If you’ve been reading the blog for long, you are likely already acquainted with Dianna E. Anderson. Over the past few years, Dianna has submitted guest posts and participated in several roundtable discussions here around feminism, purity culture, modesty, and sexuality. Even when Dianna and I don’t agree 100%, Dianna always engages with kindness, intelligence, and respect, which is why I continue to read her blog religiously and why I’m especially excited about the February 10 release of her first book, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity….which is excellent. (Pre-order is available here.) Today Dianna’s talking sexual ethics, which should spark some good conversation. Enjoy!
Back in September of 2014, Sarah Diefendorf, a sociologist at the University of Washington, released a study she had conducted. The study followed fifteen men who had made pledges in 2008 to remain abstinent until marriage out of religious belief. Fourteen of those men were married in the six years following that pledge. And, according to interviews Diefendorf conducted with the men, many found little support for engaging in healthy sexual lives following their weddings. Diefendorf concluded that abstinence only education and pledges to remain pure create an unhealthy attitude toward sex that is based on shame, misogyny, and antiquated notions about sexual drives.
While critics are sure to point out flaws with the study, the fact remains that Diefendorf’s work reflects the findings I have come across in my own informal studies of people who make purity pledges. Purity culture is cutting men and women off at the knees in creating an unhealthy focus on virginity the center of their ethical and spiritual lives.
But what is purity culture? Purity culture is the centering of virginity and abstinence as a part of the Gospel message. It is declaring that what makes a person worthy of respect is their sexual purity. Purity culture is a culture that judges moral worth based on sexual experience, and expects women in particular to “behave” as virginal vessels until their wedding day.
The evangelical church in America is deeply invested in purity culture. From pushes for abstinence only education to True Love Waits pledges in youth group, people of my generation are growing up with little actual knowledge about healthy sexuality. Instead, a lot of us struggle with feelings of worthlessness, impurity, and shame, even well into our adult lives and our marriages.
A major part of the problem is that simply saying no to sex until after the wedding is an insufficient ethical system. A system of ethics has to be based on a way of interacting with the world. Sexual ethics need to be complex, positive, and easily applied to varying situations. The abstinence until a heterosexual marriage part of purity culture denies members of the queer community access to the same wrestling with and discussion of sexual ethics. Instead of sexual liberation, we find bondage (and not the fun kind).
Many accuse feminists like myself of wanting the world to be a debauched, libertine, orgiastic sin-fest. But this isn’t what sexual liberation means. Instead, liberation is the ability to choose for ourselves how we will engage in sexual activity and explore our sexual lives. It means a sexual life free of shame, of condemnation, of accusations of sin. It means forming a life-giving sexual ethic, instead of one based on shame and saying no.
A sexual ethic needs, first and foremost, to be based on knowledge of yourself as a person. It needs to give you room enough to explore your own wants and needs and desires free of shame. You cannot say yes until you know how to say yes for yourself and what sexual activity means to you, in particular, not forced on you from what culture or church have told you.
A sexual ethic also requires communication – communication not only about consent to the activity in question, but communication about each partner’s wants and desires and views about sexual activity. This type of communication is vital not only to having singular healthy sexual experiences, but also to build and understand your sexual compatibility with a person.
A sexual ethic also needs to engage in a healthy way with your belief system or your faith. For so many young women and men who grew up in the 1990s and the 00s, God is a God of sexual shame, a heavenly father who sits upon his throne and condemns. A healthy ethical system removes shame from the picture of God. We don’t engage in our faith system because we enjoy being shamed – we shouldn’t, then, build sexual ethics out of shame. Instead, engaging your faith in your sexual ethics can be a good way to arrive at God’s calling for your life.
When working on my book, I spoke with nearly a hundred men and women from all over the United States about their experiences in the church. Many of them spoke of struggling within their marriage with learning how to be sexual beings, and learning how to say yes. They had been impressed – through youth groups, through purity teachings, through abstinence only education – with the idea that sex is always, always dirty and shameful.
We, as the church, must take the lead in correcting our mistakes. We must teach consent, communication, grace, love, and healthy boundaries in talking about sex. Simply saying “no” until the wedding day isn’t enough to equip people with the tools to live out their sexuality in a healthy, God-honoring way. We need to learn how to be sexually mature adults before we can talk about what it means say yes or no.
Thoughts? Agree or disagree? Do Christians need new sexual ethics and what might those look like?
For more, be sure to check out Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity.
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