Dianna Anderson’s "Damaged Goods"

I’ve been looking forward to Dianna Anderson’s Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity for well over a year now, so when it came in the mail a few weeks ago I was thrilled to pieces. I have so much respect for Dianna’s writing (today’s piece on Christianity and Empire is a must-read), and I was happy that someone like her would be tackling evangelical purity culture in a book.

One of the things that I love about Dianna’s voice is that she doesn’t talk down to anyone. She’s taking on some huge concepts in two hundred pages, and all of her explanations are clear and concise without ever once patronizing anybody. That’s a significant accomplishment, especially for this topic; for evangelicals, everything that Dianna is writing about has long since been settled and she’s overturning a lot of those apple carts, only without any well duh in her tone. I admire that, because it’s something I occasionally struggle with. Things that seem so obvious to me … aren’t actually obvious, as illustrated by the thousands and thousands of people who want to tell women that their husband ripping their vagina is a “beautiful moment.”

It was an interesting experience reading this, especially as I’m coming from a point of view where I already agree with her. As I read, I could’ve underlined the passages I knew more conservative Christians would object to– and when I read Christianity Today’s negative review, I laughed out loud because I nailed it. Some readers are going to be made incredibly uncomfortable by what this book argues, especially the places when she diverges from the evangelical interpretations of Scripture. These interpretations are enshrined as more than mere interpretation— according to people like Gina Dalfonzo, “flee fornication” just can’t possibly have any other meaning beside “don’t have pre-marital sex.” Anyone who proposes an alternative meaning — such as the one Dianna does — is going to be condemned for not toeing the party line.

The theme that I appreciated the most through Damaged Goods was the self-reflective honesty she presents about what love — and harm– look like in sexual relationships. It was interesting to see my lingering evangelical perception of “selfishness in bed” challenged; in evangelicalism, people are selfish when they withhold sex … but, to Dianna, selfishness can take on many different forms. The most harmful, to her, seems to be not cherishing the imago dei in our partners and reducing them to sex objects. Sadly, I think that’s something we all could be prone to– I know there have been some moments when I reduced my partner in this fashion.

Dianna argues that we should all begin seeing our sexual relationships through the lens of love, compassion, grace, kindness, and understanding. That seems extremely Christian to me– after all, Jesus said that “they shall know you by how you love one another,” and that is something that probably should be exemplified when we’re in bed with each other, but this component does seem to be missing from evangelical culture. Discussions of (cishet marital) sex don’t frequently emphasize love, instead usually opting to focus on fear (“if you don’t have sex with him enough he’ll leave you”).

It’s not just love for others, either, that drives the argument of the book, but love for yourself, too. That’s something that we should all start shouting about, especially around girls and women. Seeing sexual choices principally through loving yourself seems anathema to us, but Dianna shows us all the ways we can take our own needs and wants into consideration, whatever our ultimate decisions ends up being.

On a personal note, the one thing I wished we got more of was an exegetical breakdown of the passages Dianna works with. She is interpreting some well-known passages in a way completely unlike what most Christian teenagers have seen before (with “flee fornication” being a good example), but she simply offers an alternative explanation and moves on quickly. Including all of the scholarly, academic, linguistic, and theological research I know she’s done would have taken this book off the rails– it’s not an exegetical text, nor should it be– but the academic in my heart was sad. Also, if you’re looking for a thorough exegetical breakdown of the passages used to condemn pre-marital sex, this book isn’t for you.

It was an encouraging book to read, and contained a lot of very useful information (the “A Review of the Christian Purity Movement” chapter was fascinating), and I think this book should be a standby for every youth pastor and parent out there.

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  • I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I applaud Dianna for calling out the damaging mindset that purity defines a woman’s worth, and that virginity is the “ultimate gift” you can give your husband on your wedding night. But I still think that sex in a marital context is the ultimate Christian ideal, so I can’t agree with her when she says that any kind of sex outside of marriage is okay. That being said, I can’t criticize someone else’s personal experience if they feel sex they’ve had outside of marriage was meaningful and sacred. My husband and I didn’t wait, so I’m especially unable to judge. But evangelical Christianity does have problems with consent, so I’m glad someone is bravely speaking out about it, and rattling some conservatives in the process.

    • I’ve always struggled with a few simultaneously conflicting things:

      – The purity messaging I was raised with (i.e. no one will want to marry you or respect you if you’re not a virgin)
      – The academic cohesion of Theology of the Body-type teaching on sex
      – The fact that real-world experience with sex (both mine and others) is NOTHING like any of the above two points.

      I’m still continuing to process all this, but I’ve come to the realization that:

      – Purity has nothing to do with anything. If certain types of sex are, in fact, inherently wrong, it affects the relationship with God but it in NO WAY makes a person dirty or a slut or damaged goods.
      – I think it’s perfectly legitimate to talk about whether certain sexual things are inherently good or inherently bad. In theory anyway. I’ve never seen it done in practice, though, because people tend to torture their reasoning to say that any sex that they are not personally comfortable with is “sinful.”

      I’ve been simmering all this in the back of my mind for about 10 years now, and while I think I’ve made some progress, I don’t see any moments of clarity on the horizon.

      TL/DR: You’re not alone in trying to reconcile some conflicting thoughts.

      • I think you summed up my conflicted feelings on the matter perfectly. Another question I have is that the definition of “marriage” varies tremendously from culture to time period to individual, even, so even if I thought sex was only acceptable in marriage, how then is marriage defined?
        Obviously these are complex questions, so I understand why it seems easier for authorities to give black-and-white rules…yet, I think it’s that very complexity that keeps these rules from working.

        • All great points – I agree.

    • My take right now is even if chocolate is recognized as the “ideal” ice cream flavor, my previous experience with strawberry and vanilla does not inhibit my ability to appreciate chocolate when I encounter it. 🙂

  • I really want to read this book. 🙂

  • John W. Baker

    A couple of points about the Bible and sexual ethics. Almost everything said in the Bible is from a male heterosexual perspective and addressed to men. Also, sexual ethics in the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible, mostly had to do with reproductive sex and inheritance law; not with what we would call romantic sex. A wife was the husband’s property, and her sexuality was as mother of her children. The issue of non-virginity at marriage was only discoverable and only an issue if she was pregnant (e.g. Joseph and Mary). Adultery was an infringement of the woman’s husband’s property rights ,and the main concern was that she might become pregnant and bring another man’s son into the marriage, who would later claim inheritance. The idea of chastity as moral “purity,” as fundamentalists speak of it, did not exist. And in the terms with which Jesus defined adultery, “purity” still does not exist.

  • John W. Baker you are completely wrong. [Edited]

    • Please read my comment policy. Personal insults are not allowed here.

  • NilsK

    Good reading. After years of studying it is clear that God according to the Bible does not condemn loving sex between a betrothed couple before they marry. Endless books state differently, “the Bble is clear”, with no foundation at all, except the wording of modern Bible transaltions, but ignoring the meaning of the original texts and the cultural context. E.g. that fornication=pre-marital sex, when it is not. Fornix (lat) is basically a brothel, and the word is always used about promiscuity, mainly in idolatrous contexts, never about fiancés. Porneia (gr) is prostitution. The appreciation of virgins was a cultural thing based on patriarchy, hence rejecting non-virgins. According to Matthew and Luke Josef and Mary lived together as a betrothed couple and it is clearly stated that Josef did not have intercourse with mary before Jesus was born. Obviously the marriage took place after Jesus’ birth, if ever. There would be no need to specify Josef’s abstinence if that was taken for granted. And they living together without marriage and with the bride pregnant doesn’t seem to have cause any scandal, as divorcing her would have been, indicating adultery, This is because it was not uncommon to prepare for the married life, having some cohabitation. As noted, betrothal was a marriage contract that could only be terminated with a divorce letter. Wedding was more about celebrating the union amongst friends and for the family to say “goodbye” to the couple as independent.
    We are doing much harm condemning people who lovingly meet their spouse´s emotional and physical needs in bed, even before the wedding day. Actually we should recommend preparing for the married life with a careful approach in the physical intimacy to make the transition less dramatic, and avoid some disappointment that frequently occur because of lack of good preparation. In my own life I can say that waiting with sex until the wedding created utter disaster and now remarrying it has been an excellent prepartion to have God in the centre of our relationship and enjoy good, blessed sex prayerfully before Him. Let’s not “tempt God putting yokes on people that even our fathers couldn’t bear” (Acts 15:10). We cannot deny tha fact that about 90% actually have not complied with abstinence until the wedding, although many deny it publicly because of shame issues in Church. Let people be free and receive what God has given them.

  • Amanda

    What would you say is a good book giving an exegetical breakdown of the passages related to premarital sex?

    • I haven’t found one, yet, but I was just accepted to seminary and my work is going to focus on this area, so as soon as I’ve found one I’ll let everyone know.

      • Amanda

        After doing a lot of reading and searching, I would recommend Dirt, Greed & Sex by L. William Countryman. I think this book truly engages with the concerns of a conservative Christian audience. He does not try to make the Bible more liberal than it is, while simultaneously challenging the assumptions conservatives in the 21st century bring to the table.