The Confusing World of Sexuality

by Steve Scruggs, Psy.D.


LET’S TALK ABOUT IT: Forward by Lisa Green, LPC – MHSP Executive Director

When I was a youth, there was a popular song by the group Salt N Peppa that scandalized a large part of a generation, called “Let’s Talk About Sex.”  Interestingly, the music video starts with, “Yo, I don’t think we should talk about this…  People might misunderstand what we’re trying to say, you know?” The song was particularly relevant for its time in that it advocated for conversation about the risks and benefits of sex, “all the good things and the bad things that could be,” particularly amidst the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

Now this song might not be your particular jam, and you may not want to use it as the standard for the way you think about sex, healthy sexuality, and sex education- but the messaging is worth some attention. In the purity culture that I grew up inhabiting, sex was a pretty taboo topic. Not just sex as an act, but the idea of sexuality in general was something that was either for married people (and so kind of a secret), or for secular folks that didn’t understand God’s design for our sexuality, and therefore did it all wrong. So we largely didn’t talk about it…. and there were consequences: for single people, for married people, and for anyone who needed a little more education and conversation about healthy sexuality and couldn’t find it in a context that also honored God. 

While it’s perhaps less taboo these days, even among Christians, to talk about sex and sexuality, as counselors who meet with a wide variety of folks we still find that there are some gaps out there in a lot of circles that support people in how to think about, act on, and educate young people about healthy sex and sexuality. So this month, we’ve compiled some resources in a variety of areas relating to sexuality and relationships that we find useful and relevant in our work. In his article, Steve addresses how believers and churches that have a traditional Biblical perspective on sexuality and gender can better respond to the LGBTQIA+ population, when someone among them is wrestling with reconciling their gender identity or sexuality, and faith. And the bibliography will resource you in a wide variety of sex/sexuality-related topics that may be relevant to you, your family, or someone in your community. 

Counseling is a great place to talk about healthy sexuality. But hopefully, our families and communities can also be. Keep reading if you need help to make that happen!  

Our counselors have compiled a list of resources if you’d like to dive further into some of these areas.


THE CONFUSING WORLD OF SEXUALITY by Steve Scruggs, Psy.D.

Many people are baffled by the social and political impact of changing social norms about sexuality. A dizzying array of terms are thrown at us from the media such as gender fluidity and LGBTQIA, which is described in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning (one’s sexual or gender identity), intersex, and asexual/aromantic/agender. Most adults grew up with 2 gender designations, male and female (often described as binary). However, ABC News identified 58 gender identifications while another website identified 119!

To understand the changing landscape of teen and young adult sexuality, it may be helpful to look inside the messages that are coming from the community, including the LGBTQIA community around them. Here is an example.

“…young people for whom attempts to categorize identity {as only male/female} feel anachronistic, oppressive, or just painfully irrelevant… But the differences today are striking. The current project is not just about questioning one’s own identity; it’s about questioning the very nature of identity.

… intersectionality (the idea that race, class, and gender identity are all connected) is central to their way of understanding just about everything. But rejecting categories altogether can be seductive, transgressive, a useful way to win an argument or feel unique.” (1) {additions mine}

So, there can be a wide range of motivations that drive a young person to question their sexual or gender identity. Over time, many adolescents and young adults ask themselves, “Do I fit into the traditional role of a man or woman?” Sometimes, the answer is, “No!” Also, they recognize that traditional designations have been encouraged and non-traditional designations have been discouraged. Younger generations (e.g., millennials and Gen Z) tend to be more socially and politically minded and may want to fight for the underdog. Further, the modern notion of tolerance is now part of the cultural norm for younger people, suggesting that all options are equally legitimate. Not surprisingly, this often leads to a clash between “traditional values” and modern categories. Unfortunately, the Christian community has often been unwilling or unable to reach out to people having difficulty in navigating their difficulties with sexuality and/or sexual orientation.

Let’s look at an example. Asexual is defined as a person who doesn’t experience sexual desire, but who may experience romantic longing. If a person fits this category, they are likely facing a lifetime of conflict if they chose to get married. Their partner will want sex, but they are not interested. How do they negotiate this situation? Many people have had difficulty even addressing such issues in the past without them being identified as a type of psychological pathology.

Here is another example. Questioning refers to a person who is questioning their sexual or gender identity. Because there is a great deal of pressure to conform in many churches, men and women have gotten married to avoid standing out as different. However, the outcome can be very difficult to deal with for spouse and children if this questioning is not resolved before marriage.

To make matters even more confusing, sometimes these thoughts or beliefs are transitory, just part of the difficulty that any teen or young person experiences trying to figure out who they are. Others find that there is no doubt that their identity is outside of the norm even after many years of questioning. If we demonize this struggle, we drive people away from our families, our churches, and our communities.

What is a helpful Christian response to a person with sexual attraction or identity struggles?

The church has traditionally seen its role as reaching out to those to whom society has rejected. Christians led the movement to end slavery and missionaries in India reached out to the “untouchables” despite their status as worthless in their society. This conflicts with a modern notion of the church as needing to provide a barrier between believers in Christ and the world. Thus, the focus has shifted from reaching out to the marginalized to prioritizing speaking truth as they see it. The goal, for some, has become to separate from the world to maintain the ideal for sexuality that they believe that God has set out in the Bible. For many it is simpler to just condemn people who are dealing with same sex attraction or those who feel that they don’t fit in the body that they were born in, so want to change gender. While this can feel safe, the missing ingredient for the Christian community in interacting with the world regarding sexuality has been love, expressed by grace.

Thankfully, God’s grace applies to all of us, and it is found through humility. Instead of creating barriers to God’s grace, let’s humbly recognize the challenges that all of us have living in a fallen world. We are all in the same situation, needing a Savior to bring us to a loving, but holy God. Our personal struggle may not be around sexuality or gender identity, but if we honestly look at ourselves, we all have our challenges. If a person is struggling with their sexuality, can the church be a safe place to struggle? Is the LGBTQIA community the only place where young people can find love and acceptance if they are trying to make sense of their sexuality and identity?

Realistically, some churches are not ready for this step. So, when a person is trying to understand themselves, counseling might be the only safe place for them to work on their identity, including their sexual identity. Research has not supported the success of “conversion therapy,” changing a person from homosexual to heterosexual. However, Dr Mark Yarhouse has developed a helpful approach for Christians who struggle with a conflict between their sexual and religious identities. This can provide a framework for a person to work through questions about their identity when faced with such issues as same sex attraction, homosexual orientation, or gay identity {SSA and homosexual are sometimes seen as derogatory terms in the LGBTQIA community}. Further, it can help with those who don’t feel that their assigned gender at birth fits them. Dr Yarhouse’s approach gives people who experience a conflict between their sexuality and their Christianity an opportunity to “reflect on the relative weight a person may give to sexual preferences, biological sex, gender identity, personal beliefs and values, behaviors, and intentions.” (2)

Giving a person the time and respect to identify their spiritual beliefs and values as well as their sexual identity can open doors and avoid them having to make either/or decisions, i.e.,” I must choose between my spiritual beliefs and my sexuality”. This could begin to address a startling statistic, that “religious faith reduces the risk of suicide for virtually every demographic except one, LGBTQ{IA} people.” (3) For further information, I recommend Bill Henson’s Lead Them Home ministry, which provides training for pastors, parents, and all who care about how to make the church accessible for LGBTQIA people, while maintaining a traditional Biblical perspective. (4) You may also find the books by Rosaria Butterfield helpful in reaching across the divide between many churches and the LGBTQIA community, e.g., The Gospel Comes with a House Key. (5)

These are tough issues for parents and the church. People who come to our church (or even our own children) may not always make the same decisions that we would want them to make. However, the best starting point is to provide love and acceptance, maintain our relationships, and provide counseling when needed. By doing so, parents can give their children and friends as well as leaders can give their parishioners an opportunity to live in love, grace, and truth.

Bibliography:

  1. Identity-Free Identity Politics by Tim Murphy, 2015. https://www.thecut.com/2015/10/complex-linguistics-campus-queer-movement.html
  • Sexual Identity and Faith: Helping Clients Find Congruence by Mark Yarhouse, Psy.D., 2019, p.11.
  • Heavy Burdens: Seven Ways LGBTQ Christian Experience Harm in the Church by Bridget Eileen Rivera, 2021.
  • Guiding Families of LGBT + Loved Ones: For Every Pastor and Parent and All Who Care by Bill Henson, 2006-2020.
  • The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield, 2018.

4 Comments

  • Jane

    I think we are kidding ourselves with this kind of rhetoric. The "hate the sin/love the sinner" approach that's essentially what you're describing here is not something I would expose myself to if I were not a straight, cisgender person. I would protect myself from it, if I were a self-respecting person. The core is still the same----it is not ok with the evangelical church for these dear people to be who they are, and to do what the rest of us take for granted, which is find a partner to do life with, and perhaps to parent with. Their sexual situation is seen as a "choice," rather than something that during the puberty journey, most likely, they grew to know to be true of themselves----that they are attracted to their own gender rather than the opposite gender, just as the rest of us grew to know we were attracted to the opposite gender. Why do they need all this processing time/support groups and the like, any more than heterosexual people do? Maybe the Bible doesn't really address adult to adult same sex, mutually committed couples. The Romans 1 passage, so often used to support the church's historic "biblical" stance, needs to be understood culturally. In the Roman culture, men of means often kept young boys as sexual slaves. This arrangement was so common that it was taxed. This is nothing whatever like a same sex mutually committed couple! We need to stop pretending that we can offer the LGBTQ community anything unless we are willing to fully support who they are, and that they are free to marry, serve, and do anything else in the church that heterosexual folks do.

    • Brandie Green

      Hi Jane, I think I understand your POV. And I agree that many people simply stay away. We say Hate the sin/love the sinner, but in no other avenue do we automatically disqualify people (from full Christian community participation) for what we believe is sin. In fact in almost every other scenario we extend grace and love, recognizing that we all are finding our own way forward. Imagine if churches removed from membership all those who don't tithe? What if churches were removed for not actually providing their cross cultural workers with a living wage? What if all those who cause dissension, back biting, gossip etc were removed from leadership, church boards, sunday school positions, elders etc To me it's a lack of integrity how we treat people unequally and is in large part why droves are leaving the church. Just my two cents.

  • Brandie Green

    Thank you for this timely article. While the church has come some ways in addressing sexuality we are still woefully, and therefore painfully (as in causing pain-full) , behind. I appreciate this author's view points and that he drills down on being loving and maintaining relationships. Perhaps intentionally he overlooked resources for families, churches, mission organizations, seeking to understanding an affirming view but I appreciate that you included this in your list of resources. I think, for the conversation to move forward, it is important for people to see that one can hold either a traditional view or an affirming view, or somewhere in between, and still hold scripture in high regard. Once this can happen I believe some of the polarizing and us/them mentality will diminish at least to some degree.

  • Steve Scruggs

    You may be surprised to hear this, but I appreciate both of your comments, though one is for and one is against my point of view. I think it is healthy for the church to debate cultural issues where the church has historically taken a different stance than culture. Often, there are heartfelt disagreements. Olive Tree staff serve a diverse group of clients from a variety of different theological points of view, but all want to see the life changing work of Jesus in people's lives. I have chosen to focus on areas in which we all agree (or at least I think we should), i.e. that reaching out with the love of Christ to those who are marginalized. Not all will agree with my point of view and I appreciate that there are a wide range of opinions on this issue. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my article. Let's keep talking...

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