I am grateful to have been sent a review copy of Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity by Dianna Anderson. Anderson’s book explores the purity culture of the Evangelical background in which she was raised, and its approach to sex and gender, arguing that there is a need for a radically different approach to sexual ethics among Christians.
The book offers a combination of Anderson’s own experience, the experience of others, her interviews with representatives of Evangelical purity culture in its modern form (such as Quiverfull and the Gospel Coalition), as well as historical background. Anderson highlights that the view of the nuclear family that is a key component of the viewpoint she critiques is in fact a relatively recent invention (pp.12-17). She tells the experience of losing her virginity, and how she wishes that her upbringing had prepared her differently for the experience and had equipped her to approach not just that moment (which is mythologized by conservative Evangelicals) but sexuality in a different way. The harm that purity culture inflicts on women – and also men – is presented, using well-known examples such as the case of Elizabeth Smart, but also more everyday instances. Her analysis is consistently on target not just about the consequences, but about the problematic modes of thought that underpin them. Here is an example (p.109):
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. The belief becomes law becomes immutable fact. This is a form of confirmation bias, to be sure, but it is also the result of not listening well to divergent viewpoints, resulting in a very narrow and constrained perception of how humans interact with the world around them.
In place of the purity approach, Anderson suggests another that is just as fundamentally founded on Christian principles. It starts with seeking the good of others, not harming them, and not using other people simply as a means to an end (pp.188-190). Consent as key is emphasized throughout the book. Anderson writes, “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 matter of when sex happens, but rather a matter of attitudes, postures, and understanding” (p.190). And in contrast (p.191),
By injecting shame, especially into something as personal as sexuality, we turn words of grace and freedom into blunt objects for beating people into submission. We buy into sinful patriarchal structures that say men and women are genders first and people second. We buy into harmful rape cultures that blame victims for their own rapes. We treat women as public property, open for comment and use. We create a church unable to communicate with the outside world, one that sets itself further and further away from actual people and becomes a bastion of shame and guilty for so many.
As you can see, this is an important book, voicing views that I am sure many within Evangelicalism already hold, but may need to read in print or hear voiced aloud by others before they can have the courage to do so themselves. And so hopefully they will find their way to Anderson’s book.
One important positive aspect of the book is that Anderson does not offer a one-size-fits-all approach to sexuality, nor does she substitute her own authority for that of patriarchal leaders in Evangelicalism. She encourages readers to question not only their church leaders and themselves but also her (p.203). And she emphasizes the need not to merely swing the pendulum the other way, so that instead of shaming those who have had sex, we instead shame those who have not (pp.194-5).
One thing that the book is not is a detailed reexamination of the sexual values reflected in the Bible, the cultural context that shaped them, and a detailed exegetical treatment of passages that are used to support purity culture. There is some treatment of relevant passages in Anderson’s book, but it isn’t the focus, and covers around 17 pages in total. If one is looking for more treatment of that topic, they should supplement Anderson’s volume with the forthcoming book by Kendra Irons and Melanie Mock, If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be. You can read my endorsement for that book on the Chalice Press website. Some readers will need more treatment of Biblical passages than Anderson provides, as these will stand in the way of many Evangelical accepting the need to revise their approach to sexual ethics.
But what Anderson offers is arguably the most important thing, namely stories of how human beings are damaged by purity culture, and how one can formulate a genuinely Christian approach to sexual ethics that abandons the patriarchal and property-oriented approach that is taken for granted in the Bible. I don’t want to sound like I am criticizing Anderson for not spelling out what arguably ought to be obvious to any Christian, because it is one of the key teachings of Jesus: human beings and their well-being takes priority over rules. While some still need to be persuaded of that point, Anderson takes it as a given and builds her case upon it. And at least for those who’ve already grasped Jesus’ prioritization of principles, and the patriarchal cultural context that shaped the Bible and is reflected in it, Anderson’s case will be persuasive.