Christian, or Feminist?

A new book about purity culture shows the difficulty of reconciling women's liberation with evangelical faith.

Last fall, Dianna E. Anderson wrote an article for a women's website about losing her virginity and realizing that sex outside of marriage can be holy. Commenters around the Internet "started calling me the temple prostitute," she said.

For a woman writing on the Internet, particularly about sexuality, this is kind of reaction is normal; shocking, yes, but totally unsurprising. What's interesting about Anderson's case is the flavor of the antagonism: She writes about feminism and gender identity, but she's also a committed evangelical Christian. Theoretically, these two aspects of her identity aren't mutually exclusive, but in practice, balancing them requires a lot of translating. "As I began to study [sexuality] more, I received a flurry of messages from family members that I was choosing feminism over Christianity and justifying sinful living," she writes in her recently released book, Damaged Goods. "One message said I was questioning the Scripture about sex because I couldn't get Christian men to sleep with me."

Reading Anderson's book is a little like staring intently at an optical illusion: It can be difficult to tell whether she's a Christian sleeper agent embedded in the feminist blog-o-sphere or an evangelical émigré who found solace in judgment-free gender theory. Her book would read like a simplified Intro to Feminism textbook, if not for all the Bible quotes. Her explication of Paul's teachings would seem totally normal in a Sunday-school classroom, if not for section headers like "Virginity as a Social Construct."

"As a Christian feminist, I’ve been dismissed by feminists for being a person of faith, and I’ve been dismissed by people of faith for being a feminist," Anderson said in an interview. Self-identifying feminists who don't believe in God might be hostile to any kind of Bible-driven sexual ethics like what Anderson proposes, while "a large swatch of evangelicalism ... believes in very strict gender roles and separation between men and women," she said. "Feminism is read as challenging that Biblical precedent."

Anderson, though, is determined to reconcile feminism and Christianity. Her writing is part self-help book, part college paper, and part Girls-esque confessional of awkward sexual exploits—an approach fit for a Millennial who writes on Internet, where people can be freely and messily self-defined. Anderson came of age in the late days of the culture wars, and she treats feminism and Christianity as equally fundamental parts of her identity, rather than incompatible ideologies. For her, sexuality and faith are means of self-understanding; they have to be reconcilable, because they're both part of who she is.

But at some level, publicly identifying as a Christian or as a feminist is a political act: It's a way of declaring affiliation with a certain culture that promotes certain values. The history of these two cultures in America makes this act of identification all the more meaningful; in the past five decades in America, the politics of evangelical Christianity and feminism have evolved symbiotically, although in tension. The sexual revolution of the 1960s rejected female domesticity, which had been encouraged and supported by a deeply Christian culture. In turn, "[evangelicals] responded to the changes that had taken place since the 60s by creating their own alternative sexuality industry," Anderson writes. In 1976, Timothy and Beverly LeHaye published a best-selling guide to "Christian sex." Youth-ministry groups like Young Life encouraged high-school and college students to remain sexually pure. The preacher Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a conservative Christian lobbying organization, to advocate "family values" in American policy.

But the tension between political feminism and political Christianity is fundamentally philosophical, Anderson argues: Whereas feminism relies on the idea that individual women should have control over their bodies, certain Christian theological traditions have more of a communal focus. By way of example, she points to the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who wrote in 1991 that Christians "do not believe that we have a right to do whatever we want with our bodies ... because when we are baptized we become members of one another ... In the church, we tell you what you can and cannot do with your genitals."

Despite being at odds in their politics, evangelical Christians and feminists share a fixation on sex. Arguably, the focus on "purity" in evangelical culture arose in response to a secular, sex-obsessed American culture; for example, the first purity ball was hosted in 1998 by a Christian family in Colorado Springs as a celebration of father-daughter relationships and girls' virginity. "Endeavoring to claim the title of counterculture, the modern evangelical church responds to what it sees as a sexually permissive culture by locking down on purity and virginity," Anderson writes.

Yet even the language Christians and feminists use to talk about sex is different. While being "countercultural" in the 60s might have involved orgies and free love, in the evangelical world, it means preserving one's emotional and sexual purity despite the mores of "mainstream" culture. For that matter, "the way we talk about intimacy is less about physical intimacy—it's about emotional intimacy," Anderson said. "When people talk about affairs [in secular culture], they usually mean the physical relationship, but in evangelical culture, there's a discussion of the emotional affair, the emotional giving-away-of-yourself." Growing up, Anderson's youth-group leaders would warn against the temptation of sexual "petting," and they cautioned against "solo sex"—"Christianese for masturbation," Anderson writes.

These differences in language, values, and philosophical orientation are non-trivial, but they can also be misleading, because neither feminism nor Christianity are totally (or even mostly) political movements. In their own ways, both are orientations toward the world that provide people with guidance on how to be human, and how to treat other humans. Both are framed around a set of texts that require interpretation; according to Anderson, those texts actually overlap significantly. "I believe that God did create us with our gender identities, including trans and non-binary identities—having those different perspectives is important for creating a world full of diverse understandings," she said. She considers the parts of the Bible that don't quite jibe with this—like Paul's instructions in 1 Timothy that women should be submissive, and will be saved through childbearing—to be "culturally bound, and they do not apply now.”

Although her book is all about sex and sexuality, Anderson maintains that a single-minded focus is counter-productive. "Sexual purity—rather than a relationship with Jesus, caring for the poor, or loving one's neighbor—has become the marker of a good Christian," she writes. Conversely, at times, "sex becomes the god we worship, and we will go to any length to obtain it." The solution, she writes, is to recognize that "sexuality is not the center of a person's life, faith, or health."

"I’ve always found that kind of funny that my first book ended up being all about sex, when part of my thing is that sex doesn’t determine who you are as a person," she said. It's an odd way to put it: Anderson claims she has developed a whole new way of thinking about Christian sexual ethics, yet she refers to this casually as her "thing." The personal quality of her argument doesn't necessarily make it more persuasive; it would take more than 200 pages and a quick skip through history to reconcile two ideologies that have been defined almost wholly in opposition to one another.

But it is probably more honest. Anderson really wrote Damaged Goods because, as she puts it, "I felt like a freak because I was a feminist, a Christian, and a virgin." For the next generation, this might be a useful framework for engaging with both Christianity and feminism, and one that will probably resonate: understanding the work of Jesus and the identities of women not in abstract political terms, but as glimpses of truth people use in shaping their own lives.