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Dianna E. Anderson, on The Path To a More Sexually Tolerant Christianity

Dianna E. Anderson, on The Path To a More Sexually Tolerant Christianity: purityringsonline.com

purityringsonline.com

Does purity culture violate the tenets of Christianity? Author Dianna E. Anderson makes a convincing case that it does in her recently published book Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity .

“We’ve been told a lie that our worth lies in what we do (or don’t do) with our genitals,” Anderson contends in her book.

Anderson grew up an evangelical American Baptist in Sioux Falls, S.D., and like many evangelicals she made an early commitment to have sex only with her husband and only after marriage.

“At 14 I was expected to make a lifetime commitment to certain standards of purity,” she writes. “Anything beyond first base was off the table, no matter what age I happened to be when the One came along.”

Over time, though, Anderson came to realize that that “lifetime commitment” was misguided. She didn’t reject Christianity because of purity culture, though. She came to realize that purity culture is flawed because it’s un-Christian.

“Sexual purity,” she writes, “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.”

The focus on purity, she argues, encourages Christians to treat those who are impure as miscreants. If a man or woman has sex outside of marriage, or if they feel desire, or if they are (like Anderson) bisexual, then they’re damaged.

“We have forgotten justice and mercy in the name of legalism,” Anderson says. “We have deviated from a God of grace and love and mercy and instead embraced a cold, distant, heartless God who does not care about individual contexts and individual experiences.”

Anderson argues for a Christian sexual ethic that allows people in the church to “love our neighbors as Jesus commanded” — and to approach sexuality with respect and care rather than with judgment and scorn.

I spoke with Anderson about the problems with purity culture, and about what Christianity has to teach us about sex, love, agency and feminism.


Anderson

Anderson

You argue in your book that the evangelical obsession with purity is essentially un-Christian. What do you think Christ has to say about sexual ethics? What should be the Christian contribution to sexual ethics?

As far as Biblical sexual ethics go, I think we see a lot of Jesus honoring people’s stories and honoring people where they’re at. He understands who they are because he’s the creator of them and the sustainer of their lives, so he gets who they are at their very core. You don’t really see him condemn people for doing things out of love. When you see him condemn people in regard to sexual ethics, it’s in regard to people who are not respecting the bodily autonomy of others.

In Matthew 5, where he talks about divorce, he’s yelling at people who are divorcing their wives for silly reasons like not cooking dinner right. He’s always putting the emphasis on understanding and honoring people. So I used that as the basis for pursuing a sexual ethics for how sexuality works in our lives today. Because dating wasn’t a thing in those times, so neither Paul nor Jesus has anything to say about dating. We have to go based on what we do know of them to decide what we’re going to do as Christians today.

Do you see purity culture as having some value, in terms of pushing back against sexualization, particularly against the sexualization of young girls?

I think purity culture is trying to do that, and I want to honor that motivation. I’ve talked to proponents of modesty and purity, and they’re always talking about the sexualization of young women and how they don’t want to see that happen, and I agree with them on that.

But the way they end up enacting that is that they reduce us to our sexuality by telling us that our sexuality is a special gift and it’s what we have to give to our husbands. So it ends up being just a different side of the coin when it comes to sexualization.

For fighting the sexualization of young women and of women altogether, we have to be willing to give women agency to make decisions and to empower them to make decisions that we might not agree with. I think there’s a middle ground between the full-on purity culture form of objectification and sexualization and the raunchy sex culture sexualization.

You don’t talk in your book much about pornography. I wondered how does pornography fit into the ethic of recognizing a sexual partner’s personhood? Can there be a Christian enjoyment of pornography?

I actually get asked about porn a lot. Most people hear about sexual ethics, and they ask, “Where does porn fit into all of this?”

My stance on porn is pretty nuanced. I think there are ways in which porn contributes to an unhealthy sexual culture in terms of what it shows us as the ideal, especially things produced by mainstream porn which are basically rape scenarios and which feature lack of consent.

I do think that there is feminist porn that is being produced that is useful for people and that has good values of consent and celebrating and honoring the idea of other people’s bodies. And I’m pro-sex worker in terms of — if the person performing the porn is choosing this out of her own agency, then I have no problem with that.

It’s a little dicey as Christians because there’s a very, very strong anti-porn contingent within purity culture, where if you are using porn in any way then that’s a sign of you being addicted to sex. And it’s never looked at very healthily in purity culture. But I think there are ways to use porn without sacrificing your Christian life.

There’s so much anti-masturbation stuff in purity culture that it’s hard to say that it’s OK to masturbate, and it’s OK to use porn to masturbate without that being seen as “anything goes.” And a lot of that extends out of that good motivation of not wanting to objectify and use other people for your own self-gratification. But there has to be this line where we realize that masturbation is a natural impulse for a lot of people. If sex workers want to create porn in that mission then I’m totally OK with that.

I think most people are aware that Christian evangelical purity sexual ethics are unfriendly to LGBT people. But you argue in the book that they can be racially exclusive as well. What do sexual ethics have to do with race?

Particularly in America there’s this long history of over-sexualization of black women’s bodies. There’s this myth that they can’t be raped because they’re so sexually available. So when it enters into purity and sexual ethics, you see a lot of white evangelical churches just not addressing the fact that their image of pure women is a white teenage virgin, basically. And they don’t acknowledge that there’s this bias that black women aren’t seen as able to have that sort of godly purity.

One of my friends who runs a blog called No Shame Movement is a black woman who grew up in a missionary family in the black church, and she experienced a lot of the same purity culture movement, so a lot of the same theology, but in a different way, because she’s a black woman who exists in a culture where she is sexualized and seen as an overly sexual being.

You talk a lot in your book about rejecting shame, especially sexual shame. I recently read Helen Prejean’s ‘Dead Man Walking,’ and she in contrast seems to see shame as a resource; that is, you feel shame, and that’s a sign that you’re doing something wrong and need to try to take a different path. So do you see shame as sometimes useful, or is it something to be abandoned entirely?

I think that that argument is similar to what you see in a lot of different conservative evangelical circles now, talking about how there’s a bad shame, and then there’s a good shame that makes you want to change.

And I think that’s a problem of definition. There’s no such thing as good shame. When you’re talking about that shameful feeling that makes you want to change, that’s a form of guilt. That’s a form of realization that there’s conviction or need for repentance. That doesn’t come out of shame. That comes out of guilt, which is a different thing than shame.

For me, shame is something that is paralyzing. It makes you feel like you’re worthless; there’s no possible way that you can change. Whereas guilt says, ‘OK, that was messed up, but you need to change that.’

A lot of your ethical suggestions dovetail with feminism’s emphasis on individual agency, choice, individuality and autonomy. It seems like there’s part of Christianity that is, arguably, about self-abnegation, rather than about individuality. So is there a contradiction for you between feminism’s focus on empowerment and Christianity’s focus on humility? How do you reconcile those things?

Yes, the whole “the first shall be last” teaching.

I think there are ways in which the Christian can maintain individual autonomy while also recognizing that we participate in a community. And that’s where I find liberation theology to be particularly relevant. Current evangelical theology is also very individualistic and very focused on the individual. It’s all about the individual’s relationship with Christ, and it’s very centered on the individual person; they just don’t acknowledge that within all the talk about self-abdication.

But in liberation theology I find a good balance between the community and the individual. We recognize that we’re individuals with individual rights and autonomy, and we also participate in this larger community and this larger system of oppressions and intersections along those axes of oppression. And God exists within each of those different oppressed identities and identifies with those.

That’s what liberation theology says: that God on the cross identifies with all the oppressed peoples and all the acts of liberation and joins with us in our struggles for liberation. And I think that strikes a good balance between the individual recognizing that God identifies with your individual oppression and individual identity while also acting as a community to free people from marginalization.

Your feminism informs your Christianity in your book. I was wondering how it works the other way; how does your Christianity influence your feminism?

Christianity pushed me away from some radical feminism. Christianity says God created you as you are, and it is in learning to honor and love God as a creator that you explore your own identity and become fully who God made you to be. For trans people they are living out their unique God-created identity and becoming who they are and presenting as the gender that they are. So for me Christianity is the basis or undercurrent behind a lot of my feminism and informs a lot of my motivations for understanding people as they are and meeting them as they are.


Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.


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