Shifting paradigms on sexuality. Why we don’t hear or understand each other

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One of the things I’m noticing about the same-sex debate within the church is that there is a stark difference between my parents generation and that of my children. It’s not uncommon for people in my parents and my grandparents generations to struggle with the idea that same-sex partnerships are a legitimate expression of sexuality; yet to many of my children’s generation, including many in the churches, it is difficult to understand why there is a problem with same-sex partnerships. These stark differences reflect the fact that there has been a fundamental change in how society views sexuality. I have found it quite helpful to note that there have been at least four major paradigms for sexuality in Western history.

The Masculinity Paradigm
In the Greco-Roman period sexuality revolved around the notion that to be masculine was to be in control, to be feminine was to be controlled, and for a man or woman to take on the characteristics of the opposite sex was a cause of great shame. When it came to gender relations this yielded a society in which men held power and women were expected to revolve their interests around that of their husband. When it came to sexual relations, it was perceived that the masculine role was to penetrate, while the feminine role was to be penetrated. For a free adult male this meant he was free to penetrate his wife, his slaves (whether male or female), prostitutes (whether male or female) and younger men who had reached puberty but were yet to grow a beard. Yet to allow oneself to be penetrated was a cause for great shame. To the dominant way of thinking in a Greco-Roman world the issue was not whether the sexual relationship was heterosexual or homosexual, but whether one played the man (honourable for free adult males and dishonourable for women) or played the woman (honourable for women but shameful for adult males).

The Procreation Paradigm
Early in the history of the church a new paradigm emerged that fused together the notion that sexuality was created to serve the purpose of procreation and that physical desire was corrupt. Augustine for example argued that sin weakened the will so that rather than being controlled by reason it surrendered to desire. Sexual climax in which the passions of intercourse subliminate reason thus represented the absolute fallenness of human will. He imagined that in the garden Adam and Eve would have had sexual intimacy dominated not by passion but by reason, but that outside the garden all sexual intimacy is tainted by uncontrolled desire. Yet because sexual desire was such a powerful force, marriage served as a guard against promiscuity and because sexual intimacy was to serve the purpose of procreation it’s only appropriate context was marriage of a man and a woman. Any sexual act, even within marriage, that did not serve the goal of procreation was condemned.

Suspicion of sexual desire led many to argue that virginity was to be preferred to marriage, with some theologians arguing strongly for celibacy as the default position for Christians, while others such as Augustine, argued that both virginity/celibacy and marriage were goods.

Variations of this paradigm continued right through to the period of the Reformation and even beyond. The 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas rejected for example Augustine’s conclusion that sexual desire was always tainted, noting that we could choose contexts where we allow passion to serve the good goal of procreation, but nonetheless maintained the argument that procreation and sexual intimacy were necessarily related.

The marital paradigm
From the period of the Reformation (16th century) through to the early 20th century a new paradigm emerged which rejected the twin assumptions of the traditional position of the Church. Sexual pleasure was seen as a good gift of God and it was understood that sexual intimacy served the purpose of both procreation and building the sense of unity and intimacy between a husband and wife. Moreover, it was not necessary that every sexual act serve both purposes. Husbands and wives could engage in sexual acts that were non-procreative and could use contraception.

Nonetheless, there remained a strong link between procreation and the expression of sexual intimacy that made the marriage of a man and a woman the only appropriate context for sexual intimacy. In recent years some theologians have expanded on this idea by arguing that the physiological complementarity of men and women reflects a much broader relational, emotional, and role-based complementarity that renders same-sex relationships inappropriate and understands gender as given rather than socially constructed.

The authenticity paradigm
In the second half of the 20th century Western societies experienced a revolution in ethics. The sexuality paradigms from the Greco-Roman period right through to the mid-20th century all placed emphasis upon the social function of sexuality, understanding that sexual norms must serve the well-being of society. Consequently, sexual behaviour was seen as something that should be controlled by law.

The rise of individualism by the mid-20th century and the post-Enlightenment emphasis upon reason rather than revelation as defining truth led to the idea that every human being has the right to do that which brings them the greatest personal satisfaction, with the qualification that I should not be able to pursue my satisfaction in a way that infringes on your freedom to do the same. Within this moral framing sexuality was to serve the well-being of individuals and was seen to serve their well-being when they were able to integrate their sexual identity, their sexual orientation, and their sexual behaviour. A same-sex oriented person should be free to enter into same-sex partnerships, to openly identify themselves as a same-sex oriented person, and to engage in consensual sexual relations with other consenting adults. The person who is biologically male but identifies as a female should be free to live out a female gender identity. The woman who wishes to have a child but not to be married should be free to do so. Because sexuality should serve the well-being of the individual rather than the state, law should protect these freedoms rather than punishing those whose sexuality diverges from the mainstream.

Conflicting paradigms
This quick thumbnail sketch no doubt glosses over some of the nuances within the different periods, but the broad paradigms are I think accurate generalisations.

Those of us who grew up in a world where the marital paradigm was the dominant model often struggle with what appears to be the boundaryless nature of the authenticity paradigm, while those growing up in a world dominated by an authenticity paradigm tend to see the marital paradigm as constraining people’s flourishing and denying their human rights. Understanding these paradigms shifts helps me make sense of why some people feel so strongly opposed to same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage, to the notion that sexual identity is socially constructed, and to serial monogamy, while to others these things seem entirely normal and natural.

Books worth consulting
James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality
Faramerz Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex
Robert Gagnon, The Bible And Homosexual Practice
Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality
Eva Canterella Bisexuality In The Ancient World
Online libraries of the church fathers and mediaeval periods

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