How Do Bodies Matter?

In the most recent issue of Christianity Today, Andy Crouch has an excellent editorial on the church’s future and matters LGBTQIA. Please do read the whole thing. He writes,

There is really only one conviction that can hold this coalition of disparate human experiences [i.e., the experiences captured under the label LGBTQIA] together. And it is the irrelevance of bodies—specifically, the irrelevance of biological sexual differentiation in how we use our bodies.

What unites the LGBTQIA coalition is a conviction that human beings are not created male and female in any essential or important way. What matters is not one’s body but one’s heart—the seat of human will and desire, which only its owner can know.

But I’m not sure that’s stated carefully enough. It’s not that bodies are “irrelevant” for gay people—otherwise gay men wouldn’t be attracted to men!—but it’s that having a male body is, for gay-affirming Christian theology, taken to be irrelevant when it comes to discerning whether it’s ethical for me to have sex with another man (or men). I strongly agree with Crouch’s core affirmation that our being male and female is a given of creation, but I’m just pressing for a bit more precision.

I remember Jason Byassee criticizing Christopher Roberts—whose book I can’t recommend too often or too highly—for making a similar rhetorical move. Commenting on revisionist, gay-affirming Christian theologies from Eugene Rogers, David Matzko McCarthy, and Graham Ward, Roberts called them “proposals for the insignificance of sexual difference.” To which Byassee replied with a question: “But do Rogers, McCarthy and Ward really think sexual difference insignificant? Or do they simply think that sexual difference is significant in different ways than Roberts and much of Christian tradition do?” What the revisionists want to say, Byassee concludes, is that bodily difference is unnecessary for marriage, which isn’t the same as saying sexual difference is “insignificant,” full stop.

If our Christian responses are going to engage with real positions rather than straw men, then we need to take the time to state those positions in such a way that those who hold them can reply, “Yes, you’ve stated my view exactly as I would.”

Crouch ends his piece by referring to procreation, and this is where the rubber meets the road:

There is one other consistent position that Christians can hold, though we will hold it at great social cost, at least for the foreseeable future: that bodies matter. Indeed, that both male and female bodies are of ultimate value and dignity—not a small thing given the continuing denigration of women around the world.

Indeed, that matter matters. For behind the dismissal of bodies is ultimately a gnostic distaste for embodiment in general. To uphold a biblical ethic on marriage is to affirm the sweeping scriptural witness—hardly a matter of a few isolated “thou shalt not” verses—that male and female together image God, that the creation of humanity as male and female is “very good,” and that “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18, NRSV).

Sexual differentiation (along with its crucial outcome of children, who have a biological connection to two parents but are not mirror images of either one) is not an accident of evolution or a barrier to fulfillment. It is in fact the way God is imaged, and the way fruitfulness, diversity, and abundance are sustained in the world.

If marriage is, in part, about the begetting and rearing of children, then sexual difference does matter for the definition of marriage. For those who say that marriage need not be open to procreation, bodies may still matter a great deal, but they can’t matter in that way.

(Though, even there, more careful thought is needed. Ron Belgau and I were exchanging emails yesterday about Crouch’s article, and Ron said: “It’s not enough to say that marriage is about procreation. We also need to be clear about the relationship between procreation and sex. Artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and surrogate motherhood—which are accepted by many American Christians—are already divorcing procreation from sex. Using these technologies, gay or lesbian couples can already procreate, after a fashion. Even more advanced reproductive technologies—for example, inserting DNA from a sperm cell nucleus into an enucleated egg cell, then fertilizing it with another sperm—could, in the future, allow two men to be the biological fathers of the same child. I don’t think enough Christians have paid attention to the way that artificial reproductive technologies radically redefine procreation and parenthood. This is connected with Crouch’s concern, but it is not merely an either/or question of saying whether bodies matter. We face the much more difficult problem of explaining precisely how bodies matter.”)

16 thoughts on “How Do Bodies Matter?

  1. Your point is well taken re: if sex/gender were insignificant, there would be no homosexuality, only a sort of pan-bisexuality. This is as much a problem for the internal coherence of gay essentialism as it is for critiques of it based on such arguments.

    However, perhaps the critique would be more correct if it said the position was something more like that “my” body doesn’t matter, or that bodies don’t matter for subjecthood. In other words, the sex/body of a potential partner might matter as an external object in the world. And, in this sense, even my own might matter to me, but only inasmuch as I conceive of it as an object to attract the subjectivity which possesses the body I want in turn.

    But I guess the point of that whole philosophy is the idea that subjectivity is gender-neutral and so, while the sex of bodies might matter still when considered as OBJECTS of desire (either other people’s as objects of my desire, or my own as the object of other people’s potential desire) that it “isn’t supposed to” matter when it comes to the subjectivity of the desiring subject as subject.

    This can be critiqued too, obviously, and probably should be. But at least it adds some nuance to the “bodies and their sex are insignificant” idea that obviously isn’t true or we’d all be ambisexual (ie, attracted to humans “purely as individual humans” rather than as men or women) in orientation.

  2. I love reading the articles that are posted here, and often share them on my facebook account. I read the article you referred to and found it very insightful. I loved Crouch using the statement “we are all queer” as a way of saying we are ALL estranged from the correct use of our sexuality.

    I think one of the keys of our embodiedness, and the implications of sexual differentiation, is what Crouch said so well: To insist on the importance of bodies is to challenge the sovereign self, to suggest that our ethical options are limited by something we did not choose.

    In other words, we do NOT completely define ourselves. This is true even in the non-material aspects of who we are, but nowhere is it clearer than in the material aspect of our human nature – in our embodiedness.

  3. Thank you, Wesley, for these thoughts. You are right to press for more precision—indeed, what I intended to say (and go on to say in the piece, but perhaps not as clearly as I could have) is that bodies’ sexual differentiation ceases to have _normative_ status—i.e., serving as a constraint on ethics. Of course, bodies, and the gender of bodies, remain central to the gay experience, as you note. They remain important, even paramount, for desire. But they become secondary for ethics. (Indeed, I can’t help wondering whether the ever-escalating attention to the body in our culture is a paradoxical result of its declining ethical value. As it becomes less significant ethically, it must become more important erotically. Attention must be paid! :) )

    But the other issue here is that I am trying to trace a wider trajectory than same-sex marriage. And once one goes beyond the gay male experience into the rest of the LGBTQIA coalition, it is not at all clear that bodies continue to matter in the way they do for gay men. Even for lesbians, there is the issue of the cessation of sexual activity in some (many?) long-term lesbian relationships. But where it really gets muddy is when we get to the B term of the coalition, where it seems to me the very essence of the claim being made by persons who identify as bisexual is that the gendered body of the person desired is secondary if not irrelevant.

    A gay-affirming Christian ethicist I know would tell her students in her ethics class, “Bisexuality is not an option”—the church’s affirmation of same-sex covenants was, in her view, premised upon the permanence of gay or lesbian orientation. But that was several years ago. The argument I am trying to gesture towards in this (very brief!) editorial is that I do not believe that will remain a sustainable position in the long run. I believe there will be tremendous pressure on Christian institutions that affirm gay and lesbian partnerships to be similarly welcoming to persons who may end up partnering with either gender, and to affirm them in precisely that openness. Indeed, not to do so (especially if the church attempts to say that, other things being equal, male-female partnering is preferable) will be seen as creating a separate-but-not-equal regime rather than fully affirming and welcoming gay and lesbian persons. I have encountered many, many Christian leaders who seem to think it will be enough to offer a pastoral accommodation for people who experience a stable orientation. I do not think that halfway position is going to hold once bisexual persons fully assert their place in the coalition of sexual minorities.

    And this is before we get to the T, Q, I and A terms of the coalition, where it seems to me the waters are not muddy but absolutely clear: one’s biological sex (or, in the case of intersex persons, socially or surgically assigned gender) is of absolutely no moral import (though it still may condition one’s erotic orientation in one way or another). Rather it is one’s heart—one’s internally discerned gender and/or sexual identity. That is what it _means_ to be welcoming and affirming of transgender persons, is it not?

    This is why I believe that though embodiment arguments can be made on behalf of same-sex marriage (and I believe this is exactly the route Rogers, et al., have taken), I believe those arguments will ultimately be discarded by the churches that take the route of blessing gay and lesbian partnerships, in favor of a more expansive ethic that can accommodate the rest of the coalition. This has already happened, clearly, in the university world where the coalition has been freest to coalesce—I can’t see why it won’t happen in these churches as well.

    One final thought: while sexual differentiation is indeed richly significant for procreation, it is not only that. In the union of male and female we also see the uniting of two constitutively and functionally different kinds of bodies. Even if that does not lead to children (even if the sex is contracepted) it still serves as a sign of covenant with the Other that other forms of sexual union may not (at least so a traditional Christian would argue). So while procreation is important, I don’t think it’s the only aspect of male-female union that is ethically significant.

    • I guess I’m the resident bisexual here, so I have a few scattered thoughts on your original article and your response here. First of all, thanks for writing and for addressing some of these broader issues. I’m glad to see the rest of the “coalition” being addressed.

      In case it isn’t clear, I use “bisexual” in the same sense that Wesley uses “gay,” as a description of enduring orientation rather than actual or intended behavior. I agree with the About statement on this blog, that sexual expression is only appropriate within marriage between a man and a woman. Hopefully it goes without saying that I can’t and don’t intend to speak for all bisexuals, but can only speak to my experience. I’m not really in the category of those who are open to partnering with people of either sex, even though my orientation is the same.

      As I just alluded to, I do find that bisexuality is an enduring orientation for me. Ever since puberty, I’ve found that I can find not only can I find myself intensely attracted to another man, but I can also find myself intensely attracted to a woman. There is a physical component to the attraction in either case, and it’s not as though I don’t notice a person’s body. I often find myself attracted to strangers, where the only thing I really have to notice is the body. I tend to find myself more frequently attracted to other men, but the procreative act is the most alluring sexual act. It would be incorrect to assume, though, that I only find myself attracted to men, or that same-sex acts are not tempting. Still, there’s something about my experience beyond a person’s physical sex being completely irrelevant. None of this has changed in well over a decade since puberty, so I would still classify it as a stable orientation, even though it’s not an exclusive one.

      The pastoral issue you bring up is a good point, though. I do think that if people were to become truly and consistently gay affirming, they wouldn’t much care which sex of person I chose to be in a relationship with. As you said, if they were to push me in the heterosexual direction, that would create a “separate but equal” type of thing. However, if the accommodation view is that gay relationships truly are not God’s intent, but are pastorally necessary in some cases, then it wouldn’t be inconsistent to push me in a heterosexual direction while affirming gay relationships for those who are exclusively gay. That is only tenable if people are OK with not being completely affirming, and certainly not everyone will be OK with that.

    • If bodies matter, then why is contracepted sex morally permissible? Contracepted sex would seem to imply that our given-bodies are inconvenient — that we wish they didn’t work as designed. This seems to undermine your argument that bodies matter, no?

      • Contracepted sex is morally permissible? I don’t know that it is. What entitles spouses to sex without chance of conception (or as my Church would put is, “openness to life”)? That would seem to change the meaning and purpose of sex for those individuals, wouldn’t it? And if they are so entitled, why not homosexuals?

    • So I’m bisexual in the same sense that Jeremy is, in that I’m attracted to both men and women. I would NEVER say, however, that the sex of the person doesn’t make a difference in my attraction. When I see a man who is attractive, he is attractive BECAUSE he is a man, because of his masculine qualities. Similarly, individual women are attractive because of their feminine qualities. I suppose I could be attracted to a person I saw from behind, before I realized whether they were a man or a woman, but I think this is true for many heterosexuals or exclusive homosexuals as well.

      So, in my case, gender makes almost all the difference in my attractions. It’s certainly not irrelevant.

      • Yeah, what you’ve described is accurate of me as well. You’ve put into words something my comment didn’t really get across.

  4. Pingback: How Do Bodies Matter? » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  5. I’m researching desire and sexuality under the direction of Charles Anderson (with whom I’m aware you have a connection) and a Queer Theories professor out of the University of Missouri, Dr. Wayne Brekhus. I’ve been reading A LOT on embodiment in regards to our desires, so I’m curious to see if one way how our bodies matter is the incorporation of attractions for another person leading to our “embodiment” of an identity based on those attractions. If that’s the case, we all use our bodies more than we might think. That question, “How do our bodies matter?” is really compelling to me. Thanks for this post!

  6. Andy, if you don’t mind my comment on this:

    “One final thought: while sexual differentiation is indeed richly significant for procreation, it is not only that. In the union of male and female we also see the uniting of two constitutively and functionally different kinds of bodies. Even if that does not lead to children (even if the sex is contracepted) it still serves as a sign of covenant with the Other that other forms of sexual union may not (at least so a traditional Christian would argue). So while procreation is important, I don’t think it’s the only aspect of male-female union that is ethically significant.”

    I would say that it is the most ethically significant. It is precisely in procreation that we see the essential difference between the male and the female bodies. The same action between man and woman has strikingly different results – all relating to procreation.

    Yes, even contracepted sex may serve as a “sign” of the convenant with the Other, but it becomes a non-material sign. It becomes a “symbol” of a union, not an actual union, because it negates part of what it means to be embodied.

    Even worse, the part that it negates is the uniquely feminine part – the ability to conceive, bear and give birth to new life. It recognizes only that part of sexual differentiation which is common with both sexes – the ability to bond and to feel pleasure. In other words, it only recognizes the physical difference which isn’t really different.

  7. Pingback: Same-sex marriage roundup, ctd.

  8. The thing with bisexuality (which has also been a stable orientation for me since my late teens) is that as much as you don’t get to choose who you are attracted to, you don’t get to choose the percentage of people to whom you are attracted. You may be attracted to men and women, but that doesn’t mean you’re attracted to an equal numner of both, or attracted to more people total than the average population. So for some bisexuals, if you’re going to eliminate the opposite sex, AND you’re still going to have attraction as a criteria in choosing a marriage, it would have resulted in a forced celibacy in many instances- it is, in effect, saying that you can only marry the people in the world you are attracted to whose birthdays are divisibe by 5 (or 2, or 100…..) How many of you would have found your match with that kind of restriction placed on you?

    You can’t control who you’re attracted to, but you can control what emphasis you put on attractiveness in choosing a mate, and the other option for someone in that position is to minimize or eliminate your own feelings of attraction in order to broaden your field back out again wide enough that it’s likely that someone will be attracted to you that you would consider marriage material.. This can result in exactly the same kind of non-attracted marriage that a gay/lesbian person in a marriage would encounter.

    A few notes to Andy- first, on the idea of lesbian bed death (the concept that some lesbians/ bi and lesbian couples stop having sex after years of marriage). This happens in straight couples as well, and at least one study I read about asserted that I happened in equal numbers in straight and women-only couples. Certainly it’s not most.

    I fail to see how the part of the spectrum included in TQIA supports your argument the body is of no importance. I am not an expert by any means, and I hope people come along to educate me further, but this is how I see it. in the case of transmen and women, I would think that it is extremely relevant. transmen and women can be gay/lesbian, straight, or bi- being trans is nothing to do with who you are attracted to, but that your own body is not matching how you experience yourself, which often causes extreme distress. When the only cure to be had is adjustments in the body or dress, it is the compassionate response to celebrate with someone their body finally matching their mind. Body, here, is of utmost importance, not minimal. Sexual attractedness is secondary- this is more about internal comfort and peace. Like we have been saying about being LGB for years, straight people often see being LGB as all about sex, when it’s really all about companionship and comfort- just, in the case of transmen and women, companionship and comfort with yourself first.

    Queer is an umbrella term used for anyone who wants it, including LGBT who want a more general term to identify by, and people for whine LGBT is not nuanced enough to match their own sexuality, and is no more or less embracing of the body as any other part of the rainbow.

    Not all intersex people have been surgically gender-assigned. Some wise parents let the child make their own decision about any surgery once they have figured out who they feel like- male or female, or neither. And like transmen and women, those that have been gender- assigned display attraction that can be straight, lesbian, gay, or bi.

    Some asexuals have romantic, though not sexual, attraction to others, and this falls along the spectrum of straight-L-g-b just like the rest of humanity. Body remains important.

    I would like to ask, before sitting down and writing an essay telling us queer folk how we see ourselves, did you take the time to ask your LGBTQIA friends if your theory about them held water? And I would offer, if you don’t have LGBTQIA folks that you are friends with and comfortable enough to ask that sort of question, maybe you should reconsider the sort of article that sets you up as an expert on LGBTQIA matters until you do.

  9. Correction- I should have said “gay/lesbian in an opposite sex marriage might encounter. In no way did I mean to imply that marriage should be limited to just men and women.

  10. To Andy- One other thing- and this is in direct response to your article, as the crowd over at Christianity Today’s forum seemed too hostile to want to expose myself towards- and Wes, I hope you will forgive the indulgence- there is a lot of discussion over “Can we love someone who is gay and still maintain our stance against marriage equality?” I think that is the wrong question, and an awfully low bar. Every parent, severe personality disorders excepted, loves their child. And every spouse (same caveat) loves their spouse. But the receiving party often doesn’t feel loved. There are two reasons for that: the love is mixed in with abuse, and the love is not expressed in a skillful way as to be received.

    A really basic definition of abuse is control that crosses someone’s boundaries. When you discourage someone the rights to wrestle with the scriptures and make up their own minds, that is spiritual abuse. (Practical examples: condemning LGBT relationships as unquestionably wrong without leaving room for the centuries-old tradition of an opposing, scripturally based viewpoint- see Matthew Vines’ youtube video and transcript for one of the best discussions on this, if you need an example. Questioning the salvation of practicing gay Christians, or the holiness of allies) When you take it a step further and fight to impose a religiously based discrimination and denial of rights to the general population (the right to determine next-of-kin, and determine who should make your medical decisions, the right to inheritance, unequal taxation and denial of social security., the right to marry the person to whom you have made a marriage- a committed, enduring long-term life-commitment), how is that ever going to be experienced as non- abusive love?

    It’s not the belief that’s problematic. It’s the actions.

    So what sort of actions CAN be experienced as love?

    Instead of abusive-feeling behaviors, create great boundaries. Acknowledge and own any uncomfortability towards same-sex affection as your own uncomfortability. Those are your feelings, and your responsibility to deal with them. Acknowledge the tendency to want to act on those feelings by controlling someone else’s behavior. And refrain from acting in any way when it comes from that place of discomfort.

    Acknowledge your lack of knowledge and expertise. Suspend any type of judgement until you really feel that you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Get to know them. Get to know how they met their partner, how they experience them, and as much as possible, see how love is felt from one human to another, regardless of gender (as a bi woman, the differences for me have to do with the person I’m falling in love with; the gender, though gender is part of the person I love’s identity). If your queer friend is Christian, listen to where they are with reconciling the idea of a loving God who created us for companionship with a God who created you queer, and allowed words to be included in the scriptures that some people interpret to mean a life of celibacy. And know that A. Every person is going to come to a slightly different resolution on this, B. if this subject is purely academic for you, or if your journey on this question is in an earlier stage than the person you are talking to, it is highly unlikely that your answer is going to be useful to them, or as deep and nuanced. C. Whatever someone’s carefully worked out belief is, and how it differs from yours, that is between them and God, and believe me, the two of them have worked a lot harder and deeper on this issue than a straight person ever will. God may well be giving them deeper insight than your because it is important to them.

    That takes a lot of work. And a lot of vulnerability from someone to open up to you. And must be repeated with each person you know- without the right to generalize your experience with a few gay friends as somehow exonerationg you from general homophobia or a global lack of compassion. But that is love.

    Thankfully, the LGBTQIA folks I know in the church generally have a lot of love to offer, and are willing to be patient with people as they work through their struggles withhyde gay community. I have not see any higher definition of grace and love as the gay couples I know patiently developing friendships within the more conservative church despite the hurt they frequently receive from well-meaning but unintentionally harmful parishioners. (I couldn’t take the pain, and left. So I truly am in awe.) By taking each person where they are, and dialoguing, and hearing them out, love can be forged despite early rocky days. If you are fortunate enough to have someone in your world willing to risk a close enough friendship to let you into their world, they are gold. Treat them well.

    Of course, what generally happens is that edges soften, and people become more understanding and more tolerant and more loving. And both groups of people become more comfortable with letting the other person live and let live. But, Jesus was pretty clear that love came first- a good quality, action-based, judgement-suspended kind of love- so maybe the natural consequences of that love are a small price to pay for obedience.

  11. Pingback: Andy Crouch on “Sex Without Bodies” | Leadingchurch.com

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