Why There's No Such Thing as Sexual Identity

Today’s guest post comes from the marvelous Matt Appling, who is the brain behind the blog The Church of No People. I happen to adore Matt’s blog and wish that mine was as cool as his. Pretty much everything he writes I could steal and use on Modern Reject. It’s that good. So without further ado…

I owed Nicole a guest blog since she blogged for me over the summer. So she cashed in her “IOU one blog post” while she’s recuperating from having a baby.  That’s awesome.  Bravo.

And as I think about that, I think about one thing that exists in our culture, one problem that I think looms bigger than almost anything, one thing that every kid is going to have to deal with.  It also happens to be the reason we’re all here.


Geez, we’re obsessed with it.  And ashamed.  And grossed out.  And completely obsessed.  We really have a love-hate relationship with it.

And of all the things we do with sex, this is the one thing I think we mess up more than anything.

Sexual Identity

That phrase bugs the heck out of me.  When did we think of it?

People didn’t always think of sex as an “identity.”  It was something you did, and you kept your mouth shut about it.  We call that attitude “repressed” now.

That’s the biggest problem with sex today as I see it.  We’ve made it an “identity.”

It is possible and perfectly acceptable now for someone’s entire personality, entire life, to be summed up and consumed by who they are doing it with.

Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.  When we were in high school, a boy could be permanently branded for being a virgin or a stud, depending on his sexual misadventures.  A girl’s personality, dreams and talents could be ignored by her peers as she is summarized with the word “slut.”

And then we grew up.  Tell me you haven’t met any gays whose entire life is defined by being gay.  For some gays and lesbians, that is all there is to life.  Everything else, from wardrobe to neighborhood to job to eating habits seems determined by that one thing.

Sex Obsessed Christians

And don’t act like Christians are much better.  And I’m not even talking about our futile attempts to pry lovesick gays apart from each other.

We put so much pressure on sex.  We put sex on a pedestal and act like it is the defining act of being human.  We train kids to be obsessed with it, (even though we’re trying to train kids not to do it.)  We tell them that if they don’t wait for marriage, they will be permanently and irrevocably damaged goods, that they will lose their souls.  And if they do wait, then married sex will be immediately and always be amazing and fulfilling.  How can teenagers not be OCD about sex with that message?

Of course, you and I know, either because we waited or we didn’t, that neither of those are necessarily true.  But it’s a lot harder to explain the truth to kids than to just say, “Don’t do it.”

And, holy crap, if people weren’t occupied enough over other peoples’ body parts, we certainly will never run out of ways to obsess over our own body parts.  People are completely preoccupied over little bits and pieces of their bodies, as if they are the most important parts. And if something’s not quite right or not quite big enough, people don’t think they are even complete people.  People have surgery to reshape some lump or bulge, most of the time in the vain attempt to fix their “identity.”

Having the Talk

If I were getting ready to have “the talk” with a kid, here’s what I would say.

Sex is great.  It’s important.  It’s wonderful.  But it is a small part of life.

Your sex is just a small part of your body.  You are not determined or destined by your sex.  It is not the most important part of you.

Sex is not the most important thing you will do, even though it may seem that way.  It will occupy just a small part of your life.  You were never meant to obsess over it as much as we do.

And sex, your body parts, who you’re doing it with, is not your identity.  Your identity cannot be defined by your flesh.  Just like you cannot be defined merely by your job, or your clothes, or you bank account.  People will try to define you by those things.  Don’t give in to that.

Your identity is that you are a child of God.  God is so much bigger than sex.  Don’t trade that huge, permanent identity for an infinitely smaller, temporary identity.

Tell us what you think?  Have we made too much of sex?  Too little?  Is our Christian message about sex helping teenagers obsess even more about sex?

I’m Matt. For starters, I’m a pastor at a house church called Levi’s House.  I’m also a school teacher.  I used to be, among other things, a graphic designer and youth pastor.  I live with my wife, Cheri, and our two dogs in the Midwest.

36 thoughts on “Why There's No Such Thing as Sexual Identity”

  1. Hi Matt! Nice to meet you Nicole!

    Thanks for this, Matt. You break it down better than I ever could. And I agree with you. We’ve made it too big and it is not our identity.


  2. Interesting analysis, Matt.

    My first thought is that the best thing about my wife is that she is a woman with all the right parts. It was the very first thing that I noticed about here. It is part of her identity, it is why she has 30,000 words a day, and I have a few dozen which I waste whilst blogging.

    I think that your point is more probably that sex isn’t everything, and I agree. What’s cool about it, is that I get to share it with my wife and no one else; no matter how many people I love, she is the only one.

    Our society is full of sexual imagery, so we have to have the debate with our kids, or they learn it from the images they see every day. If it was less, I think this would all be less of a problem. It is tied to the self image, the portrayal of sex, sexes, and sexual activity in media, online etc. That all twists things pretty badly – just look at how Hollywood portrays marriage in the movies, and then see how the same actors live it out; absurd.

    I don’t really know what the Christian message is on a lot fronts, and sex is no exception. I thinkwe need to model the behavior that we want our kids, and young people to learn. It is the lost art of discipleship. :(

    1. David –

      I don’t understand your comment; why does the fact that your wife has “all the right parts” mean she has “30,000 words a day”? What’s the necessary connection between womanly curves and writing?

      Thanks for helping me understand your thought process.

  3. Has either of you read Micheal Foucault’s “The History of Sexuality”? It’s an excellent exploration of how sex and sexuality are connected to power.

    For instance, the Romans didn’t have a word for “lesbian” because in the Roman world, sex couldn’t happen without penetration. So instead of the categories gay & straight, they had “penetrator” – who was masculine and powerful – and “penetrated” – who was womanly and weak. (This is why conquering armies would often rape the losing soldiers, especially officers.)

    Power is always about controlling the body, which is why our culture today is (allegedly) so much about sexual freedom. I ought (I am taught) to be able to do whatever I want with my body (for an excellent take on this, check out Rodney Clapp’s book on Johnny Cash, specifically the chapter on sexuality). Thus in our culture “true freedom” is expressed when I have sex with whomever I want, as often as I want, with no regard for other people’s rules.

    This is why Communion has always been such a powerful, subversive activity. By taking of Jesus’ broken body and blood, we offer our bodies (as living sacrifices) up to God, not to the gods of the Empire.

    Because sexuality is such a powerful force in our culture, the Church must talk about it. But we have to have a strong alternative voice, not just say, “BAD! Don’t do it!”

    I’m still puzzling out exactly what that looks and sounds like. Thanks for this post to move that along :)

  4. Hi there,

    I love this post, Matt! It expresses a point of view that I, as a Christian young adult with same-sex attractions, struggled to communicate to everyone when I made my feelings public.

    Being attracted to men is not who I am. It’s just one part of me – like being inquisitive and loving music and being a bad driver are parts of me.

    My sexual “orientation” (rather than “identity”) does not define me. It is not bigger than my personality or my gifts and abilities or, as you so rightly say, my relationship to God.

    When I “came out”, many of my friends (both Christians and non-Christians) expected me to completely drop out of church, and begin acting and living a certain “gay” way.

    But in reality, my life now is exactly the same as it’s always been. Except that now everyone knows about feelings that I had kept private until recently.

    My relationship with God is still my first priority and that defines my “identity” and the decisions I make.

    Ultimately, each person chooses how to define their identity and some people do choose to be defined by sex. I just think there are some things that are more important. :)

    1. darylbh,

      Although there were various responses and everyone has different perspectives regarding the message of the blog, it was not meant to condone the gay lifestyle or being gay and saying, “hey, that’s ok, but there is still so much to you as a person.” Since you mentioned you are gay, as a christian, it is clear in the bible that you read, that it is a sin; Either way you spin it. Just like any sexual perversion. The (homo) sexual lifestyle is not something that is pleasing to Christ. Please don’t walk in false comfort, bro that Christ is cool with that. REGARDLESS of the fact hat you might be with only one person!
      Grace and peace

      1. Dubbs,

        Please note the distinction between sexual expression and sexual orientation. Just because someone is gay, doesn’t mean they are living the ‘gay lifestyle’ whatever that may be. I think darylbh made it clear that he views his attractions to the same gender in light of his defining identity as a Christian who must seek/submit to God’s will.

      2. Dubbs,

        What sin are you keeping in the closet? Just to remind you that God looks at all sin equal and there isn’t one of us that doesn’t struggle with something. Whether same sex attraction or infidelity ( AKA known as lust), anger, gossip, judgement… don’t forget in light of a perfect God they are all equal and all sin. His grace is sufficient to cover our insufficiency. God in His great compassion loves us and welcomes us in with our hangups. Darylbh has as much of a personal relationship with Jesus as a heterosexual man who struggles with pornography does! It is the love of Christ that changes and moves people to drawn into a personal relationship with Him. It is through unconditional love (not conditional love based upon the fact that you’ve pulled it all together and got rid of your sin) that we find who we are in Christ Jesus.

      3. It’s important to note that, if we are to take Matt’s post seriously, “sexual orientation” is a cultural construct. A person is not deeply, essentially “gay” or “straight”, certainly not the way a person is essentially male or female (or brunette or tall or whatever).

        Attraction isn’t sinful (unless, as Beth pointed out, it becomes lust). Acting on the attraction (“expression” to use Davo’s lingo) is what constitutes righteousness or sinfulness.

        Daryl’s choice to pursue celibacy is excellent and honorable. He will be as Jesus and Paul were – single for the sake of the Gospel.

        We can all applaud that, and learn from him.

      4. Hi Dubbs,

        Thank you for the compassionate tone of your reply; I appreciate the heart behind it in helping a brother out. :)

        But Davo and the others are on the right track here – I have never had a boyfriend, nor do I ever intend on having one.

        By my comment I was trying to emphasise that celibacy is not the big deal that many seem to make of it.

        People always seem to take celibacy as a sentence of loneliness and misery – as if giving up romantic relationships – or sex – is giving up one’s only true chance to be happy. As if advocating celibacy is saying you just have to be sad and isolated and deprived your whole life.

        But being celibate is not about denying yourself happiness at all. It’s about refraining from a romantic relationship, so that you can engage in a different relationship. A relationship that is more important to your life AND to your happiness – a relationship with God.

        Like Moe alluded to in his comment below, God’s Word says we are to rejoice in HIM and that His joy is our strength.

        BUT many gay people, who have been hurt, can’t see their way to God past the hateful discrimination done “in His name” by misguided Christians. Celibacy isn’t a realistic option for them, because it isn’t sustainable without the affirmation of having an intimate relationship with God.

        I don’t want anyone to be sad or lonely or isolated or deprived. I want everyone to be happy. And I believe that everyone would be so much happier and more joyful if they just *clicked* that God is the most important ingredient to a life of joy and purpose.

        I’m still very new at this, so who knows what my outlook will be a year from now. Believe me, it’s not always easy and I don’t always feel this positive about it – but then who doesn’t ever have challenges or struggles in their walk with God?

        What keeps me going is the perspective that there is an eternity after this life, where (in the words of a friend of mine) “we will have no need for anything, we will truly lack nothing, but we will be complete with Christ.”

        1. Praying for you Daryl, that God’s strength and grace would be multiplied in your life. Thanks for counting the cost and still taking up your cross to follow Jesus. It is a challenge to us all. This is how we change the world.


  5. Yes, yes, yes! Thank you so much for voicing what i needed to hear and for clearly offering the freedom and liberation from the lies of the world, the enemy, and myself that comes through finding my identity in Christ! I wish I could have read these words years ago and over and over as I struggled with this. Thank you for speaking truth.

  6. True, we are definitely more than who (or is it whom?) we sleep with. However, when you’ve been discriminated against because of your orientation, then it definitely becomes a huge part of your identity.

    Or at least that’s how I think it works. I’m still pretty new at working in solidarity.

  7. Thanks for talking about this.

    To answer your question: Is our Christian message about sex helping teenagers obsess even more about sex?

    Yep. In my experience, it was mostly my Christian father who helped twist things around so much that I suffered for it .. well I still suffer for it 30 years later.

    The message was so negative and scary, even starting at the age of 4 or 5. I remember my Dad getting the Bible out and talking about sex like it was totally evil.

    Not to mention later, in youth group, how the subject of sex was something they wouldn’t even touch on except to tell us not to do it.

    For years, I was so terrified of sex that I couldn’t even become attracted to guys. I thought for a while that I was gay, but I wasn’t attracted to girls, either.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the actual Biblical message about sex.. but there’s definitely something crazy wrong with how Christian people twist that message.

  8. “Tell me you haven’t met any gays whose entire life is defined by being gay. For some gays and lesbians, that is all there is to life. Everything else, from wardrobe to neighborhood to job to eating habits seems determined by that one thing.”

    I had a guy once physically assault me because I said I refused to see him as “gay.” I said that he was a human being and that his actions or feelings in the sexual area were just a small part of the whole. But he just could not stand to have someone not label him as “gay.”

    Why do we want to marginalize ourselves so much?

  9. We live in a sex-crazed culture. Everything from TV, music lyrics, books, food, clothing, church, and more drive who we have become. So fighting the fight of identity is like swimming against the current. It’s extremely difficult. So having the conversation with our children about this is crucial, but is it enough? I think it can only be enough if and only if we find our identities and satisfaction in the person of Jesus Christ.

    Problem is… even Christians are making life all about sex.

    1. Moe,
      I LOVE your comment. It is filled with wisdom.

      I personally do not think it is enough to just have “the conversation” with our kids. The discussion of sex should be an on-going conversation with our kids, so that when new questions arise (as they inevitably will) they know they can ask at any time. And sex should be treated like the awesome, glorious gift that it is…in the context of marriage. But most importantly, we, like you said, need to help them form their identities around the person of Jesus Christ.

    2. “I think it can only be enough if and only if we find our identities and satisfaction in the person of Jesus Christ.”
      This is the crux of the matter. BRILLIANT comment, Moe!

      1. Hey Daryl,

        Thanks for sharing. I too wanted too share something similiar but I am not really the blogging type hehehehe…I am actually really blessed to know Nicole and have been discipled by her husband. I would like to continue this conversation and be an encouragement to you. My facebook = http://www.facebook.com/cookiestick.com. Hope to catch up with you.

        Blessings my brother,


  10. a) Personally, I am not afraid to tell people the truth about sex. I have a system so that I am always ready!

    b) A few years ago I was attending a college ministry, and as we neared “the holiday season” were discussing relationships. Brandon (the pastor) had dozens of boxes of varying sizes gift-wrapped and stacked next to the stage in a pyramid shape that stood over 20 feet tall. He picked up one of the smallest boxes, maybe 2″x3″x5″, and it was labeled “SEX”. Over the next hour he essentially said what you said here.

    Good word.

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  12. Although God see’s sin as sin, remember the consequences varies. There is sin that leads to discipline and others that lead to spiritual death. Also food for thought, if one not practice homosexuality but solely desire it, are they not just as guilty of practicing it using the model Christ left behind?

    I believe with all of my heart that whether you practice homosexuality or abstain from it, every human deserves respect and love.. and allowed to live in peace without Christians creating a hostile environment. On the other hand I also believe its naive to accept the homosexual desire and equate it to “drinking” or “cursing”..
    (IJohn 5:16-17)darylhb, I wish you peace while you navigate these waters. God blessed..

  13. I wonder if sexual identity should be a big of a pet peeve of yours as it is. I definitely agree that making a God out of anything–allowing parts of your life to define you, such as your profession, your status as a parent, married, single individual, jock, nerd, even regular church attendee–is wrong. But does that negate sexual identity.

    I think that, being a man who identifies as first Christian, but also as gay, when you experience marginalization in your life, inherently there is a reflexive reaction to either get rid of that part of yourself, or else isolate in one way or another, whether that is through making that part of your life the dominant part of your identity, or simply not associating with those you feel are a part of the group that you are being marginalized by. Yes, I have met “gays” who make that their sexuality their dominant part of their identity, their God, but we Christians as a whole, over the past few hundred years, haven’t made it really easy for them to be incorporated into the church, much less to fruitfully dialogue about this highly taboo issue in a non-obsessive way.

    On a more random note, I’d like to point out that there is a stereotypical, societal image that many groups conform to. Including Christians. That affects “wardrobe to neighborhood to job to eating habits” (okay, maybe not eating habits, but you get my point). People try to fit in where ever they find themselves accepted. Just a thought.

    I agree that sex isn’t everything, and I agree that God should be the central, most important factor of our lives. And I think the rest of this post was really well done. Thanks for opening the door to such a great discussion.

    1. Josh,
      Hi friend! Glad to see you here and have you commenting on this topic.

      I like what you said. I happen to think that sexual identity is rather important, but not necessarily in the way that the world has shaped it. The Bible makes very clear references to men and women’s roles and identities. I have no issue with claiming sexual identity as a part of my overall identity. I think you would agree. But, like you said, just as being gay does not need to be the dominant part of one’s identity, neither does being a woman or a man for that matter. The source of identities should be rooted in and based upon Christ–everything else flows from that.

      Thank you for commenting and sharing your thoughts on this great discussion. Blessings.

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