Sexuality is a Social Construct

Consider a Muslim who has same-sex attraction and comes to their imam or youth leader or mentor on how to deal with this issue. How would you advise the care-giver to help him or her provide effective and compassionate counseling and pastoral care?

Islamic Seminary professor

This example brings with it a host of complications, such as ethical dilemmas, issues of identity, feelings of guilt, and feelings of alienation. Care-seekers struggling with same-sex attraction often report struggling with feelings of guilt in addition to feeling alienated and abandoned by their family. Sometimes, they also express doubt that they can abandon their same-sex lifestyle due to their belief that these sexual preferences are involuntary and they cannot help that they were created this way. {Elzamzamy, Khalid, and Hooman Keshavarzi. “Navigating Ethical Dilemmas in Mental Health Practice Between Professional Ethics and Islamic Values.” The Journal of Islamic Faith and Practice, 2019: 40-71.} The first step in the meaning-making process is for the care-giver to remind the care-seeker that attraction is not action.

Attraction is not action

In Islam, a person is not judged for merely experiencing a desire (to the extent that it is beyond their control), but only for what that person chooses to do – or not to do – with this desire. {Keshavarzi, Hooman and Haque, Amber. “Outlining a Psychotherapy Model for Enhancing Muslim Mental Health Within an Islamic Context.” The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 2013; 23:237–238.} This statement is an important distinction in helping a care-seeker reconcile their own self-image with their Islamic identity. It is critical to strongly distinguish between same-sex desires and fulfilling those desires in the form of actions.

Practically all Islamic philosophy and law depends on this distinction, not just in questions of sexual conduct but also in the matters of speech, ritual, and transactions. A person is not diseased or cursed just because they experience same-sex attractions. Only an action can be haram, not a person. This is an important point that can help the care-seeker struggling with these feelings put their struggle into perspective. This kind of cognitive restructuring allows a care-giver to integrate Islamic concepts so as to positively modify spiritual pathology (or shortcomings) in a Muslim care-seeker. {Hamdan A. “Cognitive restructuring: an Islamic perspective.” J Muslim Ment Health. 2008; 3(1):99–116.}

This restructuring on the cognitive level showcases to the Muslim care-seeker struggling with same-sex attraction that they are just like anyone else who is dealing with a difficult test in life. This normalization of the struggle puts the care-seeker on the same spectrum of experiences that other Muslims experience in different contexts and alleviates some of the alienation that same-sex attraction engenders. Knowing that others are struggling in their own way with desires and inclinations and even addictions gives hope to the care-seeker that they do in fact belong to the Muslim community and that their efforts to align their behavior with Islamic norms is well within the realm of possibility.

Islam considers homosexual behavior to be the result of a choice. Sexual inclinations of course exist in people for a variety of natural and unnatural acts, from fornication to rape to necrophilia to bestiality. Human beings are not slaves to their desires or unable to do except that which they have been conditioned to do. People choose, and God holds them responsible for their choices. Same-sex attraction, like most other traits, is caused by a mix of genes and environment, although we don’t know how much of each for every case. The same goes for alcoholism, anger and aggression, and other “bad habits,” character flaws, and spiritual pathology. Same-sex desires and tendencies can be viewed as something which can be overcome by controlling one’s self. Just as one might be inclined towards overeating or fornication or pornography, one might have an inclination to same-sex attraction. When the scope of the struggle is limited to controlling and modifying actions instead of remedying attractions, the individual gains hope that the struggle is winnable, thus positively impacting the care-seeker in general.

Behavior is not an identity

No doubt, controlling one’s desires from manifesting into action is a struggle, but the essence of this line of advice is the critical point that even if sexual attractions (whether same-sex or otherwise) manifest into actions, this behavior is not identity. Sexual desires are feelings that everyone must contend with in their daily journey towards God. Deconstructing behavior from identity means rejecting the narrative that a person (Muslim or otherwise) who experience same-sex attractions or indulges in same-sex behavior should be given a special label or “self-identify” as “gay,” “queer,” “homosexual,” or “LBGT.” There is a distinction and a difference between a person’s behavior and their identity. To conflate the two has the effect of elevating sexual desires and making them a core part of personal identity. (Salam 2016)

Desires are not inevitable

This final point offers a capstone for how spiritual pathology can be positively modified by altering one’s behavior and associations. A person’s companions influence their viewpoints, so it would be encouraged for a Muslim who is struggling with same-sex attraction to distance themselves from that lifestyle and the people who practice and promote that lifestyle. This step is useful because desires do not form in a vacuum; they are influenced by the surroundings.

Therefore, care-seekers who wish to identify with their Islamic identity but struggle with same-sex desires they must acknowledge that they are not at all different from those who have been conditioned or accustomed to fornicate, or commit theft or murder, or who have become addicted to watching pornography. All of these are destructive habits that one learns through continuous exposure or conditioning.

A care-seeker struggling with same-sex attractions can be reminded that these desires ebb and flow, and it is not determined that a person who has these feelings now will continue to have them with the same intensity throughout their lives. Some people with same-sex attraction are not positively repulsed by the other sex; therefore, some of these might be able to see themselves with an opposite-gender spouse one day, if the right person and conditions came along. Other people have no attraction toward the opposite sex at all and may even cringe at the thought of engaging them romantically. In these cases, choosing a life of celibacy or devoting all energy into community or religious service can be their solution. (Salam 2016)

The point is that a Muslim care-giver can offer these examples to a Muslim care-seeker to demonstrate that the desire felt in the current moment is not inevitable or everlasting, nor does it have to define how one chooses to manage these attractions. This can be liberating for those care-seekers who would rather focus on how to manage their feelings and move on while preserving their Islamic identity instead of trying to understand the source and origin and existential meaning behind their same-sex attraction.

Sexuality is a Social Construct
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