Blogger and writer Dianna E. Anderson would like to give your sex life a makeover.
That’s not actually the stated goal of her new book, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity. Rather, she writes, “This book aims to develop a Christian ethic that doesn’t center around saying no, but through which we learn how to say a godly yes.”
But Anderson’s idea of a godly yes is very different from what the Christian church, through the ages, has generally understood it to mean.
Anderson grew up in modern evangelical “purity culture,” with all its widely documented problems. “I listened to story after story of being unable to feel close to God because of shame, being kicked out of one’s home, losing friends, separation from one’s faith community,” Anderson writes. “Many grew up being told over and over that their virginity was the most important thing they could give their spouse on their wedding night, only to reach that point and realize that having saved themselves didn’t magically create sexual compatibility or solve their marital issues.”
With Damaged Goods, Anderson wants to provide healing for those who have suffered from faulty teaching, and help for those who want to find a better, more genuinely Christian way to live. Anderson believes that the purity culture taught her to pride herself on living a celibate life and to look down on others who failed to live up to her high standards. Today, she regrets that prideful and contemptuous attitude and feels compassion for those who were hurt by it.
The church benefits from such course-correction and calls for healing in the wake of false teachings and unhealthy emphases in its teachings on sexuality. However, Damaged Goods goes further than that, conflating the misguided portions of purity culture—a relatively recent and proscribed phenomenon—with the Scripture-based beliefs about sexuality that the church has taught since its founding.
Anderson wants to get rid of all of it and start fresh with a new vision of Christian sexuality. What’s wrong with the old one? In her words,
Evangelicalism seems to have encoded rape into its very theology, casting sex as a duty, no matter what one's mood is at the time. It gives people free rein to rape their spouses, because, after all, one's body is not one's own. If any and all sex before the wedding is a sin, regardless of consent, and all sex after the wedding is a duty, then individual desire, sex drive, and consent are erased in the name of God.
Many married evangelicals see things differently, defending the marriage bed as the place of ultimate intimacy and authenticity, built not out of duty or obligation, but willing love and sacrifice (1 Cor. 7). But Anderson’s view of evangelicals’ marital relations is one major reason why she concludes true morality has nothing to do with whether a couple is married or not. “Outside of a marital relationship,” Anderson writes, “sex can still be just as meaningful and just as sacred.”
Later, Anderson goes on to say,
A theology and an ethic that centers female pleasure, that affirms agency on the part of women and views each member of the Body of Christ as an autonomous being who has the capacity for sexual desire and the right to experience it in safe, healthy ways—a theology that liberates us from rules—is the answer. You must develop your own understanding of what it means to be liberated, what it means to bring justice and grace and mercy and love into the bedroom.
Anderson doesn’t present this vision as something new; on the contrary, she goes back to the Bible repeatedly, quoting Jesus and Paul to support it. When it comes to ideas like treating each other with respect and exercising self-control, she’s on solid ground. Yet as she freely picks and chooses which of their teachings to appropriate and which to ignore, and as she re-examines and redefines their terms, her sexual ethic begins to look less like a fully Christian one, and more like a self-generated, self-centered one.
For instance, whereas most of us take Paul’s warning to “flee fornication” as an instruction to, well, flee fornication, Anderson disagrees. “What is Paul really telling us to flee?” she asks. “Indeed, in line with his thoughts about idolatry, Paul may be urging people not to make sex an idol.”
Though Anderson spends plenty of time urging her readers to create their own understanding of how their sex lives should work, she spends even more time telling them how she thinks their sex lives should work. By the time she’s done specifying everything that must be part of this sexual ethic we’re supposed to create, about the only thing that’s left up to us is whether we want the light on or off.
With the authority of the Bible used only to give us the vaguest guiding principles, Anderson sets herself up as a new authority. Her own wording signals that she is claiming this role:
The church needs new ethics for sexual relationships. The guidelines for developing personal sexual ethics—for defining what sexual purity means personally for you—involve consistency, health, and consent. These are what I’ve developed:
1. God’s plan for sexuality has many facets.
2. Your body is your own. You are not public property.
3. Healthy sexuality requires understanding your own body.
4. Sexual activity should always be pleasurable and consensual.
5. Sexuality is fluid and complex.
6. God doesn’t shame us.
Not all of these guidelines are bad; some of them are quite good. But the main point is that they are Anderson’s own (“These are what I’ve developed”), based on her own values, but held to be universal.
If we do want to practice celibacy outside of marriage, she assures us, that’s fine—though she betrays a rather different feeling on the matter when she tells the story of a couple who “had never done so much as take their clothes off with each other,” and ended up having a bad sex life after they got married. (Purity culture isn’t the only school of thought that tries to sway people with horror stories.)
What’s really important—what, in Anderson’s view, is really moral—is that one’s sex life is shaped by our own sense of ethics. Given all this, perhaps it’s not so surprising that Anderson so easily falls into the trap of setting up her own values as a substitute source of authority. If one’s own viewpoint is one’s greatest source of guidance, naturally, to her, her viewpoint is going to look like the best one around. The book’s takeaway is a bit of a Catch 22: If the goal is to create a sexual ethic for ourselves, why consider someone else’s guidelines at all?
Doubtless there are those who will find Anderson’s ideal of a self-centered sexual ethic appealing. But the Christian who truly seeks God’s will has a higher authority in God’s Word. The reason we should treat each other with respect both in and out of the bedroom, as Anderson desires, is the same reason we should accept God’s timing for sexual activity and not our own: because these are the principles that our wise, loving, and authoritative Creator has given to us. “Because Dianna Anderson said so” may serve Dianna Anderson as a guiding principle, but for the rest of us, it falls far short.