or Eugene Rogers, Sexuality & the Christian Body, e.g.) – in ‘semi-popular’ defences of the acceptance of faithful same-sex marriage in the church, at least in my hearing; given that, the silence of serious sources – from any side of the debate – is unfortunate. It does seem clear, however, that neither account will stand up as a Biblical defence of faithful same-sex marriage. This is not because of the silence as to the precise relationship – Grenz’s point about the centurion, and Gagnon’s point about David and Jonathan – but because, even if we were to accept that the relationships were actively sexual, neither gets us anywhere near a picture of ‘faithful same-sex marriage’. Holding up David as an exemplar of any account of sexual ethics seems to me to be rather ambitious, given the details of his career; it is surely really very obvious that he was not someone who experienced exclusively same-sex erotic attraction and who was seeking a faithful and exclusive sexual relationship with another man… As for the centurion, it is very plausible that a Roman centurion would engage in sexual intercourse with his slaves, both male and female; it was a standard way for a slave owner to assert control over his possessions. (There is an extensive literature on this.) Raping a slave to assert ownership and control is some distance from any  ideals of Christian marriage I know of, however. Even if we hypothesise some sort of unusually affectionate relationship (Luke has the slave as ‘precious’ – entimos – to his master), we have to insist that a properly loving relationship can never occur in the context of ownership – we open the door to all sorts of horrific ethical possibilities otherwise. This is not the end of the argument of course – hardly even the beginning (Oliver O’Donovan entitled his book on the debates within the Anglican Communion A Conversation Waiting to Begin…). An intelligent discussion proceeds by testing and weeding out bad arguments, however, and these arguments are just...

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The trouble with ‘normal’: a further note on human sexuality

I have argued before on this blog that one of the problems with contemporary ecclesial debates over human sexuality is the assumption that a Christian sexual ethic should celebrate, and enshrine, ‘normal’ sexuality. It occurs to me in reading some recent public comments from different churches that one of the problems with this is the slipperiness of the word ‘normal’. I think there is a fundamental ambiguity in the word which is not often recognised. It is so elusive that it is even there in the OED definition(!), where 2a (the relevant meaning) offers: ‘Constituting or conforming to a type or standard; regular, usual, typical; ordinary, conventional.’ With fear and trembling – can the OED ever be wrong? – I want here to suggest that, perhaps, that which ‘conforms to a standard’ might be distinctly unusual, and that that which is ‘usual’ might substantially fail to conform to a standard, and so that there is a conflation of two different meanings here, which should be distinguished if we want to think clearly. I distinguish between ‘usual’ meaning ‘(most) commonly occurring’ and ‘normal’ meaning ‘conforming to a standard’ (on the basis that the etymology of ‘normal’ seems to imply a connection to a norm, I retain the word for this sense). Now, we might argue that in a well-ordered (‘normal’?!) world, this distinction would be formal, not real: most or all examples of a given thing do in fact conform to the standard that governs that thing, and so the sets defined by ‘usual’ and ‘normal’ are coterminous, or at least broadly so, even if differently defined. It happens that the world we live in is not well-ordered: it is normal for a (British) banker to adhere to a high level of professional ethics; it is not at all clear that this has been usual, however. (We could make analogous points about politicians, journalists and – lest I be thought to be sniping at others – academics and the clergy also.) So what? Well, just this: this distinction between usual and normal becomes important when we consider recent ecclesial pronouncements on human sexuality. As I have discussed before on this blog, the Roman Catholic Church has employed a ‘natural law’ argument to claim that exclusive, permanent, heterosexual monogamy is normal; in its response to the government consultation down south, the Church of England has argued rather that exclusive, permanent, heterosexual monogamy is usual. These are strikingly different arguments, which nonetheless can easily be conflated given the confusion over the word ‘normal’ with which I began. The Church of England’s submission to the Westminster government’s consultation can be read here [link is to pdf]. Given the public prominence of the CoE, it is not a surprise that it attracted a significant amount of comment, rather too much of it of the ‘I (dis)agree with your conclusions, therefore I (dis)approve of your submission’ variety. The arguments presented may roughly be divided into two groups: there is a series of arguments based on the intrinsic nature of marriage; and there is a series of arguments based on the legal status of marriage in English & Welsh law. (The submission never considers the relationship between marriage as defined in civil law, and marriage as defined theologically, which I tend to think is a weakness.) The legal arguments suggest that the government has failed to understand the present legal status of marriage, and the difficulty of changing it; I am no lawyer, but the submission seems convincing to me on this point. The claims concerning the ‘intrinsic nature of marriage’ (a phrase used, repeatedly, in the submission) start with appeals to norms: ‘derived from the teaching of Christ himself’ (1); ‘derived from the Scriptures and enshrined within its authorised liturgy’ (2). This line is rapidly abandoned, however, and replaced by an account of heterosexual monogamy as usual: in (6) we read of ‘the intrinsic nature of marriage, as enshrined in human institutions since before the advent of either church or state, is the union of a man and a woman’. This phrase might, generously, be heard as an appeal to a creational norm (although I confess to being troubled by a theology that is prepared to postulate a ‘before’ concerning the church…); as we read on, however, the document explicitly asserts that heterosexual monogamy is usual in history, and bases its arguments on this assertion. This is particularly clear in paragraphs 7 and 11. (7) asserts: Throughout history, in the laws of the land and in the Church of England‘s Book of Common Prayer on which the laws concerning marriage are grounded, marriage has been understood to be, always and exclusively, between a woman and a man. This...

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Queer Hippo: musings on human sexuality

[This is a ‘Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis’ post: the ideas have been in my head for several years, and I’ve been wondering what, if anything, to do with them. Then I thought of the title, and just had to publish somewhere. There’s a book here – I’d be interested to know if readers of the blog think I should write it.] The debate on human sexuality as it is being conducted in every Western denomination of which I am aware is being conducted badly. An assumption is shared by both sides of the argument, an assumption which would be denied, on the one hand, by contemporary queer theory, and on the other by the ethical reflections of the greatest bishop of Hippo, St Augustine. This post is about the things that queer theory and Christian ethics in the tradition of St Augustine meet and agree on – they do not agree about everything, but they do about a surprising amount. At the level of denominational politics (there are exceptions, I know, but their voices are not being heard in the denominations as far as I can see), the debate on human sexuality in Western denominations is being conducted on the grounds of ‘what is normal’: is heterosexual monogamy the only pattern of sexual expression that is ‘normal’? (In which case the ministry and the blessing of the church should be restricted to traditional western marriage.) Or, is it ‘normal’ also to be gay or lesbian? (In which case people committed to faithful and exclusive gay/lesbian relationships should be accepted as ministers of the church, and such relationships should be blessed.) From the perspective of contemporary queer theory, there is only one possible response to debates of this sort: profound sadness at their failure to address reality. From the perspective of St Augustine’s sexual ethic, there is only one possible response to debates of this sort: profound sadness at their failure to address reality. Let’s start with queer theory; here we need to look at Judith Butler’s developments of Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Foucault demonstrated (with extensive boring empirical/historical evidence of the sort a postmodern icon is not really supposed to collect, but then Foucault, like Derrida, was always considerably more intelligent than those who defined the category of ‘contemporary postmodern icon’…) that modern Western constructions of sexuality are, well, modern and Western. Prior to Freud and Wilde, no-one considered themselves to be heterosexual or gay or lesbian, or behaved as if they did. Same-sex attraction and action was routine, of course, but there was no sense that a man attracted to men should therefore be less attracted to women. Equally, other mores were at work in other times and other places. Famously, in ancient Greece, ‘normal’ sexual attraction for a man (who was a member of the culturally dominant class) involved being attracted both to a wife and to one or several young male apprentices; in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, until recently, polygamy was normal; almost endless other constructions of sexuality can be found in history and across the world today. On this basis, Foucault proposed that sexual identity is socially constructed. Our culture offers us certain permissible (‘normal’) ways of regulating our sexual desires, and there is a powerful, for most overwhelming, cultural pressure on us to conform to one or another of the permissible options; the permissible options, however – the accounts of what is normal – vary from culture to culture. Judith Butler, in Gender Trouble, analysed how this social construction happens in our Western culture, and proposed that we established as ‘normal’ a link between (biologically determined) sex, (culturally constructed) gender, and sexual desire. Successful inhabiting of the culture involves (amongst many other things, of course) constructing a gender identity which conforms to culturally-determined accounts of what is proper to your biological sex (becoming ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’), and regulating your sexual desires in accord with that identity: manly men desire feminine women, and vice-versa. Butler proposes a strategy of resistance: the conscious and public adoption of non-standard gender identities, to expose and disempower the cultural hegemony that controls us. (Of course, Butler wrote over two decades ago. In many of the subcultures that make up Western culture gay and lesbian identities are now accepted as ‘normal’, and to conform to those identities is an equally successful way of inhabiting the culture. This is not to deny, and certainly not to excuse, the homophobia that still exists in many places, but it is to recognise that in the culturally-dominant discourses in the West, homophobia is now – rightly, of course – unacceptable. It wasn’t when I was a child.) I...

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