The Path to—and from—Here: Reflections on Sexual Identity Past and Present

Carl Trueman

I want to start this article by making a number of foundational points.[1] First—and most important—is the distinction between the issues surrounding the pastoral care of those subject to sexual dysfunction and the way in which sexuality is being used as the primary idiom of a form of politics in the Western world. As to the former, it is a truism that all human beings struggle with sexual dysfunction to some extent and that a central part of pastoral work is always going to be concerned with such. That is not my topic today. I am going to restrict myself very specifically to—for want of a better term— sexuality as cultural politics. The distinction is key because to confuse the two is highly problematic. It can lead us on the one side to be mesmerized by the aggressive campaigns for normalizing dysfunction and thus to lose sight of the agony of individuals who want pastoral care in such matters. On the other it can lead us to underestimate the ruthless and comprehensive intentions of the political lobby groups who have sexuality at the heart of their campaign to transform the civic realm, not least in the area of religious freedom.

The second foundational point is the importance of understanding the particulars of the matter before us. When faced with particular matters, there is a tendency in Christian circles often to resort to the answer “Well, the world is fallen and we are sinful. What more explanation do we need?” That is true—but also unhelpful in knowing the times and responding to them. I could make the case for gravity being the reason why the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11, and that would be a technically true statement. But it would tell me next to nothing about why they really fell down. Universal principles which explain everything in general actually explain almost nothing in particular. And it is important to respond in an informed way to the particularities of our times if for no other reason than we need to help our congregations understand why we believe as we do and how the world around is attempting to reshape their thinking. There is therefore a need for studying the path to our present age beyond resorting simply to the category of sin.

The third point is this: We need to be aware that the particular pressure points in the current situation, primarily matters of sexual identity, are themselves only a part of a much more comprehensive shift in the way in which society thinks. The fact that transgenderism has moved so quickly from the exotic outer margins to the very center of political discourse indicates that the politics of sexual identity rests upon a much wider and deeper transformation of human identity than simply sexual preference. And that so many of us have been caught by surprise by the rapid acceptance of transgenderism, not to mention federal mandates with reference to such, reveals how blind we have been to these tectonic cultural shifts and to the means by which they have been made both normal and normative.

The Battle for the Self

At the heart of the social and political transformation we are witnessing lies a fundamental transformation in the way individuals understand themselves. This is a complex phenomenon and cannot be reduced to a single cause, or even to a couple of causes.

To press the conclusion first, I would suggest that sociologist Phillip Rieff’s argument that we live in the era of psychological man is extremely useful.[2] Rieff’s taxonomy of the self is overdrawn but helpful. The self in ancient Greece was political man, one who found his meaning in engaging in life in the polis. Political man gave way to religious man, who found his meaning in religious rites and observances. Religious man gave way to economic man, who found his meaning in economic activity. And economic man gave way to psychological man, who finds his identity in his own inner well-being and happiness.

The taxonomy is overdrawn because self-understanding has always been complicated. Thus, the Augustine of the Confessions is arguably a psychological man, finding his identity in his inner dialogue and struggles. Yet if we take Rieff as pointing to dominant characteristics of particular ages, then his taxonomy holds.

The precise nature of this Psychological Man has been established by various forces, some sophisticated, others decidedly demotic. At an intellectual level, we might make a case for the role of voluntarism and philosophical nominalism, increasingly dominant since the late Middle Ages, as downplaying the objective givenness of the world. Later, romanticism too played its part as the artistic counterpart to such philosophical developments. Of course, romanticism is a vast movement but we might perhaps take the preface to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s influential collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads, as something of a manifesto for the romantics. Here Wordsworth makes pleasure the central purpose of the poet’s task and poetry itself “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”[3] The inward, psychological term is obvious, as we might also note, for example, in William Blake’s poem “The Garden of Love,” in Beethoven’s late string quartets, or in the powerful artwork of J. M. W. Turner.

We might add to this the role of consumerism within society. The role of advertising, easy credit, and the capturing of the popular imagination by the idea that consumption is the key to happiness is yet another element in the story that places the individual at the center of the universe. Indeed, this is a story that makes the individual believe that he is able to construct his own meaning and significance.

The Marriage of Psychology, Sex, and Politics

Perhaps the most significant background to our current problems, however, has been the fusion of politics and psychology. This story is wide-ranging and complicated but a central narrative can be identified. The influence of Sigmund Freud is central. It was Freud who both set sex at the center of human identity, both individual and social, and who identified happiness with genital stimulation and satisfaction. Here is what he says in Civilization and Its Discontents: “[M]an’s discovery that sexual (genital) love afforded him the strongest experiences of satisfaction and in fact provided him with the prototype of all happiness …”[4]

For Freud, happiness in its most basic sense was sex, but notice how this connected to what had gone before. Happiness and personal satisfaction had been the hallmark of Enlightenment thinking and found its most artistic expression in romanticism. What Freud did was take the internalizing impulse of romanticism and set it forth in scientific idiom of psychoanalysis, thus giving his philosophy a persuasive form of expression. He also thereby focused the issue of human identity and happiness specifically upon human sexuality. We might perhaps paraphrase an argument from Rosaria Butterfield here and say that Freud turned sex from something we do into something we are.[5]

The second part of the narrative is the connection between the Freudian shift in the understanding of what it means to be human and the transformation of Left-wing politics.

By the 1950s it was clear that old-style Marxism was failing to deliver the utopias which it had promised. Classical Marxism had operated with a notion of oppression which was understood in economic terms. Workers were alienated from the products of their labor, a situation to be rectified by them seizing control of the means of production.

From the 1930s onwards, however, the notion of “oppression” in Left-wing theory underwent a transformation that ultimately saw it rooted in psychological, and therefore sexual, categories.

Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce summarized the developments on the Left as follows:

It is clear that what today is called the left fights less and less in terms of class warfare, and more and more in terms of “warfare against repression,” claiming that the struggle for the economic progress of the disadvantaged is included in this more general struggle, as if the two were inseparable.[6]

Key figures in this shift were Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, both of whom were important inspirations for the sexual and political revolutions of the 1960s. Reich is particularly important. His book The Sexual Revolution was published in 1936 but reads as if it were written yesterday.

Where Freud saw the repression of sexual instincts as key to civilization, Reich saw such repression as inhibiting true human identity and as creating the pathologies and the dysfunctions of the world. He believed that human beings needed at least one orgasm a day and proposed that the government should supervise and indeed enforce the sexual liberation of the populace. Here is a key quotation:

[T]he free society will provide ample room and security for the gratification of natural needs. Thus, it will not only not prohibit a love relationship between two adolescents of the opposite sex but will give it all manner of social support. Such a society will not only not prohibit the child’s masturbation but, on the contrary, will probably conclude that any adult who hinders the development of the child’s sexuality should be severely dealt with.[7]

Two things are important here—two things that help explain our current situation: human beings are seen as having an identity that is fundamentally sexual (one might even perhaps say “orgasmic”) in nature; and the state is seen to have a duty to provide the conditions where this individual, sexual, orgasmic identity can be realized. Politically, that has implications for everything, perhaps especially for the family. Del Noce summarizes it as follows: “What is the repressive social institution par excellence? To Reich it is the traditional monogamous family.”[8]

No Private Matter

This is why the sexual revolution through which we are now living is not, and never has been, a private matter. Libertarian notions that the government should not interfere in the bedroom are, I believe, correct. What consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home is really none of the government’s business. But the problem is that the sexual revolution is not about the private bedroom. It is about the public square. This is because we are not dealing with personal tastes and freedoms. We are dealing with what it means to be allowed to be human.

And this helps explain one of the most potent moves in the sexual revolution in the United States: the co-opting of the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. When sexuality is identity, then sexuality has access to all of the cultural rhetoric which surrounds other identities and, most significantly, to the moral history of such.

We should not underestimate this connection. Because the language of freedom/oppression and the background of the civil rights movement has been so comprehensively adopted by the LGBTQ lobbyists, it is virtually impossible to express any dissent with the movement without being immediately categorized as an irrational bigot motivated by hate.

The Transformation of Everyday Ethics

The story of the populist end of the sexual revolution is complicated, so once again what I present is neither exhaustive nor elaborate.

First, we need to understand that nobody has argued society in general into changing its opinions on human identity and sexuality. This is one of the points often missed by those who think with their brains. For example, I am regularly asked in class how to argue against gay marriage. My response is that it is pointless to argue against something for which no arguments have been made in the first place. That is, of course, hyperbole but my point is basically sound: the sexual revolution is part of an overall revision of what it means to be a person; and that revisionism has been brought about not so much by argument as by other means.

Foremost in this regard is the entertainment industry. Movies and commercials are essentially adverts for particular understandings of personhood. More than anything else, they have created the stories with which people identify and thus the understanding of what it is to be human. Of course, these stories are often not simply fictional in their plotlines but also fictional in their presentation of the basic realities of human existence.

Take, for example, soap operas. The plots often deal with outrageously improbable happenings, but there are sufficient elements of ordinary life contained therein. Thus, affairs, divorces, and deaths abound. But is it very, very rare that these things are portrayed as truly devastating. Human beings are presented as constituted by a series of isolated experiences, not really as the complex social and historical creatures that we are.

Soap operas may be a crass example, but the kind of simplistic presentation of the dynamics of human existence occurs in movies too. I have coined the term “sempiternal orgiast” to try to capture the kind of human life presented therein—those who live merely for their own personal satisfaction in the present moment. And in a world where movies are reality, that message is powerful.

To this we might add the role of commercials. Interestingly enough, it was Freud’s American-based nephew Edward Bernays who is the key figure here. He was the man who turned the advertising industry from one which sold goods on the basis of function to that based upon the sale of an image. For example, the earliest commercials for automobiles focused on the practical usefulness of being able to go from A to B in a swift, efficient manner. Bernays altered this, connecting cars to an image, and often an attractive, sexual image, in order to make them desirable objects. That move was critical—and amazingly successful. And it is that powerfully seductive notion of desire, image, and personal fulfillment thereby, which undergirds the commercial industry to this day. We need to understand that every commercial we ever see is projecting an image of Psychological Man to us: human beings as those who find fulfillment in the purchase of goods that will make us happier and, more often than not, sexier.

We should also note here that the narrative dynamics of movies and commercials depend for their power on what we might call aesthetics, or taste. Take the sitcom Will and Grace for example. The plots were carefully constructed to make the lead gay character an attractive and likeable person. Implicitly, this presentation carries moral weight, for who wants to say to attractive and likeable people that they are fundamentally wrong in the matter of their own personal sexual preferences? But this ethical weight is carried by the aesthetics and nothing else. One could say many things about the way such products of pop culture function in shaping the ethical debates within our society, but two things are of especial note: they do not present arguments but they do grip the moral imagination; and they are ubiquitous.

The Role of Pornography

This brings me to another part of the popular story: pornography. It is by now a truism that we live in an age where pornography is more widely available and more heavily used and—if reports are true—more varied and extreme than at any previous point in history. The social costs of this are yet to be discerned, but it is easy to believe that regular exposure to pornography from an early age will create serious dysfunction in adult sexual relationships.

My interest here today, however, is not in the dysfunction which pornography is going to generate in relationships. It is instead the matter of how pornography is reshaping the understanding of what is sexually normal. Again, recall what I said earlier about the nature of Psychological Man and the importance of sexual fulfillment as the core of human happiness.

Here is a quotation from an essay by Roger Scruton in the important volume The Social Costs of Pornography, a wide-ranging book which covers many aspects of the problem:

Pornography exactly conforms to the myths about desire that I have rejected: it is a realization of those myths, a form of sexual pleasure from which the interpersonal intentionality has been surgically excised. Pornography takes hold of sexual desire and cuts away the desire. There is no real object, but only a fantasy, and no real subject, since there is nothing ventured of the self. To say that this is an abuse of the self is to express a literal truth—so it seems to me.[9]

Scruton’s point is important: pornography divorces sex from any real relationship. Think of the consequences of that: to detach sex from relationships is to detach sex from any moral narrative extraneous to the personal pleasure derived by the participants. And that is to offer an ethic of sex which says “anything goes.”

In other words, pornography is the ultimate commercial designed to resonate with the desires of Psychological Man. Its message is simple: it really is all about you and you alone and your immediate sexual gratification. The problem is therefore far deeper than mere lust. It presents a deep and disturbing view of human identity. And given what we now know about the impact of pornography on human physiology, particularly its ability to transform the neural pathways of the brain, it is surely no surprise that a society basting itself in pornography is a society where sex is deemed central to human identity and where sexual ethics have all but vanished. We might almost say that pornography is hardwiring society for a repudiation of traditional sexual ethics. As I have noted elsewhere, the real victor in the culture wars is perhaps an unexpected one: the Marquis DeSade.[10]

So Where Do We Go From Here?

First, I want to start by noting that we should not underestimate the power of what we are dealing with. That should seem obvious, given the outline I have offered above. The issues of gay marriage or transgenderism are not isolated and discrete problems for which there is some specific, narrow answer. They are part of a much longer and broader change in how we understand human personhood. So much is clear. But I want to add one more complicating factor at this point, drawing on the work of Charles Taylor.

In Taylor’s books The Ethics of Authenticity and The Malaise of Modernity he addresses the issue of narcissism, which we might well understand as virtually synonymous with Psychological Man.[11]

Taylor points out that it is typical to dismiss narcissism as shallow, but he attempts to offer a more ethical account of it in order to understand the passion with which it manifests itself. Take homosexuality, for example.

Why is it that the recognition, the public, social recognition and acceptance of homosexuality, is so important to homosexuals? Taylor would argue that this is because there is an ethical dimension to it: the recognition of a person’s identity is an important social imperative. This is because, however fluid and psychological we care to make our identities, selves only exist in a social setting, in relation to other selves.

Why do I raise this as a point? For this reason: we need first and foremost to understand that the language about community that is used by homosexuals is not incidental. It points to the importance of homosexuality to their identity. The ideology of the New Left is powerful at the political level, shaping public discourse, but at the local level the power of identity manifests itself not so much in a political cause but in the ethics of community. We need to bear that in mind as we consider our response.

Second, we need to understand that political discourse in the United States is forever changed. Patrick Deneen noted with reference to the Indiana RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 1993) that something new had emerged in the way politics is being done: an alliance between socially liberal causes and big business.[12] That is a powerful, even overwhelming, combination which can intimidate and coerce even those whose personal sexual ethics have not been transformed by popular entertainment. When you throw into the mix the law courts, the entertainment industry, and social media, it is hard to know how to mount any kind of large-scale resistance. For most, I suspect the alliance is not threatening because they are not worried about the policies it is promoting. But for those who dissent, the fear factor is significant. And that is going to spill over into impacting members of our congregations who will be faced with demands in the workplace that collide head-on with their own personal morality and Christian beliefs.


So what are we to do? I want to suggest four things.

First, we need to go about business as usual in the sense that we need to be obedient to our beliefs about how God’s grace operates. Word, sacrament, and prayer should remain foundational.

Second, we need to be better educated in the field of ethics. I say this because as the gap between social practices and biblical morality becomes larger, and the proponents of those social practices become more aggressive and more litigious, pastors are going to be called upon to respond to questions from congregants where the immediate biblical answer may not be obvious.

Third, understand that times have changed and that nothing can be taken for granted. You preach to your congregation for just forty-five minutes once or twice a week. The television and the computer screen preach to them for countless hours from Monday to Saturday. With young people in particular, that homosexuality is unbiblical is not immediately obvious. That needs to be borne in mind as we preach and as we teach.

Fourth, remember the ethics of authenticity. To object to homosexuality is in one sense the same as objecting to any other sin—adultery, greed, anger. Yet in another sense it is quite different, for few if any think of their fundamental identity as being that of an adulterer, a greedy person, or an angry man. Nobody talks of the “adulterer community” or “the greedy community” or “the angry community.” There is an ethical drive relative to homosexuality that grips the moral imagination in a way that none of these others do and therefore demands social legitimation.

What is the practical implication of this? Well, once again it is reminder to us not to underestimate the human difficulty of reaching homosexuals for Christ. As with Muslims, conversion is in a sense making a much greater demand on them than others. This is clear from Rosaria Butterfield’s account of how her conversion really destroyed her life, humanly speaking, in that it immediately wrecked her career and isolated her from the community, which now regarded her as a traitor.

Second, it is a challenge to us to make sure that our churches are precisely what the New Testament calls them to be: communities, and communities marked by love. This is not a plea for the replacement, or subordination, of the means of grace to some kind of notion of church as social club. But it is to say that to be Christian is to be one whose fundamental identity is in Christ and who is therefore marked by a number of realities: a trust in the proclaimed Word of God and a love for God and for fellow believer in the community of the church.

And with this point I conclude. I believe that the battle at the national level is lost and will remain lost for at least a generation or more. But I also believe that the battle can be prosecuted successfully at a local level. Ironically, I am reminded at this point of a criticism the late New Left intellectual Edward Said made of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. Said’s point was simple: at the local level, where people live next to each other, where they speak to each other, where they have to make their communities work because perpetual street fighting is not an option, the situation is always more complicated and hopeful than a collision of ideologies. Indeed, I might add to Said’s thoughts this paraphrase of something George Orwell said in another context: it is much harder to hate a man when you have looked into his eyes and seen that he too is a human being as you are.

Therein I believe might lie our glimmer of hope. As we go about our daily business, as we make the church a community of the preached Word yet marked in practice by openness and hospitality for the outsider—indeed, as the church reflects the character of the one about whom she preaches, the one who loves the widow and the orphan and the sojourner—we may not be able to transform national legislation or the plots of sitcoms and movies. But we will be able to demonstrate to those around us in our neighborhoods that we do not fit the caricatures that the media present, that we do care for those who are in active rebellion against the God we love. And there, in that local context, we might be able to start building our counter-offensive to the dominant culture of Psychological Man and his Reichian sexual revolution.


[1] This article is based on an address given at the pre-assembly conference on June 8, 2016, entitled “Marriage, Sexuality, and Faithful Witness,” sponsored by the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[2] See Phillip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (New York: Viking, 1959), 329–57; The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud (1966, repr., Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006).

[3] William Wordsworth, The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 598.

[4] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. and W. Norton, 1961), 56.

[5] Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2015), 94–98.

[6] Augusto Del Noce, The Crisis of Modernity, ed. and trans. Carlo Lancellotti (McGill-Queens University Press, 2014), 166.

[7] Wilhelm Reich, The Sexual Revolution: Toward a Self-Regulating Character Structure (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 23–24.

[8] Del Noce, Crisis, 161.

[9] Roger Scruton, The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (The Witherspoon Institute, 2010), Kindle Locations 2632–2636.

[10] Carl R. Trueman, “We’re All Sadists Now,” accessed July 11, 2016, http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/08/were-all-sadists-now.

[11] Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991); The Malaise of Modernity (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1991).

[12] Patrick J. Deneen, “The Power Elite,” accessed July 11, 2016, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/06/the-power-elite.

Carl Trueman serves as pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church (OPC), Ambler, Pennsylvania, and as a professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, August 2016.

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Ordained Servant: August–September 2016

Marriage, Sexuality and Faithful Witness

Also in this issue

Living under Foreign Law

Ministry to Those with Same-Sex Attraction and Gender Confusion

Sexuality These Days: A Review Article

What Is Marriage? by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George

On His Blindness

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