Listening to Sexual Minorities: A Study of Faith and Sexual Identity on Christian College Campuses is an eye-opening book in many ways. The work is essentially a report on several studies of college students on Christian campuses related to sexuality. The book is thus a treasure trove for those interested in seeing how college students–those who self-select for Christian schools–approach and experience sexuality. For anyone interested in that topic, it’s a gold mine.
The first chapter reflects on the tension between faith and sexuality. The authors observe that there are effectively three lenses through which to view sexuality and gender: the integrity, disability, and diversity lenses. The integrity lens offers a religious and theological reading of sex and gender that effectively sees male/female identity as “stamped on one’s body” (9, quoting Robert Gagnon, a Christian theologian). Thus, same-sex behavior and transgender identity are seen as something which will “threaten the integrity of male/female distinctions” (9). The disability framework views sex and gender as a kind of disability, something to be worked through or struggled with. Such a lens effectively agrees with the integrity framework about what is considered “normal” but acknowledges divergence from the same exists. However, such divergence is seen as something reflecting “fallenness” of created order or a kind of disability to be challenged (ibid). The third lens is the “diversity framework” that affirms LGB+ (the umbrella acronym the authors use) as an identity and a community “to be recognized, celebrated, and honored” (9). Among these lenses, of course, there is a range of perspectives about how each lens plays out in practical terms. The authors use these “lenses” to show throughout the book how differing perspectives relate to LGB+ people and questions.
The first chapter also offers some insight into the tension between LGB+ people and communities of faith and how some of that tension has played out, such as Title IX exemptions for schools based on various stands on LGB+ people. Those Title IX exemptions–which allow for discrimination based on sexual identity–are viewed quite differently depending upon one’s lens. For example, one with the integrity lens may see a Title IX exemption as allowing for freedom of religious practice, while one with the disability framework may argue that it excludes some people from being able to explore their questions about sexuality in settings that could be helpful. The first chapter ends with an overview of the demographics of the studies.
The second chapter looks much more closely at the people involved in the studies. It’s somewhat of a given that they are young. What may surprise some is that these sexual minorities (the study participants all report at least some experience of same-sex attraction or behavior (31)) also self-report as very religious, with 90% viewing themselves as moderately to very spiritual, and “a full 62% rating themselves as a nine or ten on a ten-point scale of spirituality” (31). Additionally, 80% reported experiencing the presence of God in their daily lives. Throughout this and other chapters, insets help people who may not be as familiar with the terminology or studies to understand what’s being said. For example in Chapter 2 there is an inset going over various terminology.The studies involved include one longitudinal study, which allowed the authors to see how students’ perceived and identified sexually over time.
The third chapter, “Milestones and Identity,” features information about milestones in sexual-identity development (their phrase, 68). For example, the mean age at which students reported awareness of same-sex feelings was 12.92 years old, while the adoption of the label “gay” was the oldest milestone, at 19.47. Interestingly, this adoption of the label had a mean age more than a year older than the first same-sex relationship. Throughout this and other chapters, excerpts from individual students are provided, allowing some greater insight than just numbers into how students perceived themselves sexually. The fourth chapter is about the development of identity over time, and, among other things, shows how students who reported as being same-sex attracted generally only increased their certainty of that attraction over time (89). Yet, as that identity strengthened, few students were willing or desired to abandon spiritual or religious identity.
The fifth chapter is about faith and sexuality. Among the things it discusses, the authors report on how students view sexual identity–whether it is a choice or something that can be changed, for example. Another chart shows how students viewed sexual behaviors. Some examples: whether same-sex attraction is morally acceptable (most reported yes); whether a celibate life is possible (overwhelmingly yes); and whether same-sex behavior is acceptable (between 3-4 out of 5). It also shows how much distress LGB+ people felt with their attraction alongside their degree of intrinsic religiosity. The sixth chapter reports on how same-sex attracted persons fit into their Christian campus, including how same-sex attraction was viewed on campus. Support from others is clearly important, and the church was seen as the least supportive of all organizations when it came to same-sex attracted people (208-209). The seventh chapter discusses the move out of college, and shows how often a nostalgic view of college developed, such that students viewed their campus as more supportive once they graduated (242).
The authors close the book with a summary of results along with recommendations and conclusions. Intrinsic religiosity “appears to be a major contributor to a sense of fit for sexual minorities at faith-based colleges and universities” (273). The level of distress aligned generally with other students. The strength of same-sex attraction was not linked to emotional health, but campus climate impacted a wide range of life for sexual-minority students (274).
Listening to Sexual Minorities is a book with appeal to a specific audience. If one happens to be interested in how sexuality is perceived and experienced on Christian college campuses, this is a book for that reader. Other readers may want to see what Christian youths are saying about their sexuality, and this book certainly would give insight there as well.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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Every Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!
Sex is for Procreation?
A common assertion by many Christians is that the purpose of sex is for procreation. Although the value of this position in defending various other positions is not to be ignored, what is of concern is that this does not seem to encompass the totality of the biblical witness on the purposes for sex. Sexuality is a complex issue which the Bible addresses from multiple angles.
Richard M. Davidson’s seminal work, Flame of Yahweh, provides a comprehensive look at sexuality in the Old Testament. Against the notion that the purpose of sex is for procreation, he argues:
Amid the cacophony of pagan fertility rite percussion, beating out the message that sex is solely for procreation, in the Song [of Songs] the procreative function of sexuality is conspicuous by its absence. The Song does not deny this ninth facet of a sexual theology, but as in Gen[esis] 1, where procreation is added as a separate blessing (Gen[esis] 1:28), sexuality in the Song is freed from the common misunderstanding that its sole (or even primary) intent must be for the propagation of children. (605-606, cited below)
He provides much more argumentation than this, of course, but the conclusion above is telling. Perhaps we have missed something when it comes to the biblical teaching on sexuality. By focusing exclusively on procreation, we have not fully embraced the Bible’s comprehensive scope. The Song of Songs is an oft-ignored book which clearly shows the goodness of human sexuality, and that this goodness is not limited to the purpose of procreation.
That is a message worth putting forward, as couples struggle with miscarriage, infertility, and the like. Sexuality remains a good thing, even if it does not produce children, for God created human sexuality and called it good. The message of the Bible, and of Song of Songs in particular, teaches that human sexuality is wholesome and holistic, it is not reducible to one purpose or intent. See Davidson’s work, Flame of Yahweh, for further explanation and exegesis.
What do you think? How might the reductionist approach of sexuality = procreation often taught by Christians impact the perceptions about human sexuality? What can we do to better present the biblical view of human sexuality?
Sunday Quote– If you want to read more Sunday Quotes and join the discussion, check them out! (Scroll down for more)
Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007).