Damaged Goods | Critical Comments and Reflections

Dianna E. Anderson. Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity. Jericho Books, 2015. (210 pages)

There is perhaps no other taboo more revered than that of sex. As a result, permissions and prohibitions both come with significant challenges risking the danger of polarizing extremes. Much like all other aspects of gender, a healthy view of sexual expression ought to resist binary and absolute thinking. For this reason, it is good to engage with books like this one to be challenged, both to sharpen the virtues and to disabuse oneself of the negative damaging iniquities of one’s held worldview on the subject.

In Damaged Goods, Anderson offers a detailed critique of the “purity culture” of American Evangelicalism. In my estimation, her insights are poignant and ought to be seriously considered for anyone who truly cares to be responsible with the messages we share and their real-life effects. However, while she does much to shed light on the darkness, I found her ultimate thesis lacking in a compelling construction of healthy Christian sexuality. At times, there seems to be an imbalance of perspective, and in a few cases an unfair mistreatment of what Christian teachings were attempting to accomplish. (Admittedly, it’s hard to separate “Evangelical” from “Christian” in this book as the two are not distinguished clearly, and this was not the main point of the book. I agree, that “purity culture” can be found in all strains of Christian expression, even if it is most prominent amongst the “Evangelical” brand.)

As always, there’s much to be appreciated, a bit to be critiqued, and all to be respected. I do commend this to you for your consideration, not because I am endorsing her message per se, but because I promote challenge for the reasons stated above.

With that, below are some highlights from the book, interwoven with my critical comments and reflections.

One: I Was A Teenage Virgin

Purity culture says what matters most about a person is whether or not they have had sex in the “wrong” ways. It makes wearing a white dress at her wedding the marker of morality for a woman. (5)

We’ve been told a lie that our worth lies in what we do (or don’t do) with our genitals. (6)

This book aims to develop a Christian ethic that doesn’t center around saying no, but through which we learn how to say a “godly yes.” (6)

I love the Church, and I believe firmly that in teaching purity doctrines and promoting purity culture we have lost our way. We have forgotten justice and mercy in the name of legalism. We have deviated from a God of grace (6) and love and mercy and instead embraced a cold, distant, heartless God who does not care about individual contexts and indivisible experiences. We in the American church have allowed political interests and sinful systems to dictate our theology. We must examine ourselves and the pain we cause, then take responsibility for the shame we heap on believers and say to ourselves, “No more.” (7)

Two: A Review of the Christian Purity Movement

Throughout the nineteenth century, sex had been closely tied to procreation, but with the advent of newer birth control technologies (technologies, it’s worth noting, that weren’t accessible to the lower classes), sex as an expression of intimacy was becoming the word of the day. (11)

It’s remarkable how similar the struggle of social hygiene groups in the 1920s was to conservative Christians’ push against comprehensive sexual education today. The theme is almost identical: modern culture is devaluing sex and marriage and intimacy, and we must find a way to bring their value back. (11)

[via: So, if we begin here, Anderson’s statement is true. Yet, the depths of the implications I feel are missing. First, we must accept that technology and anthropology condition human morality, which means that morals and ethics have shifted and changed over time as technologies have advanced and as human cultures have evolved. This is a hard truth to communicate to those who believe in an absolute morality that comes from God. Yet, believing in an absolute is merely a person’s attempt at codifying their version of morality without understanding (or regard) to other versions that have come before, or other versions that will arise in the future. How is that relevant to Anderson’s thesis here? To my second point, Anderson will posit–what I will call–a “Christian egoism (self-ism)” as the alternative to “purity culture.” That’s fine, but it must also be recognized that her view is not necessarily any more “Christian” than the “purity version.” It is simply her most recent iteration that has evolved along with Christian theology itself. Why is that important? Because while she critiques the cry of Evangelicalism that “modern culture is devaluing sex,” there may be validity in that statement, not necessarily objectively, but certainly existentially.]

The “traditional family,” in other words, is an invention of my parents’ generation. (13)

…purity has become an industry. (20)

Sexual purity has become the one means by which the evangelical church separates itself from “the world.” Endeavoring to claim the title of counterculture, the modern evangelical church responds to what it sees as a sexually permissive culture by locking down on purity and virginity and creating strict, harsh rules around what men and women can do with their bodies. (20)

[via: I’m not sure if it’s accurate to say “the one means by which…” I agree, that it’s definitely in the top 3.]

The prevalence of abstinence-only education is one of the most lasting effects of the reactionary evangelical politics of the 1930s. (21)

Sexual purity–rather than a relationship with Jesus, caring for the poor, or loving one’s neighbor–has become the marker of a good Christian in purity culture. While noble in intent, the purity movement has resulted in a destructive path of harmful misogyny and exclusion. Sexuality is not the center of a person’s life, faith, or health. Yet an unbalanced and improper understanding of sexuality can put everything else in life off-kilter. (22)

The evangelical purity movement must be replaced with shame-free sexual ethics and a healthy understanding of ourselves as creations of God. (22)

Three: Let’s Get Biblical: Sex in Scripture

Myth 1: Sex Makes People One Flesh

[via: On page 30, Anderson writes, “And the Jewish authorities were quite generous with divorce certificates, allowing men to leave their wives stranded.” As I have written about many times before, this kind of anti-Jewish sentiment is both wrong and harmful. It is accurate to say that there was a school of thought within first-century Judaism that did teach that (Hillel). But, there were many other schools of thought that believed very different. Jesus aligns himself with Shammai in this regard.]

Rather than referring to sex as creating a marriage bond, the story of God seems to be telling is one we find over and over in the Gospel–that the Christian is responsible to care for the hurting and the downtrodden, and should not be in the business of creating further pain. (30)

Myth 2: One Man, One Woman (and a Boatload of Concubines)

The assumption is clear: marriage is one man and one woman, forever. | Except when it isn’t. (31)

Polygamy, in the vein of Rachel and Leah, was simply the way things were throughout the Old Testament. … The fact that Solomon had concubines, that Abraham impregnated Hagar, that none of these acts were condemned (and some celebrated) should at least make us question this assumption that marriage exists only for one man and one woman. (32)

Myth 3: Your Thoughts Are Sending You to Hell

In Yoda-esque reasoning: thoughts lead to actions, actions to sex, sex to hell. (33)

It is not arousal that is the problem, but the disordered relationship between your mind and your body–if you are fearful of your own flesh and your own physiological reactions, lust is going to become a problem. But if you are able (34) to recognize that natural, biological reactions do not have the power to control you, you no longer fear their power. Lust is no longer a big scary monster hiding under your bed. (35)

Myth 4: We Belong to Our Future Spouses

Paul addresses the concept of sex within marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:4, saying that the wife’s body belongs to her husband and vice versa. This verse is commonly read to signify that marriage is such a unitive force that the people involved no longer have individual rights to their bodies, but rather their partner has rights over them.” (35)

[via: I wish to say here that Anderson may be correct in what she has heard taught about this 1 Corinthians passage. Much of my experience has not yielded the same force or “institutionalism” that I am sensing from her writing here. Again, my personal experience.]

But in this verse, Paul commands that men give themselves to their wives just as wives give themselves to their husbands–a remarkable notion of mutuality. (36)

During the time of the early church, asceticism was a growing movement–and this movement argued against marriage as a form of worldly indulgence. So, some commentaries indicate, the author of Hebrews [cf. 13:4] could very well be speaking out here against this trend of not marrying at all. (37)

[via: see footnote link to Bible Hub.]

Myth 5: The Bible Clearly Says Premarital Sex Is Sinful

A disordered sex life is not necessarily one in which sex happens before wedding vows, but rather one in which sex takes on importance in one’s life to the point of blocking out all other considerations. … As the definition of fornication, “sex as idolatry” makes a lot more sense than merely “sex outside of a marital relationship.” (40)

Context Is Key

I have gone through this journey too, and am writing to tell you that it’s OK to question, to wonder, and to decide to walk away from the traditions you have always been taught. (41)

Four: How I Kind of Sort of Lost My Virginity

Once sex became something I wanted, rather than something I would cooperate with once I got married, I was able to understand my own bodily desires better. (45)

Whatever you choose, the best way to live a life that honors the agency, autonomy, and personhood of one’s fellow human beings is to live a life with intentionally defined and discussed meaning. If you choose to wait, it is important to define why. Developing your sexual ethics is important for owning your body, and your sexuality. It is also vital to the practice of respecting and loving one’s neighbors, because a defined, meaningful approach to the practice of sex, like all other disciplines, helps us to understand both ourselves and our relationships to others. Ultimately, defining your own sexual ethics and why you have them is an integral part of any future or current relationship, sexual or not. | Your journey is yours to own and your story is your own to tell. No one can take that from you. (51)

[via: I fully appreciate Anderson’s ethic here, and it is a sentiment that will be repeated throughout the rest of the book. My critique is the lack of explanation or connection with the greater Christian story. The previous chapter, where we ask questions about passages that may have been misinterpreted over time, is excellent for stretching our minds. But would Anderson be willing to question this “ego-centric” vision of sexual ethics as well in light of Jesus’s teachings? What if “yours to own” falls short of, perhaps, what the Biblical writers were attempting to communicate about sexual immorality in relation to the body of Christ?]

Five: Approaching Sexuality with Intention

The guiding principles for developing personal sexual (53) ethics–for defining what sexual purity means personally for you–involve consistency, health, and consent. These are what I’ve developed:

  1. God’s plan for sexuality has many facets.
  2. Your body is your own. You are not public property.
  3. Healthy sexuality requires understanding your own body.
  4. Sexual activity should always be pleasurable and consensual.
  5. Sexuality is fluid and complex.
  6. God doesn’t shame us. (54)

Know yourself, know your situation, know God for yourself, and decide what is right for your life. (54)

[via: This is that “egoism” I was alluding to before. Admittedly, this is a tension, not a binary (see above introduction). Yet, the pendulum is swinging pretty far towards “self.”]

Ethics often incorporates both personal and social norms, and a personal ethic that results in pain for other people is not a good one. Your ethics need to be grounded in respect for yourself and respect for others, first and foremost. (55)

In recent times Christian ethics have been the purview of conservative literalists. Literal interpretations of Scripture have often been used to create rules and boundaries to keep the community together. But while the intent of literalism is noble, the result has not been. Instead of teaching people to free themselves to make decisions that align with their spiritual journeys, Biblical literalism and hard-line stances on purity have created cages. The “ethic” of purity is simply a set of rules about when to say no, rather than an education in how to say yes.

[via: This paragraph felt very contradictory to me. Of course literalist interpretations, the goals of which are to “create rules” and “boundaries,” would do the same for purity. Why would they “teach people to free themselves to make decisions that align with their spiritual journeys.” I think it’s clear what Anderson is arguing for, but it is not very cogent of an argument.]

Holiness, for a Christian, is not about following some set of rules in order that God will not punish us, but rather about embracing the wholeness of our humanity and understanding and exploring our very selves. (55)

…holiness needs to be about integration and moderation.

To deny ourselves the flesh through a set of rules is to push ourselves away from a creation that God deemed good. (56)

[via: Yes! Great!]

Therefore, in developing a sexual ethic, we own our bodies. (56)

[via: Not so great. In this section, Anderson attempts to argue two distinctly different things as if they were the same. Yes, we are created, and yes, it is good. Yes, we need to see fellow humans as God’s image. Yes, all humans deserve that reciprocal respect. But NO, that does not mean that we ought to develop a “personal sexual ethic.” That kind of “egoism” does not flow from that kind of spiritual narrative.]

And that is the ultimate beauty and purpose of developing these ethics. God put us in these bodies not so that we may fear them and each other but so that we may gain understanding of ourselves and of our world by experiencing it as incarnate beings, able to have an impact for good. It is justice and holiness that calls us to be whole, fully incarnated people–sexually included. We do not exist solely as individual bodies, in our own little bubbles, but as a community of people made in the image of God, which means our ethics must reflect this image. (57)

[via: I admit at this point, I may be misreading Anderson, because this paragraph is well articulated and consistent. It just feels so contrarian to the general thesis she is pushing in other segments (as above).]

Six: Beyond Rings and Roles

What is important is the engagement with the sacredness of knowing the other. | Within the purity movement, however, this sacredness is simultaneously deified and denied. (60)

Quiverfull is the conservative doctrine that a woman should not take any steps to prevent herself from getting pregnant, as that would be a subversion of God’s will. (63)

[via: This section was really well done, enlightening the reader into various expressions of the “purity culture.” Her quotes substantiate her arguments, and should cause the reader to really consider how perverted and obsessive some of these ideas are.]

This view of sex as “men want it, women give it” has proliferated throughout evangelicalism to exist in the wider American culture. (69)

This exploitative, imperialistic context is singularly important to any discussion of the hierarchy inherent in complementarianism. (71)

Much of mainstream evangelical theology has made Jesus into an individual God who helps us feel better about the bad things we do. The Jesus of liberation theology afflicts the comfortable by challenging them to see their own roles in creating oppression and to fight against it. (73)

We as humans bring our own sacredness and meaning to the idea of sex. If waiting until marriage is something that is important for you, then that is what you bring to the table and you have every right to make that choice. (75) But reducing sexuality to a role that is determined by your gender and your “submissiveness” removes the beauty and mystery from sex and denies the work that God can do through the act, the ability of God to create holiness with or without human ceremonies. (76)

Seven: Your Body, Your Choices

In modesty theology a woman’s body is public property–open for public comment and public judgment. (77)

[via: This is where Anderson really hits home runs. She is, in my opinion, spot on in her analysis. The phraseology, “a woman’s body is public property” is a perfect articulation. Throughout this chapter, she addresses the communal body, lust, and modesty, showing how much the burden is upon the woman, exposing misogyny in our theology, doctrines, and morals. She also discusses the different standards of race and size, and the horrid mistreatment we have of women contingent upon their “type.”]

Women in evangelical culture bear the brunt of modesty teaching. (88)

…creating a dynamic in which we are responsible for both ourselves and our brothers. … A woman’s responsibility extends beyond her own body and into the minds of the men around her–she is held responsible for their sins. (89)

Women’s lives are a catch-22–they must be sexy and they must be modest. And most important, they don’t get any say over either. In evangelical purity culture, women’s bodies are not their own. (93)

[via: If I had a critique, it would be that this is not just evangelical culture. It is American culture as well. Of course, Anderson suggests that evangelical culture has been distinctly influential in American culture. I consider this a chicken/egg dilemma.]

Eight: The Question of Individual Rights

Evangelicals, especially those in the purity movement, have so steeped themselves in the language of counterculture, of being set apart in holiness, of being separate from the secular world, that it becomes hard to even find middle ground to communicate. (109)

…planning of the possibilities is part of making a mature decision, and a sign that you are ready for such activity. (112)

What happens  throughout these discussions of individual rights and bodily autonomy is that one story–the story of purity–is allowed to dominate the narrative. Instead of listening, we assume that all stories of sexual experiences are the same, that race and gender and socioeconomic status are incidental details, rather than essential aspects of each individual’s story. (119)

Nine: Choosing Celibacy

Because abstinence and purity are considered such important values and this hard-line stance must be maintained at all times, the information available often reads like it was contorting itself to be politically consistent. (123)

Scarleteen. Planned Parenthood Tumblr.

Ten: Getting to Know Yourself

In talking with friends and women around the United States, I discovered a common strain, a distinguishable mark that the American church’s emphasis on purity had left. Women simply didn’t know themselves–their desires, their bodies, their own sexuality. (133)

…the purity movement is steeped in the symbolism of virginity, but fails once the thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds making pledges grow up and start making adult decisions. Once we become adults, mature, and recognize ourselves as sexual beings, many realize that the promises we made in our early teens were naïve. The twenty-eight-year-old has different goals in life from the fourteen-year-old and we have to allow room for that growth. (135)

Purity culture creates an “ethic” in which the only guiding principle is “no.” It doesn’t create healthy knowledge of sex, but instead a sense of denial and delayed gratification. It puts the current generation of children more at risk for problematic and risky behavior. | Instead, our healthy sexual ethic needs to start with the freedom to know ourselves. (145)

[via: I am seeing more clearly Anderson’s thesis. For in this sense, “knowing yourself,” is a journey that is highly compatible with understanding the Christian story. And “knowing yourself” is a bit of a double entendre too! ;-)]

Eleven: Yes Means Yes: Healthy Boundaries Mean Healthy Lives

Rape culture is a feminist term for a culture that implicitly and explicitly minimizes the trauma of rape and creates an environment in which rape and sexual assault are acceptable. (148)

…coerced sex is not sex, but rape. (155)

[via: I must tread lightly here, and begin by first saying that full, complete, and explicit consent is the standard for mutual sexuality. I agree with the quote from p.155 above. However, there is a challenge. The argument Anderson posits includes a story of a woman who had been pressured, and finally “gives in” to the solicitations of her boyfriend. Anderson explicitly says this is “rape.” I have a couple inquiries. If the genders were swapped, would this still be considered “rape?” Is that kind of scenario a fundamental violation of full, complete, and explicit consent? And, if this is rape, it has implications for how we statistically calculate sexual assault and the reporting.]

…evangelicalism seems to have encoded rape into its very theology, casting sex as a duty, no matter what one’s mood is at the time. It gives people free reign to rape their spouses, because, after all, one’s body is not one’s own. If any and all sex before the wedding is a sin, regardless of consent, and all sex after the wedding is a duty, then individual desire, sex drive, and consent are erased in the name of God. (163)

[via: And here, I concur.]

There are a few different principles we need to follow to prioritize consent and to create a culture that respects the bodies of others. (165)

  1. Respect boundaries
  2. Teach others to respect boundaries too
  3. Believe Survivors
  4. Look out for others

Twelve: Only You Can Define Your Sexuality

I’ve cut my hair short several times over my life, sporting a curly pixie cut each time. Inevitably some stranger calls me “sir” or mistakes me for a young man. This misgendering reinforces that I am not performing femininity well enough to be seen as a woman in my culture. (174)

[via: I want to be careful here as well, and I admit, there’s a level of force to this statement that is hard to discern (you know, text being only 7% of communication). I simply want to suggest that there are culturally accepted “norms” for physical appearances for the genders. Mistaking one for the other when someone falls outside those conditioned experiences of normality does not necessarily suggest that one has a deprecating attitude or perspective towards another person’s “performance” in their gender.]

Instead of meeting people where they are, however, purity culture makes two false assumptions about its audience. First, that everyone is cisgender, identifying with the gender that matches their birth designation, and second, that everyone is heterosexual. (176)

[via: This felt like a “duh” statement to me, because the very foundational theology/philosophy upon which purity culture is grounded sees this way as well.]

Everything within these metaphors and ideas is coded in terms of binary gender and heterosexuality. This language erases the identities of the very people sitting int he pews of churches of America every Sunday. (177)

…we should look at virginity loss as a process. (179)

Somewhere along the line, severely conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists realized that “saving one’s virginity” was an inadequate concept (though it is still dominant in many areas). “Emotional purity” was then invented. It is centered on the idea that one can lose purity by becoming emotionally involved, even if physical experience doesn’t happen. (179)

Safety is a vital part of goodness, and we must work on being safe people for others–and safe people for ourselves. (182)

No one can determine your sexuality or gender identity but you. (182)

Thirteen: Sex Without Shame

If you take one lesson and one lesson only from this book, I want it to be this: God doesn’t function in a currency of shame. Shame isn’t from God, it isn’t of God, and it isn’t something Christians should engage in. Shame is not nor will it every be a useful response to a person’s experience of the world, especially when it comes to sexual experiences. (187)

Our motto in approaching sexual ethics needs to be that of doctors: “First, do no harm.” (188)

Christian sexual ethics need to be about honoring the humanity of individuals, and honoring the community in which we live and breathe. This is not a mater of when sex happens, but rather a matter of attitudes, postures, and understanding. (190)

When we talk about sexuality, we also have conversations about pleasure. (198)

Epilogue

About VIA

www.kevinneuner.com

One comment

  1. Pingback: I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye | Reflections | vialogue

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