The Problem of Heterosexuality.

One of the things I find most objectionable in the CDF document on same sex relationships is its title: “Homosexualitatis Problema” (The Problem of Homosexuality).  I have a double objection here – there is no problem in homoerotic sexuality, but only in the religious based discrimination and the violence it engenders, and the  systematic use of the pseudo-scientific, medical term “homosexual” and its associated terms. This word was originally coined in a late nineteenth century medical usage to denote same sex attraction as a pathological condition, and its continued use serves similarly to locate an entirely natural orientation as somehow problematic.

There is a simple remedy, however. Like “homosexual”, its counterpart “heterosexual” was also originally coined as a medical term, to denote a pathological obsession with the opposite sex. Now, there is obviously nothing pathological about opposite-sex attraction, any more than there is in a same-sex attraction. I suggest however, that there is most certainly something pathological about an obsession with viewing the world around us, as well as history, scripture and religious teaching, through an exclusively opposite-sex perspective. This obsession is more simply described as “heterosexism”, and is the sense in which I suggest there is indeed a “problem” with heterosexuality.

It is this pathological obsession that persists in describing a nineteenth and twentieth century version of Western marriage as “traditional”, completely ignoring the many ways it had previously undergone fundamental change over many periods of history; which persists in describing minority sexual behaviours as “unnatural”, in total disregard for the evidence from history, anthropology, medicine or zoology; and which promotes the view that same gender genital activities are “plainly” condemned by Scripture, even though the meaning of the half-dozen texts of terror is far from plain, and are easily outnumbered by many more sympathetic passages, and others condemning behaviours which are widely accepted in the modern world.

Yet when people, gay or straight, attempt to approach Scripture or the history of the Church from a gay or lesbian perspective, it is we who are dismissed as “twisting” the truth to suit our purposes.

In fact, there is nothing in Christianity, Judaism or other major religions that is inherently opposed to same sex relationships, except where religious texts are distorted by heterosexual distortions. So it is that Christians have appropriated the “sin of Sodom” for a pejorative term for “homosexuality”, even though the story itself was about attempted rape and a failure of hospitality.

Not all religions have approached sexuality with this heteronormative perspective. Many polytheistic religions recognized gods and goddesses with same gender or polysexual erotic interests, or even identified divine patrons of homoerotic love. Many societies see same sex attraction or cross-dressing behaviour as associated specifically with pronounced spiritual gifts, or with religious occupations. Some observers even suggest that modern Christianity is unique among world religions for having spread homophobia around the world, through its colonial missionary activities.

Other faiths, though, have also been guilty of some modern distortion of their authentic messages with pandering to the heterosexual agenda. At The Wild Reed, Michael Bayley has a stimulating discussion of a new book, Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religions: Problem and Prospect, which shows who heterosexism has distorted the modern presentations of several world religions, as well as Christianity, and how homophobia is in fact incompatible with them.

Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion: Problem and Prospect, notes Daniel, is a much-needed invitation to exit that terrible, damaging and corrupting closet of fear that heterosexism forces us into. The scope of the book’s content provides the guiding light for this exodus journey. Co-editor Judith Plaskow, for instance, explores the dismantling of the gender binary within Judaism; Ann-Marie Hsiung examines gender and same-sex relations in Confucianism and Taoism; Yu-Chen Li reconstructs Buddhist perspectives on homosexuality; Mary E. Hunt shares insights and advice on eradicating the sin of heterosexism; Ghazala Anwar offers a defense of same-sex marriage based on the Qur’an and other Muslim sources; Kelly Brown Douglas examines heterosexism and the Black American Church community; Anantanand Rambachan highlights the irreconcilability of Hinduism and homophobia; and co-editor Marvin Ellison defends same-sex marriage on Christian grounds.

Without doubt it’s an essential book in the ongoing quest to banish heterosexism from our lives and from our religious and cultural institutions.

At the Wild Reed, Michael also includes an extract from the introduction to the book by Catholic theologian, Dan Maguire. Read Michael’s post in full.

and an extract from the contribution by Catholic theologian Dan Maguire.

Recommended Books

Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality and Civilization

Katz, Jonathan: The Invention of Heterosexuality

Naphy, William: Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality (Revealing History)

Stuart, Elisabeth: Gay & Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions With Critical Difference

Ellison, M M and Plaskow, Judith: Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion: Problem and Prospect

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3 Responses to “The Problem of Heterosexuality.”

  1. David Ludescher Says:


    I don’t think you accurately captured the “problem” of which Benedict speaks in the Homosexual Problem. It is not the homosexual who is the problem. The problem was what to do about inaccurate teachings which were developing in the wake of the desire to be pastoral toward persons of homosexual orientation.

    I read an interesting pastoral statement on the gay marriage controversy in my archdiocese of Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota. The author noted that the DVD distribution seems to have had an effect which was opposite from its pastoral intention.

    What the Church intended to promote, and has always promoted, is the sanctity of marriage and sex within a marriage. The author noted that the Church has concerns with sex, of all kinds, outside the marriage relationship. What came across was only an opposition to homosexual behavior.

    In that sense, what was the “homosexual problem” has really become the “sexual problem”, that is, how can the beauty and sacredness of the sexual relationship within the context of marriage, and the ability to produce children be promoted, and sex outside of a sacramental relationship be promoted without appearing to judge those outside of the relationship?

    Some might argue that sex outside of marriage is not a problem. On the other hand, unbridled sex is clearly a societal and moral problem. In fact, unbridled sex was undoubtedly one of the bases for the commandment not to commit adultery. Don’t lie, cheat, steal, and covet are still solid commands. Why does it seem that don’t commit adultery has become a debateable commandment?

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      David, it was never my intention in this post to discuss the “problem” of homosexuality is discussed in the CDF document, except to adapt the title. I have several issues with that document as you know, but in this post I was trying to move away from the document itself to the problem which has ensued in its wake. This problem is not of inaccurate teachings which have flowed from a desire to be pastoral, but from an obsession with one specific form of sexuality to the exclusion of all others, and not just a failure to be pastoral by ignoring the instructions on dignity, compassion and respect, to sometimes a promotion of outright hostility (as for example, Bishop Chaput’s exclusion from a Catholic school of the children of lesbian parents, or the refusal to endorse non-discrimination legislation, or anti-bullying programs in schools).
      You put the question well: how can sex outside a sacramental relationship be promoted without appearing to judge those outside the relationship?

      I am not remotely suggesting that we should condone either adultery or unbridled sexual appetites. Just like other appetites which are important in sustaining our physical health but need to be exercised in moderation, at appropriate times, and in suitable places, the sexual drive is an appetite which when used correctly, fosters physical as well as mental and emotional health: but it also needs to be restricted to use which is moderate and appropriate. The challenge is to locate exactly where that lies.

      Catholic doctrine is that this is to mean nothing at all outside sacramental marriage. I believe, together with the vast majority of Catholics, that this is to stretch the meaning of “adultery” way beyond anything in Scripture or the practice of the early church. “Adultery” in Jewish law referred to sex with another man’s wife – a crime of property. It did not apply to sex between an unmarried woman and a married man – Hebrew patriarchs freely kept concubines as well as multiple wives, and were also free to have sex with slaves or prostitutes. Nor did it apply to sex between unmarried persons.

      “Do not commit adultery” did not then, nor ever since, mean no sex except inside marriage for the purpose of raising children. That is a meaning that has been read into it by later interpretation – and many theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, would argue that such a restrictive interpretation was unsound.

  2. Homophobia, Canada And The Closet | Archemdis's Blog Says:

    […] The Problem of Heterosexuality. ( […]

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