“Sexuality” and the subjective/objective problem

Romans during the Decadence — Courture

In my studies at the moment we are doing a course on “Sex and Gender”. The conversations have been really rather interesting as we’ve looked at something of what does it mean to consider people as “sexual beings”.

One of the first “hurdles”, as it were, is the realisation of how slippery and ephemeral sexuality is to define. The current cultural conversations tend to assume that by sexuality we are discussing LGBT+ concepts or perhaps feminism (or contrary positions to). A few decades ago the conversation would have been focused much more on the topic of divorce and remarriage. Or perhaps contraception, or masturbation. It’s clear that conversations on sexuality are contextual.

This is important for Christians in particular as we try and first understand what we mean by sexuality and then how to relate that understanding to the (different) understanding(s) of scripture.

Most definitions of sexuality have attempted to locate it as in some way fundamental to the human experience of being human – this includes those who are single or celibate or agender or asexual. Even in human experiences which are not explicitly sexual or about sexual acts there is a sense that it is still in some way affected by and interpreted within (even subconsciously) human sexuality.

I have plenty of thoughts and opinions surrounding my own sexuality (in the wider sense of the word rather than simply orientation) but I’ve recognised that I wouldn’t feel comfortable drawing on this in order to offer a definition of sexuality for the experience of humanity in general. Part of this is the recognition that as a man in the west* my own experiences are distinctly particular to myself, differing in no small way than from that of others in my class – never mind that of a woman in, say, India. More than this, I’ve noticed that my criticisms of definitions which have been offered, even by ‘experts’, tend to centre on their own implicit assumption that they have an insight into the human experience of sexuality which is somehow common to all (or least the majority) of people.

Because sexuality is such a particular experience of each individual, it seems that there is no objective perspective on it. At best we can appropriate to a synthesis of the universally-subjective experience of ourselves and others; an amalgamation of experiences ranging from the contemporary (those of people we know as they have described them to us, and those of ‘researchers’ and their discoveries) to those of history and tradition, and then to scripture (and other ancient texts). To synthesise the breadth of these subjective voices requires some form of discrimination, or editorial bias.

I’ve written before that ‘the issue is that each secretly supposes that their own subjective experience gives them an insight into the objective which they seek’. This seems especially true when it comes to sexuality. Our own implicit biases lead us all to often to confirm our own position and feelings. This is in no small part why the conversation in the Church of England on same sex marriages and other LGBT+ issues have been so difficult – each side supposes that they have an experience or insight into the issue of sexuality which the other is misunderstanding, and attempting to draw together a conclusion from the different voices which explain (describe) their position.

A famous example of our human subjective experiences of reality is to ask if we each see the colour red as the same colour. Not as the same shade, but the same colour. How do we know that the way that red appears to me isn’t the same as the way that the colour blue appears to you? In a way, our conversations on sexuality are similar to arguing about the colour red.

Does this problem of attempting to prescribe an objective definition of sexuality mean that we can’t meaningfully say anything to each other about it? Or that we can’t form a coherent understanding that works with both scripture and our lived realities?

I don’t think so. I would like to say that there is something tangible about sexuality which is common to the human experience; across sexes, across genders, orientations, cultures, ages and circumstances. But to find it I think we’re going to have to be honest about the differences of our subjective experiences and find something deeper, something which we may all already know (to varying degrees) but as yet haven’t managed to articulate.

As a Christian, I believe that Christ is Lord over all things including both our human sexuality and our understandings of it; Human Sexuality, whatever that is, has been around as long as we have been and I have hope that we can be gracious enough to acknowledge our limitations in talking about it as together we explore more what what it means to be human, and particularly what it means to be humans in relationship with Jesus.

*I’m no fan of identity politics, but there’s a time and a place to acknowledge my own personal contextual experiences and this is one of them.

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