[content note: rape, victim-blaming]
When I was in middle school, I didn’t think that it was possible for a husband to rape his wife. To the extent that I thought about sex and marriage at all, it seemed to me that the wife’s “I do” in the marriage ceremony constituted a “yes” to sex with her husband for all time, at any time, no matter her mood or her preferences or the state of the couple’s relationship.
I thought this was the biblical, Christian, godly view of sex. After all, “the wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:4). It might be mean of a husband to force his wife to have sex when she doesn’t want to, but it wouldn’t be rape. And I had the sense, too, that a wife who tried to deny sex to her husband was pretty close to sinning already, so if anything, she would be the one at fault in that situation.
That I could unreflectively hold such an abhorrent view of sex and marriage at an age at which I should have been better-informed was a result of my absorption of the attitudes toward sex that I’d heard in church and in the various Christian environments in which I had lived. Of course, no one in evangelical purity culture would argue outright that wives are unrapeable by their husbands—at least, I certainly hope very much that no one would. But in my half-formed middle-school musings, I was picking up on a very troubling aspect of purity culture: its denial of bodily autonomy, especially for women.
In Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity, released today from Jericho Books, Dianna Anderson examines and counters this and other problematic aspects of the teachings of purity culture, using a mixture of interviews, research, and personal experience. To my mind, her book is especially valuable for the strong statements it makes on three points that are too often blurred or lost in evangelical discussions of purity.
1. Your body is your own.
Throughout the book, Anderson returns many times to this idea of bodily autonomy. Damaged Goods explores how, in purity culture rhetoric, a woman’s ownership of her own body is denied on levels large and small. In modesty culture, a woman’s body tends to be seen as public property, something to be controlled and policed by others. If her top allows a glimpse of a bra strap, she’s responsible for causing a brother to stumble; if her style is too frumpy, she’s responsible for causing her husband to wander. By arguing that women’s and men’s bodies belong to themselves (as do their thoughts, actions, and sexual choices), Damaged Goods attempts to counter this sort of gendered imbalance when it comes to discussions of modesty and purity.
Even more importantly, Anderson centers consent in her sexual ethics. As my middle-school thoughts show, it’s possible for the constant reiteration of “no sex before marriage, all the sex after marriage” to obscure a healthy concept of consent. Contrary to the teachings of purity culture, your body does not belong to your future husband or wife. Your body does not belong to your current husband or wife. Your body doesn’t even belong to God. Your body belongs to you, and you are the only one who can decide if and when you give your consent to sex.
While I find myself in agreement with most of Anderson’s major points, I know that many people within evangelical Christianity will not agree with Anderson’s argument that there can be biblical, Christian, and godly sexual relationships outside of marriage. But one thing that everybody should take away from this book, no matter their ultimate opinions on the relationships within which sex should take place, is the importance of talking about consent in our discussions of sexual ethics.
I’ve heard dozens of sermons on waiting until marriage. I’ve never heard one sermon with a focus on consent. There’s something skewed in that.
2. Your worth is not defined by your sexual experiences.
As the title suggests, Damaged Goods talks about the way that those who engage in sexual activity outside of a heterosexual marriage relationship are often shamed, demeaned, and objectified in purity culture. Such a person is seen as a depetalled rose, a mouthful of chewed-up gum, a piece of damaged goods. They’ve lost value to others and to the church. They’re automatically othered.
Early on in the book, Anderson tells about how she mentally recategorized a college friend as “damaged goods—not marriage material ever” once she learned that he had had sex with his ex-girlfriend. Over the course of the rest of the book, Anderson discusses the many ways in which purity culture encourages that reaction of dismissive alienation, and the many ways in which that shaming is wrong. Ultimately, Anderson questions the concept of spiritual “purity” being tied to the evangelical church’s definition of virginity in the first place.
Again, I know that many evangelical Christians won’t follow Anderson in jettisoning virginity as an indicator of purity (or even as a state of being rather than a process). But her book should make everyone examine the effects of the rhetoric of shame that too often accompanies the evangelical church’s teachings on sexual purity. More largely, Anderson’s resolute denial that our God is a God of shame has implications for conversations on Christian theology beyond sexual ethics. Damaged Goods potentially encourages the reader to question any theology that claims that shame, fear, and rejection come from a God who is love.
3. Your story is valid.
Finally, throughout the book, Anderson pays attention to those people whose stories and identities are often erased by purity culture rhetoric (sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally). She talks about, and with, people who don’t fit the “single narrative” of purity culture: the narrative of the (white, straight, cisgender, middle-class) woman waiting until marriage to have sex with her (white, straight, cisgender, middle-class) husband. Anderson untangles the ways in which purity culture rhetoric intersects with unspoken assumptions about race, class, body shape, and ability—as well as, of course, assumptions about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Purity culture is particularly insidious in erasing queer and transgender people. Anderson’s book is therefore particularly welcome to me in its formulation of a universally applicable model of sexual ethics that intentionally includes LGBTQIA+ people. Even if readers don’t end up agreeing with Anderson’s particular model of sexual ethics, her analysis of the exclusionary nature of purity culture rhetoric should encourage everyone toward more self-examination about the language we use and the assumptions we make. This should be especially so for those in positions of authority in the church, who may not realize it when their words ignore the existence of entire sections of the body of Christ.
Damaged Goods opens a much-needed conversation on Christian purity and sexual ethics. The arguments in the book are broad and bold rather than deep and nuanced, but those bold statements are ones that the evangelical church needs to hear. Anderson presents the view that there is a biblical, Christian, godly alternative to purity culture when it comes to sexual ethics, one that makes an effort to shed the sexism, shame, and erasure that have too insistently clung to evangelical teachings on purity. At the very least, it’s a view that’s worth thinking about, and it’s a book that’s worth responding to.
I’ve appreciated Anderson’s blog, Faith and Feminism, for a long time now. I’ve appreciated her thoughts for even longer, since we knew each other in an undergraduate study-abroad program. I’m glad that her book will allow her brave, challenging thoughts to reach an even larger audience than they already do. I hope that many will respond to Anderson’s call for new conversations on Christian purity.
I hope that, when it comes to evangelical teachings on sex, the landscape will eventually change so much that if I ever have a child, any Christian attitude toward sex that they might absorb in church would be a healthy one. Damaged Goods works toward that changed landscape by doing some of the initial excavation that could help lead to the extensive terraforming that needs to take place.
[Note: I received a free advance review copy of Damaged Goods via NetGalley. This review refers to that advance copy.