I am privileged to share with you today an interview I recently conducted with Dianna Anderson, author of the new book Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity (241.664 Anderson). Tackling the Evangelical purity culture that has often used shame and guilt as a way of controlling the sexual choices of young people, Dianna’s book provides insightful critiques of these methods and wise advice for how churches can teach a healthier, safer, consent-based sexual ethic, as well as encouragements for individuals who have been hurt by purity teachings. After the interview, be sure to head over to Dianna’s excellent blog. Here is what Dianna had to say in our interview. Enjoy.
David Nilsen: I grew up in the same Evangelical purity culture you did, and so much of your book resonated with me, though as a male (straight, cis) it was obviously directed at me it in different ways. While I agreed with nearly everything you said here (one caveat is that I have left the faith and identify as agnostic theist, so some of the more directly faith-related passages were not as applicable for me), as I was reading it I couldn’t help but imagine the backlash the book would receive inside the vast majority of churches I have ever attended. Most conservatives Christians I know would dismiss what you’re proposing without even giving it a fair hearing. Given the damage being done by purity culture and the importance of teaching a healthy, holistic, consent-based sexual ethic to young people, how do you propose bridging the gap with conservative church-goers so productive conversations about these topics can be held and progress can be made?
Dianna Anderson: I’ll be honest: I have trouble with being a bridge builder. I believe that certain people are called to certain vocations and bridge builder is not mine. I’m the person standing on the other side, welcoming people to the new life and the new way of thought. Other people are helping to usher them across. But the conversation is necessary to have in all churches – I think many, many churches fail in actually having any kind of real conversation about sex. The good thing is that as millennials are becoming disillusioned with a lot of what they’ve been told about Jesus’ brimstone and hellfire, they’re striking out and finding new things on their own.
I’ve actually spoken to a lot of conservative readers who’ve been “I don’t agree with all her conclusions, but I like that she’s starting the conversation.” And right now, that’s my goal. I don’t consider Damaged Goods to be the end all, be-all of sexual ethics. It’s a conversation starter and if people want to spend time debating my ideas, I encourage it. I think just having the discussion is important.
David: What kind of reception have you had for the book thus far from the Evangelical community?
Dianna: I’m not really supposed to talk about reviews because it’s bad form for new authors, but I will say I’ve come across some utterly hilarious ones who think I’m the devil incarnate now. I don’t think these folks are by any means representative, though, but it keeps me grounded to read them. I’ve actually had some incredibly good conversations with evangelical bloggers and figures in the evangelical world about my work. Many of them have felt challenged and though they disagree with my ideas about sex outside of marriage or whatever, a lot of them are really interested in having a conversation about shame and how to get rid of it. I think many more moderate evangelicals are coming around to this idea that shame has no place in the church. And that’s a good thing.
David: While you are very clear that sex is a personal choice and if someone wishes to wait until marriage that is perfectly fine, you do talk throughout the book (page 56, for example) about the fact that owning our bodies and sexuality can be a way of glorifying God. Galileo famously said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” Do you think there is a corollary there to the use of our sexual bodies? If we are endowed with the ability for sexual activity and pleasure, are we dishonoring God in any way by not fully embodying that sexuality?
Dianna: I hesitate to make a declarative statement on that, because there’s a lot to unpack and explore there, but my first inclination is a yes, with qualifications. People are called to celibacy, despite various sexual drives. And I believe that is their way of honoring God and we should honor that. I also want to qualify that no one is obligated to have sex under any circumstance, whether it is glorifying to God or not. But I think it is important and honoring God to understand our physical and sexual beings as major parts of ourselves and to work with them instead of against them. Particularly for queer identities – and I identify as bisexual – it is important to fully embrace who God created us to be and to be willing and open to where that may take us. I think there’s a long tradition within queer theology of using the sexual body to honor God, and I believe such ideas fit into a healthy sexual ethic and understanding of the self.
David: What are the most crucial steps the modern Evangelical church needs to take to stop harming young people with these purity teachings?
Dianna: For God’s sake, stop with the purity pledges. You know what I want to do for a career when I was 14 (the same time I made a purity pledge)? I wanted to be a lawyer. And I wanted to be a lawyer because I watched Law and Order and I loved the show. I literally said that in a “goals” journal we did in 8th grade. I didn’t know JACK about what I wanted for my future (in some ways, I still don’t!). Expecting a lifelong promise at that young age, coupled with teaching of shame and pain and destruction if that pledge you signed gets broken? Ugh, recipe for disaster. Please please stop. If you get ANYTHING out my work, let it be the fact that teenagers are still, in many ways, children, and need to be allowed to make their own decisions, without fear, shame, or pressure. Sometimes I think church youth groups are one of the biggest sources of peer pressure for Christian youth nowadays.
Equally as important is consent. Pressure, wheedling, whining, force, and coercion are not healthy behaviors, even if someone peppers the language with pretty God-holiness stuff (I’m looking at you every Christian who’s written that women have an obligation to have sex with their husbands or Satan will attack their family). Rape isn’t something that happens in a faraway world, committed by complete strangers. If we teach people to respect other people’s bodies, we can move a long way away from the shame we currently heaped on people who have their peace stolen from them via sexual violence.
David: If the leadership of a church steeped in purity culture came to you tomorrow and said they realized they’d been doing harm with what they’d been teaching and they wanted to change, and asked for your counsel in teaching a healthier sexual ethic, what would be the very first thing you would like to see them change in that process of growth?
Dianna: Such a church would need to be willing to apologize, openly and publicly, not unlike churches that apologize for homophobia. These gestures are often seen as publicity stunts and sometimes don’t have the theology to back them up, but a public apology from churches who preach purity culture would, I think, start a good long process toward healing.
Rooting out purity culture is a long, hard process, and so much of the modern church has it embedded to the core. Purity culture, for example, affects how we read Biblical references to sex workers. It creates hard-to-shake worldviews that need radical, radical uprooting to actually change. So a church must be willing to repent, to commit to a new direction, and to develop a new curriculum for giving their congregation the tools to have sex in a healthy way. There would be a lot of prayer, a lot of apologies, and a lot of stumbles. But I believe that churches can find a way out of that morass – and I think such churches would find their congregations growing if they did.
David: Something that is affected by purity culture, but more than a consequence is actually another segment of a broader pattern of teaching, is the idealization of marriage within conservative church circles. This was probably the biggest single effect of Christian relationship teaching in my life. When I started a relationship at 18 and felt all the big emotions, there was no doubt in my mind we should get married, because that is what you do in that culture. We both loved Jesus, so he would take care of the warning signs that were there and make us happily married forever. I got married at 19, and got divorced a couple years ago. What are the most important things the church needs to change about what it teaches young people about marriage, and how does that tie in with purity culture?
Dianna: I identify with this a lot. I write in Damaged Goods about how, even though I’d given up on a lot of purity culture, my “we said I love you that means marriage!” thinking was still way out of whack in my first relationship. I had visions of wedding bells, flowers at the wedding, and a long happy life together after we said “I love you” to each other, and it made me miss giant flashing warning lights of incompatibility. Luckily, I was dating someone smart enough to pull the plug and I’m actually grateful for that (I just think about what would have happened if we had gotten married and I shudder).
Marriage was one of the elements I had a lot of trouble knocking off its pedestal when I left evangelical culture. It’s part of our language – the future husband or wife, “when” you get married, etc. And it’s a particularly white, American Christian, middle class ideal. It’s assumed that we’ll get married, and it’ll be sooner rather than later. Part of what helped me realize that it wasn’t all buttercups and beer was that first relationship and the fact that I had a lot of friends who got married in college who divorced by 25. I think a large part of conquering that “marriage is EVERYTHING” trend is simple experience and taking a long hard look at the actual results of marrying the first person you fall in love with (especially at 18).
David: You do a good job of explaining how purity culture is tied in with patriarchy, this system in society as a whole and within the church that centers the voices and authority of straight, white cismen. Given the way the two are tangled up within the church, can Evangelicalism move forward with undoing the harm of purity culture without changing their ingrained stance on gender roles? Could a complementarian church ever teach a wholly healthy sexual ethic?
Dianna: Honestly? Nope. So much of the way the church handles sexual ethics is tied into the idea that men and women exist in inherently and deeply embedded distinct roles. And I believe a healthy sexuality cannot be explored within those constraints.
David: Do you have any closing thoughts you would like to leave our readers with?
Dianna: I’ll close with what I tell most people: don’t be afraid to explore who you are. It might lead you to some strange places. You may discover things about yourself that you were taught to be afraid of. But God created you and you are loved. Shame doesn’t have jack on you.
David: Thanks again, Dianna.
Damaged Goods is available now at Greenville Public Library.