Can Christianity be sex-positive? A chat with Dianna Anderson

Can Christianity be sex-positive? A chat with Dianna Anderson February 13, 2015
Photo by Tate Walker
Photo by Tate Walker

Dianna Anderson is a twitter friend and conversation partner who is part of our growing tribe of ex-evangelicals on the Internet. Dianna does a great job of synthesizing the insights of intersectional feminism and Christian theology on her blog. She has just released Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity which seeks to advance a healthier vision for sexuality than the one she received from her upbringing in conservative evangelical purity culture. I don’t always agree with everything Dianna says, but I think her perspective is tremendously valuable and important to consider. So I had a chat with her today about her new book and her vision for a sex-positive Christianity.

MG: So I wanted to start with a really broad question that I wanted to use as a title: Can Christianity be sex-positive?

DA: I think it absolutely can. Christianity’s sex-negativity seems to come more from our historical Puritan discomfort with sex rather than anything based in a relationship with God. So it needs to be reframed and looked at closely, but I think it’s definitely possible.

MG:  I definitely feel like there’s a whole lot of baggage that’s gotten mixed up with our sexuality. What our some of the unhealthy sources of our Puritan discomfort that you would identify?

DA:  I think the purity movement as a whole has been a reaction to culture, rather than an exploration of what God wants for us. During the mid-20th century, the white evangelical church was frightened by all the changes happening in society with regards to the feminist sexual revolutions and the civil rights movement and so it latched on to purity as a method of having something it could control. Sexual purity thus became central to the gospel message. Purity thus became a litmus test for every “good” Christian.

MG:  So what would distinguish the kind of “purity” that Jesus talks about when he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart” from the kind of “purity” in evangelical purity culture? Can there be a positive form of “purity” or has that word been permanently spoiled for people who grew up in purity culture?

DA:  Well, to answer the second question first, I think it depends on the person for whether or not it’s been spoiled. But in terms of the “pure in heart” – for me, that line is less about sexual purity/lust and more about the quality of love people have for one another – whether or not we are loving others simply with the goal to love them.

MG:  I really appreciate your take on “purity of heart” as being agenda-less love. I see a connection between that and overcoming idolatry in our hearts in general. It seems like sex has tremendous potential to become idolatrous. By that, I mean that we’re “worshiping” the sensation of it in a way that detracts from the full humanity of the other person. How can we have sex in a way that is un-idolatrous?

DA:  Yes, I definitely think so. Emphasizing mutual pleasure and prioritizing your partner’s desires (not to the detriment of one’s own, of course) is a way to have sexual experiences in non-idolatrous ways. I think emphasizing sex as a consensual, pleasurable encounter makes a big movement toward removing it from the pedestal purity culture has placed it on.

MG:  I’m noticing an interesting irony in the way that you expressed that: the way that purity culture actually makes sex idolatrous by putting it on a “pedestal.” Can you say more about that?

DA:  I think purity culture makes us view sex as this bogeyman before marriage – something gigantic that we have to fear and protect ourselves from that could ruin our lives. But at the same time, within marriage, it’s reckoned as the end-all-be-all. There’s this perverse obsession with sex as a foundational part of marriage and if you’re not having great sex every couple of days, there’s something wrong. There’s no real way in Christian culture to normalize and discuss sex as one part of a relationship because we either don’t talk about it at all or we attribute everything to it.

MG:  I know that in preparing for your book, you talked to a lot of Christians who have dysfunctional sex lives because of the melodramatic way that purity culture sets them up for their wedding night. As someone who didn’t wait until I got married, I’ve gotten so used to narrating the problems in my marital sex life according to the official narrative of “I should have waited.” What I hate is feeling like sex is some kind of competitive performance in which my wife and I either succeed or fail each time. I think my attraction to the fantasy of us both being virgins (which neither of us were) is wanting it to be a “pure,” organic experience in which I’m not making comparisons. But I wonder if some of the comparison-making is not so much due to my prior sexual partners, but the unhealthy way that sex has been packaged in popular culture. How do we get past sex being a competitive performance?

DA:  Purity culture trains us to think that any past sexual partners will cloud relationship with our “one true love” with that partner who God wants us to be with forever. But once that’s been drilled into us for so long, it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, where we can’t help but think about our past sins when we’re trying to create a new relationship. This is the role that shame plays in purity culture – it convinces us that we’ve failed, that we’re not good enough, and then we begin to think those lies are true. And you’re also right to attribute to the media portrayals of sex as this competitive, mindblowing experience for both people. inside and outside of the church, we don’t have a lot of good examples of what an average sex life looks like – which is a life of bumbling, hilarious, and sometimes just plain old boring sex. Removing ourselves from that mindset that either compares ourselves to our past partners or to what we see in movies/culture writ large requires continued intentionality and presence in the moment. This means that when these comparisons and competitions occur that we train ourselves to notice when it’s happening and to actively and intentionally move away from that.

MG:  So one of the things that many men struggle with which is probably a factor in our screwed up expectations for sex is pornography. What’s your take on porn? Can there ever be a positive use for it or not really?

DA:  I think we have to take a nuanced approach to porn – it’s not automatically bad and it’s not automatically good. There is good, feminist, consent and safe-sex based porn that exists, and I think we erase the agency of the people involved in porn when we automatically term it exploitative and wrong. I think problems come in when average, mainstream porn is taken as truth about what sex is like (which is that competitive, mindblowing-ness I referenced before), when it’s just not that. We have to make an effort to see the gray where a lot of people just see black and white.

MG:  Moving to a different topic. In your book, I noticed (and appreciated) that you went after one of the untouchable teachers of the post-evangelical “third way” tribe, Stanley Hauerwas, specifically where he says that our bodies don’t belong to us but to our communities. I totally recognize how the communal policing of bodies has been super-harmful and oppressive in purity culture. But is there a responsibility that we have to our communities in terms of how we conduct ourselves sexually?

DA:  I think there’s a responsibility in that we need to respect that everyone is in a different place sexually and that’s it’s harmful to assume anything about a person’s experience. I also believe consent is a communal value in that a lack of consent not only damages the people involved but the community surrounding them. So I think there are ways it becomes public values, but I stop short of saying that a person’s body no longer belongs to them.

MG:  I think that last part is so important. It’s very fashionable in conservative postmodernity to beat up on individualism, which is very easy to do as a man who has never had anybody tell me what I’m allowed to wear to the youth pool party. So since I still have some evangelical in me, I still want to anchor my sexual ethics in some kind of scriptural foundation. For me, 1 Corinthians 7 provides that foundation. Paul is talking with the Corinthians about whether or not to be celibate, but the underlying rationale he gives for where he’s coming from is very instructive. In verse 32, he says, “I want you to be free from anxieties.” Then in verse 35, he writes, “I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.” I see in these verses three principles that could form a rubric for Christian sexual ethics: freedom from anxiety (love of self), good order (love of neighbor), and unhindered devotion to the Lord (love of God). In other words, I can ask three questions about my sexual activity: Is it going to make me anxious? Is it going to screw up the order in my community? Is it going to hinder my devotion to the Lord? How do that sound to you as a rubric?

DA:  That seems like a good one to me – and pretty similar, I’d say, to what I propose in Damaged Goods: Am I ready? Is this a healthy experience for me and for the other person involved? Am I honoring God by honoring God’s creations?

MG:  Cool I can see that. So another thing I wanted to ask about is what holiness looks like for you. We’re so used to “holiness” being code language for abstinence that it’s hard to imagine a holiness that coexists with sex-positivity. I definitely think that purity culture’s shallow, legalistic understanding of holiness is wrong, but I also think there’s a legitimacy to asceticism and discipline in general. I tend to explain holiness in terms of the Good Samaritan story. The Samaritan was “moved with compassion” in response to the wounded traveler because his heart was open and not cluttered with a bunch of idols. To me, holiness means living with enough restraint from indulging every appetite that I’m available for hospitality to the other. You write in Damaged Goods that “”instead of our fighting against our own bodies, holiness needs to be about integration and moderation. We must understand how our bodies work, intimately, and we must know how to hold our desires in moderation.” Is there a place for restraint and asceticism within a sex-positive Christianity?

DA:  Absolutely – and that quote is sort of me affirming that. I believe that we need to work with our desires and with our bodies to moderate and refrain from turning sexuality or sex into an idolatrous thing or something to be feared. Moderation, grace, and love are key in understanding both our selves and our relationship to God as sexual beings.

MG:  So here’s a tough question that I’ve been wrestling with. I realize that gender essentialism has been heavily abused in Christian culture, but I’m wondering if men and women need to hear different messages about sex partly due to our differences in privilege and socialization. I don’t feel like men need to be told that it’s okay for us to listen to our bodies. We’re used to being the ones whose physical needs are always accommodated. The image that comes to mind are those guys who spread their legs wide and take up two seats on the New York subway. Do you feel like Damaged Goods has women as a primary audience and men should read it as allies to better understand what women are dealing with or is that the wrong way to perceive it?

DA:  Absolutely I do. My aim is to speak mainly to women and other marginalized gender identities in the church, rather than to cis, straight men who are used to being in power.

MG:  That makes sense. So I wanted to close with a very abstract theological question about sex. In Genesis, we read that humanity is created in the “image of God.” 2 Peter 1 invites us to be “participants in the divine nature.” So where is God when we are having sex?

DA:  For some reason this question reminds me of that terrible meme that was going around a couple months ago about how Jesus didn’t consent to sex: http://images1.tickld.com/live/935941.png Terrible terrible. But in seriousness, I think God/the Holy Spirit exists in the connections and the grace between humans, and so God’s there in the honesty, in the communication, in the gracious pleasure we take in each other. Which sounds weird, but … yeah.

MG:  No, it sounds beautiful. Thanks so much for chatting with me. Your book has given me a lot to think about and I would heartily recommend it to all my readers as an important contribution to a much broader and more honest conversation that we need to be having about a very confusing, powerful topic.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Father

    Ahhhh, no. Porn is automatically bad.

    Here’s an article by my Bishop published today:

    http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/02/porn-goes-mainstream

    • So the Bible is automatically bad? *chuckle*

      Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins. Song of Solomon 7:3

      • Father

        There is a difference between pornography and erotic poetry. If it is not apparent to you then you may need to detox from both.

        • There is a difference? Then don’t just state so without any evidence. Do tell what the difference is.

          Of course, we know there is no difference, and you’re just bullshitting.

          Meanwhile in Ezekiel…
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bL9pntwLbsE

          • Father

            Seriously?

            There are many ways to take the verse that you cited. I have read midrash in which the two breasts are said to represent Moses and Aaron. I think that’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s delicious to see how all love, including burning desire, points to the divine. Our love and desire is a reflection of God’s love for all of us.

            Song of Solomon is a worshipful hymn of praise and appreciation for the beauty of creation as embodied in the lovers.

            Porn, on the other hand, is not a song of thanksgiving. It is a false re-enactment of sexual congress aiming to arouse and titillate for monetary gain.

            Reading love poetry makes us long to experience love. Reading the Song of Solomon, we join with the author in thrilling in the majesty of creation and thanking God for it. Watching porn, among its many other ills, incompletely sates our natural longing for that kind of love in a disordered way that never truly satisfies, replacing a conjoining of souls in which man is allowed to participate with God in the divine creation of new life with a solitary fantasy.

            One is worship, the other is idolatry. One points us to God, the other separates us from God and our community and makes us less open to love.

            Song of Solomon celebrates; porn titillates.

            It’s like the difference between Michelangelo’s nudes and a Playboy centerfold. One celebrates the human form and God’s creation; the other is intended to provoke lust.

          • There are many way to take rationalize the verse. If you can rationalize two breasts that way, anybody can do the same with today’s erotica. And yes, Song of Solomon titillates, except a puritan with his mind closed, like yours, to the plain meaning of the words. You’re just bloviating like a typical true believer.

          • Father

            Someone could use Michelangelo’s David as fodder for their lust, but it wouldn’t make the statue any less a glorification of God’s creation of the human form.

            These people can help.

            http://www.settingcaptivesfree.com/courses/way-of-purity/
            http://www.reclaimsexualhealth.com/

          • Someone could, and that is why Christian prudes use drapes to cover classical statues.

            Justice Department covers partially nude statues
            usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2002/01/29/statues.htm

            These people can help you:

            It’s Only Human: Why Humanists Should Support Pornography
            americanhumanist.org/HNN/details/2012-04-its-only-human-why-humanists-should-support-pornogra

  • Frank6550

    All past sexual experiences color every future ones. So yes a persons sexual experience is vitally relevant to their current relationship with God, themselves and their husband or wife. To suggest otherwise is denying reality and the height of foolishness.

  • Michael Brian Woywood

    I am in agreement with most of what is said here, but I find myself conflicted about the pornography answer. As someone who had viewed plenty of porn in my life, I wonder if this is an area that we should still declare off-limits in our sexual ethics, especially when we’re teaching our youth. It might not all be exploitative, but I worry that it might add to the problem of objectification.

  • This is an article I would have liked to have read 35 years ago. It would have made my younger life so much easier if I had realised there was an alternative perspective to the puritanical view of sex and sexuality that was the default ideal when I was growing up – a perspective that was amplified by the fundamentalist theology I was exposed to in my teens – and a perspective that was challenged and distorted by the fact that it did not reflect what was reality for most people.

    An expected ideal that did match up with reality surely contributed to much jealousy, mistrust, and resentment, when young people caught up in the irrational throes of ‘first love’ discovered their first lovers had ‘histories’. And many of them would have later experienced guilt, shame, and internal conflict when they too now had ‘histories’.

    For too long we repressed sex, and only begrudgingly acknowledged its value in conceiving children. We treated it as a dirty secret, and certainly not something to be indulged in for pleasure.

    But sex and sexuality are gifts from God. And when we physically express our love to others, we also demonstrate love that originates from God in the first place.

    I know I am stating a position that many may find too ‘liberal’ or ‘permissive’. But I believe I would have matured emotionally and spiritually a lot earlier, if the prevailing perspectives on sexual and sexuality I encountered in my youth had not been so shame-focussed.