The Ritualization of Unintelligible Sex

Are we evading sin through a story that claims our sexual lives are redeemed through marriage? Am I, as a monogamous heterosexual (I’m using all these terms in their most naïve form) married man, sequestering sin from my sexuality? Geoffrey Rees counts sex as an integral part of the proliferation of sin into humanity (à la Augustine) and wants us to consider how Western Christianized culture has ameliorated sin through the fiction of sex.

Unintelligible Due to Romance and Fiction

In this rich and often dense text, Rees’s thesis plumbs our fictions about sex. He claims throughout that these fictions move sex from the dense nexus of its biological, social, and existential components to a comprehensible goal of marriage. This problematic story does not, however, square with the fact that, “no such thing as a stable sovereign center exists that fixes the intelligibility of the social order sustaining theological discourse on sexuality.”[1] What is sex? “Sex is not something people do, nor is it something people are. It is something that people become, a possibility of intelligible personal identity with a history.”[2] The claim seems to be that finding a coherent “I” in my “I-Thou” relation is so compelling that I am willing to do violence to my body while subject to theological fictions in order to locate the “I” that is a unified me. Sex becomes the unifying feature that redeems me, but at the cost of maintaining a romantic view of marriage. Thus, my epistemic restlessness—my need to understand the complex of sex—finds its rest in this romantic fiction of marriage. Rees’s precise words are worth reading:

When marriage becomes idealized as a means of recovery of the unity of self lost in original sin … marriage becomes a principal means of refusal of responsibility of sin, the disavowal of the loss of unity of self in God through sin … The hold of marriage on theological discourse on sexuality is its illusory promise of solution to the melancholy of original sin through the realization of the fiction of sex.[3]

Rees offers us an incisive analysis on the role of sex in relation to self, spouse, society, and God. Tailoring Augustine’s account of sin to dovetail with Foucault’s dictum, “sex is worth dying for,” he offers fresh vistas to the well-worn discussions of sexuality and gender. Rees insists that no body—individual or social—leaves the room unstained by the profundity of sin, which allows him to then “humorously” explore the problem that we do not actually understand the complex of identities, bodies, relationships, and more that constitute sex. This makes our efforts to hew out a specific narrative for sex—namely, heterosexual marriage—untenable in making it intelligible. Rees argues against several fictions that have been romanticized: the innocence of children, the completion of sexuality in marriage, and the hetero-homosexual dichotomy. If there is no actual hetero-homo dichotomy within which one can situate her own sex, and marriage does not resolve the dilemma, then sex remains unintelligible.

Rees employs two main interlocutors to explore the unintelligibility of sex. The first is Foucault, focused through the lens of his statement “sex is worth dying for.”

And the other is Augustine’s theological goose-chase for the self through concrete embodied experience. I must admit at the outset that I am a neophyte concerning Foucault’s analysis of sex—a seminal subtext to Rees’s thesis. I am hopeful that our panelists will better exegete his use of Foucault in toto.

Rees also draws upon Augustine’s reflections on the body to show that the child’s common question, “Where did I come from,” arrests a concrete attempt to understand the self as a mysterious product of sex. This attempt then creates an analog for one to understand the mystery of creation writ large—an unseen genesis of the universe that we become cognizant of as is:

The point of sex, its power as a fiction, is the fictive unity it promises. Given the overwhelming force of the desire of self for unity, it is not surprising that sex has been unquestioningly assumed as a causal origin of personal identity, as a causal origin of the self who can experience unity through union with another.[4]

Additionally, marriage offers a powerful fiction that alleviates the unintelligibility of sex. (Though, for those of us who have experienced marriage, that alleviation only provides a thin veneer of intelligibility. The quest to find a unified self through marriage easily wrecks the fiction of sex by sober reality.) On multiple fronts, the cultural messages that play upon and extend the fiction of sex do nothing to make sex or marriage more comprehensible. In relation to God, our desire for unity is then corrupted into accepting these fictions of sex and thus, we actually “disavow God” by theologically excising sin from a sexually-redeemed marriage. This move, the sequestering of sin from sex, produces subtle violence that we even perpetrate on children.

For Rees, the violence of this fiction comes from the hetero-homo dichotomy, especially when we attempt to secure our identity on one side of the dichotomy by making childrens’ bodies innocent, segregated from the narratives of our society’s sexual partisans. “The result is a fantastic innocence ascribed to children, most often figured as diminutive play of adult sexed identity fetishized almost under the rubric of cuteness.”[5] The suggested antidote is caught by Augustine’s dictum: “So tiny a child, so great a sinner.”

Greater caring for children is therefore enhanced when they are recognized as the entirely sinful creatures that they are, as fully belonging to the community of fallen humanity. The violence of the sentimental spectacle of childhood is especially harmful in its capacity for erasure, its capacity to render invisible and inadmissible the ambiguity and complexity of children’s bodies.[6]

Ritualizing Sex

Catherine Bell’s brilliant tome Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice tackles a spurious dichotomy of a different sort that appears similar to Rees’s critique.[7] Namely, she sought to oust the fiction that because humans are primarily thinkers, our actions directly reflect our thoughts. Instead of this thinking-acting dichotomy, Bell offered ritualization as a better paradigm for understanding human practices. Ritualization means that rites are strategically utilized human practices meant to form our bodies (think Merleau-Ponty’s “habit-body”) and create a new type of person within the social body of the ritual. For instance, John’s baptism in the Gospels is not like other Jewish baptisms (e.g., mikvah baptism) and not like the normal human practice of bathing. It has been strategically changed in order to shape the participants into people who understand their sin differently in light of the ritual. Hence, John ritualizes both normal bathing and Jewish baptism into a new rite.

Bell highlights the fact that our bodies are formed through scripted practices—what Rees might call “fictions”—of all sorts and this formation informs our epistemic perspective. In other words, rituals do not outwardly reflect our internal thinking; they craft our thinking. It seems to me that Rees’s critique aims at something similar: the ritualization of sex. Sex is not a byproduct of our thoughts about sex and the world, it is the biologically scripted practice that shapes how we see ourselves, and hence creation.

I am not certain that Rees would agree with me here, but it might be that the very practice of sex—the very desire to do it—inescapably generates a perspective of my self. Regardless of that complex of sexuality, cultures always ritualize sex, which crafts how we think through our sexual desires and practices. In the same way that Bell argues that we are ritualed beings by constitution, not beings who merely choose to follow rituals, we are sexed beings. This reality of our being qua sexual burgeons from childhood in ever-unfolding and perplexing instances, entangled in and confused by our cultural fictions of what sex is for. These stories help us to situate ourselves as sexual beings and also prescribe for us how to enact the practice, ritualizing it beyond the brute experience of pleasure, procreation, or something else. We ritualize the practice of sex to make its meaning transcend the practice itself, its cultural taboo, and the confusion of its purposes and ends.

However, by admitting that we ritualize the complex of sex, we are not presuming that the reasons for ritualizing sex are clear to us. We could easily fall into a presumption found widely in ritual theory that when a normal human practice is ritualized, it acts as a solution to a particular cultural problem.

We can find a renowned version of this conflict-resolution approach in René Girard’s theory regarding cultural scapegoats.[8] For Girard, a cultural conflict such as violence must be remediated by funneling the violence onto a victim. Every culture, says Girard, contains a ritualized outlet of violence and the resolution most often entails a central figure that is sacrificed by means of channeling their violent impulses. This focused violence sanctions the conflict, but alleviates the need to commit more mundane acts of brutality. Biblical examples of this trajectory range from John the Baptist’s beheading to the thousands of swine driven of the cliff at Gerasa, not to mention the scapegoat of Yom Kippur or Jesus of Nazareth. Although much of Girard’s work appears promising and on many fronts, critique has focused on his presumption that violence is a conflict that has a ritualized resolution.

To understand a ritual, Girard’s methodology requires one to look for a conflict that the ritual is meant to resolve. In the case of sex and its rites, the conflict created by its incomprehensibility resolves through a marriage that removes sexuality from the hetero-homo binary, placing the married couple squarely in the heterosexual camp. Even more theologically dangerous, this ritualization of sex in marriage removes the sex complex from the traditional discourse of sin. Sex has been redeemed, strategically employed apart from sin.

On the whole, I found much of Rees dense text very helpful for articulating my own sensibilities. As I struggled to figure out what he was getting at, he forced me to think again about almost everything sex does and gave me new theological tools to wrest this conversation from the elementary categories like sexual orientation and same-sex attraction. However, it is not clear to me that Rees escapes this same critique of Girard. In fact, his analysis might project a conflict-resolution pattern into the discourse that neglects how the biblical authors might be ritualizing sex (more below).

Though I do believe that I understand what he means by the “incomprehensibility of sex,” I also know that my LGBTQ friends might have a different sense of the construct than do I, maybe even a richer sense. His use of Augustine helps to root the notion in something more tangible, but the notion never quite crystalizes and I suspect that reinforces the idea. On the other end, I often teach undergraduates that heterosexual marriage is just as “stained by sin” as is any other sex. In some way, I would suggest that we are all ritualizing sex—producing some conflict and set of rites that mean to resolve the conflict and offer something to transcend sex. We are all trying to get beyond sex and so we give it some purpose, a proper context, and prescribe rites and taboos to follow.

Slightly jarring for a theological account is the secondary role of Scripture in Rees’s understanding. Biblical authors were also ritualizing sex, prescribing the rites, conflicts, and roles to the human body within the social body of Israel. In the end, Rees offers radical hospitality (i.e., “queer hospitality”) as demanded by Torah in order to make sex intelligible, both within and without marriage. I think that he is largely correct there. Hospitality notwithstanding, I wished that he would have pressed on to consider the Torah’s ritualization of the sex complex on the whole.

For instance, procreation is central in the depiction of sex, but even procreation is not a patently good commodity in the Torah’s ethical economy. As it turns out, Israelites will later procreate for the purpose of making children who can be murdered in sacrifice to other gods (e.g., 2 Kgs 16:3). It is not sufficient to espouse that the purpose of sex is to merely be fruitful and multiply. Moreover, the times (Lev 18:19), relations (Lev 18:1–18), and procreative body fluids (Lev 15) of sex practices are all ritualized in the Torah with Genesis 2:18–25 acting as the foundational story which circumscribes all sex. I agree with Rees that “sodomy,” biblically understood, should mean something more like “egregious inhospitality.” Hospitality itself is also ritualized in Leviticus (see especially Lev 19:9–34). However, we cannot overlook the willingness to violently rape any human regardless of relation, fluid, or biology as equally egregious under an emic reading of Torah. These ritualizations of human practices seem to have something to say about the logic, and therefore intelligibility of sex too.


Rees thesis offers us generous portion of much needed critical discourse on the irascible categories that fly under the flag of human sexuality. Even now, I am guilty of falling back into that lingo which creates the fiction Rees so aptly critiques. The unintelligibility of sex does appear to me as the center of his thesis—the epistemological crux at the center of this text. As well, I am sure that many scholars will find in Rees a harmonic voice who never tires of warning about the power of fictions and romanticisms that too-easily reconcile the murky swamps of life as it is lived.

I do worry that in following Rees’s argument, I could have substituted one fiction for another. But that kind of disparaging is too easy and wide-ranging—and could become a boomerang to my own work. More precisely, I worry that one fiction could be replaced without considering the “fictions” prescribed by the biblical authors. If they were ritualizing the cosmos for Israel, from which Christianity funds its ritualizations, then the question of their authority to situate sex among things such as hospitality needs to be meted out.

[1] Geoffrey Rees, The Romance of Innocent Sexuality (Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 37.

[2] Ibid., 49.

[3] Ibid., 34–35.

[4] Ibid., 31.

[5] Ibid., 74.

[6] Ibid., 75.

[7] Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[8] René Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

(This reponse to Rees’s book The Romance of Innocent Sexuality originally appeared in

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