Search Term Friday: Damaged Goods

By far one of the most linked to posts on this blog is a post I wrote in 2013 about the experiences of Elizabeth Smart and the psychology of Christian purity culture. Search terms like "damaged goods" link people to that analysis:

Many people emailed regarding the remarks of kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart when she spoke at a Johns Hopkins University human trafficking forum. In response Rachel had a post up reflecting on Elizabeth's presentation.

In sharing her experience of rape by her abductor and reflecting on why many victims stay with their abusers, Elizabeth made a connection with the Christian purity culture. Specifically, Elizabeth noted that, because of the sexual abuse she endured, she “felt so dirty and so filthy,” ruining her for the rest of her life. Such feelings create an inhibition to return to the world where you will be marked and known as "damaged goods." Who would want you--who would marry you--if you escaped or left?

In making this connection Elizabeth described hearing a lecture as a young person on abstinence where sex was compared to chewing gum. From the Christian Science Monitor article:

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I'm that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.' And that's how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value," Smart said. "Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value."
Again, many readers pointed me to Elizabeth's remarks because in my book Unclean I give some psychological insight as to how the Christian purity culture produces this experience of "damaged goods." And the analysis in Unclean also provides a start on answering the question Rachel asked about Elizabeth's experiences, and the experiences of so many:
So what’s the alternative? How can we teach young people to value the sacredness of sex and the importance of responsibility without resorting to shame-based, fear-based tactics? 
As I argue in Unclean, I think the first step here is attending to how we metaphorically frame sexual sin, particularly for women.

Why is the Christian purity culture so toxic and shaming? Where does the feeling of "damaged goods" come from? Why do women carry the weight of this experience more than men?

And what might we do to change all this?

Some of the answers have to do with the psychology of purity.

At root, purity is a food-attribution system, a suite of psychological processes that help us make judgments about whether or not it is safe or healthy to eat something.

One aspect of purity psychology is how we make contamination appraisals. The psychologist Paul Rozin has been a pioneer in naming and describing these appraisals. And one of these appraisals is the judgment of permanence.

To illustrate this Rozin will put, say, a cockroach in a glass of juice and swish it around. He then removes the bug and offers the juice for participants to drink. They, of course, refuse. That's to be expected. But then the interesting part of the experiment begins. Rozin goes on to sterilize the juice in front of the watching participant. He then makes another offer. Participants continue to refuse. This despite knowing, at a rational level, that the juice has been sanitized. So why refuse? Because at the affective level a judgment of contamination continues to dominate. The juice is judged as unclean. Despite all efforts to purify, sanitize, or rehabilitate.

Rozin's demo illustrates the attribution of permanence, which is a key part of purity psychology. The judgment appears to be "once contaminated, always contaminated." The implication here is that contamination--a loss of purity--is a catastrophic judgment creating a state that cannot be rehabilitated. The foodstuff is, as we say, ruined. And if ruined it's only fit for the trash.

As I discuss in Unclean, what happens when we structure parts of our moral experience with the metaphor of purity is that we import the psychology of contamination into our moral and spiritual lives. That is, we start to use the attribution of permanence (along with other purity appraisals I talk about in Unclean) when thinking about moral failure and sin. A loss of purity is understood to be permanent and is unable to be rehabilitated because, well, that's the way purity works.

Now what is peculiar about all this is that we use the purity metaphor in an uneven manner. Most sins don't get the purity metaphor. True, generally understood sin is understood to be a purity violation. But particular sins aren't typically viewed as a purity issue. Most sins are framed, metaphorically, as mistakes or errors, as performance failures. Another common metaphor here is sin as a form of stumbling or falling. What is important to note about these metaphors--performance failures and stumbling--is that these metaphors aren't catastrophic in nature. That is, they can be easily rehabilitated. If you make a mistake you try again. If you stumble and fall you get back up. Inherent in the logic of the metaphor is an obvious route to rehabilitation.

But not so with the purity metaphor. When the sin is framed as a purity violation the damage that is done is total and unable to be rehabilitated. A purity violation creates a state of irreversible ruin.

And with that in mind let's ask ourselves, what sin categories are almost exclusively regulated by purity metaphors in our churches?

Answer: sexual sins, the loss of virginity in particular.

Think about it. I bet most of us would say that the sin most Americans are guility of is materialism. I bet most of us would even say that materialism is the sin most killing the church. And yet, when did you ever hear a talk about "materialism purity"? Beyond never hearing such a talk, the phrase "materialism purity" just sounds weird. And try tacking "purity" onto any other sin. Fill in the blank: "__________ purity." Can you think of any sin--except "sexual purity"--that works in the blank, that doesn't sound weird when framed as a purity violation?

The point is, we treat sexual sins and the loss of virginity very differently from other sins, as a class of sin unto itself. And how do we make that happen? We accomplish this by framing these sins almost exclusively with purity metaphors. And in doing so we recruit a psychological system built upon a food-aversion system, a system driven by disgust, revulsion, and nausea. But instead of directing these feelings toward food we are now directing the feelings of disgust, revulsion and nausea toward human beings. More, we teach our children to internalize and direct these feelings toward themselves.

And I think we can sharpen this point even more.

Based upon my experience, I would argue that male sexual sin isn't generally framed as a purity violation. The loss of male virginity still gets the performance failure metaphor. If a boy losses his virginity it's a mistake, a stumbling. Consequently, this is something he can easily rehabilitate. He's not damaged goods. He can simply resolve to do better going forward. How is this so easy for him? Because his sexuality is being regulated by a performance metaphor.

By contrast, and this is the heart of of the matter, the loss of female virginity is almost exclusively regulated by the purity metaphor. For females the loss of virginity is a bit more than a performance failure. It's a loss of purity that, because of the way purity works, is catastrophic and beyond rehabilitation. And because of this she's got no way to move forward, metaphorically speaking. The game's over. And thus she reaches the only conclusion the purity metaphor makes available to her: She's damaged goods. And all the emotions related to that judgment of contamination rush forward as she internalizes all the shame, disgust, revulsion and nausea.

This is the psychology that makes the Christian purity culture so toxic.

But this analysis also suggests a way forward, a way to attenuate the damage done by purity cultures by consciously attending to the way we metaphorically frame sexuality for both men and women.

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12 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: Damaged Goods”

  1. I'm just speculating for the sake of discussion and to think about this so I don't know if I even agree with this but maybe part of the problem is that we refer to it as sacred. For example that quote from Rachel is about how to value the sacredness of sex. As a man I never really remember connecting sexual desire with God anymore then I did other appetites or desires. Or at least not in a healthy way, probably mostly in a shame based don't touch yourself sort of sense. Is sex really a sacred communion type act, or is it just idolatry to equate pleasure with touching the divine?

    Putting that all aside though, I do think men are largely responsible for driving the current culture and attitudes though it is slowly changing. I haven't watch much of Anita Sarkeesian on but fully recognize the way women are portrayed in video games, one of the cultures where men have been the dominate force in modern history and had free reign to shape women to their imagination.

    I think there is probably a connection to man's desire to have power over others. We think of children as pure as well, and maybe the reason we refer to women as pure is because it is a culturally accepted way to denigrate them with flattery. Either they accept the false praise and become relegated to man's vision of their identity or they dispute it and become the outcast.

  2. From an evolutionary perspective, do you think this could be related to the risk of pregnancy? The cost being so high human beings ascribe the most potent taboo they could to non-committed sex?

  3. I think from an evolutionary and historical perspective the view of women as property would probably have more influence. Using the same language for a women's virginity as gold or oil seems to speak to the direct commodity that sexual purity was in her sale to a suitor.

  4. Sex is the "Great Hypocrite Maker"; this is not an indictment of sex, but of certain religious minds that are able to view another's sexual activity to be more "evil" than their own. This is especially true in how they can rationalize, "I know I have a weakness; but I live in grace and still believe in sexual purity. So I'm not like those of the world who have very liberal attitudes toward sex". This thinking can see the sexual deeds of others as the cause of the powerful storm of immorality that is destroying society; whereas their own is only a small insignificant rain drop that has, against their will, been caused by the great storm.

    Conservatives tend to accuse the religious who stress mercy as being too lenient toward sin. The truth is, however, the merciful hold to standards that are just as high, but are healthier, simply because they can see themselves in those around them. But when a legalistic spirit operates within a church, a denomination and, or, culture, it becomes easy to see self as one who lives within the boundaries where grace and mercy actually abide, while others do not.

    I say that to conclude with this: the toxic culture can only die when we no longer fear that showing more mercy than we reserve for ourselves creates us into an endangered species.

  5. Dr. Beck,

    This will be a little long-winded, but I'll appreciate you sticking with me, since I have something I've been wrestling with for awhile.

    I'd be curious to hear your thoughts about whether or not premarital sex is sinful in every circumstance. While I haven't had sex myself (growing up in a tradition where it was strongly frowned upon), I'm starting to question the assumption that premarital sex is the terrible thing it's made out to be. Basically, I've seen far more harm come from sexual shame and stigma than I've seen come from loving, consensual premarital sex. I'd like to be able to explore the idea that maybe a Christian sexual ethic revolves around the idea of "Love your sexual partner as yourself, inside marriage and out" rather than "Keep your pants on until you're married" because it seems like that's a sexual ethic that is more conducive for good decision making (I feel like you will make better sexual decisions if, instead of asking "Are we married or not?" you can ask "Would this be loving/cherishing/honoring/seeking the good/ of my partner and I?).

    However, when I've talked to most other Christians, they've held the position that "The Bible is abundantly clear that sex outside of marriage is wrong, and therefore there's no room for discussion." And this is the position that I personally held for a long time, but then I actually started looking at the text and I don't think the Bible is as clear on this issue as I assumed. The new testament talks a great deal about avoiding sexual immorality, but it doesn't define sexual immorality (the only examples that I remember are sleeping with your father's wife and sleeping with a prostitute.) The word "porneia" is the word that is translated as sexual immorality, and porneia does have a connotation of fornication/premarital sex, but it also means a lot of other things. So you could argue that when Paul wrote "flee from porenia" he might have meant that we should flee from unloving/objectivifying sexual actions, and not loving, consensual premarital sex.

    So I guess I have two questions in this area for you.

    First, what are your thoughts on the issue of premarital sex? I read your article in the Biola faith and psychology journal where you said essentially "Maybe God has rules for sex because He's afraid of us harming each other, not because He's afraid of us experiencing pleasure" and I certainly agree with that. But do you think it's possible to have sex outside of marriage without it being harmful or unloving? Like maybe it's not "best" but is it "permissible?" I'm not asking because I want to go run out and lose my virginity, but rather because it's difficult to move away from the damaging aspects of the purity metaphor for sexuality while still holding to a position that "UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES CAN YOU HAVE SEX OUTSIDE OF MARRIAGE"

    Second, how do you think the church could have more open conversations about this where new ideas are explored? I want to be able to have conversations about a Christian sexual ethic that moves beyond "Marriage or no marriage", but I don't feel like it's safe to do so if I even hint that sex outside of marriage might be okay. It seems like "God forbids premarital sex" is treated as an ironclad rule rather than one possible interpretation, and while it may indeed end up to be the most valid interpretation, I need the the opportunity to wrestle and discuss safely and I'm not sure how to find that.

    Ok, whew. I know this was a lot, but I really would appreciate your thoughts :)

  6. My two cents:

    [First, what are your thoughts on the issue of premarital sex?]

    Porting sexual ethical teachings from the first century directly into our time without taking the vast cultural differences into account is problematic at best and downright toxic far too often (the problems listed regarding purity culture is a prime example of this).

    More often than not, when the Bible talks about sex outside of marriage, it's talking about adultery and this is spoken of primarily in terms of a violation of property rights (note how all scripture that talks about adultery is aimed at men - gotta love that patriarchy). Today we live in a society where (ideally, though not yet) women have equal rights and agency and voice in the matter of how/when/with whom to have sex.

    In addition, marriage in the time of the Bible was almost always pre-arranged by parents and was done on the basis of preserving land rights and familial ties (not on compatibility or even love). Today, women and men find their own partners and love and compatibility are the primary categories on which the choice to marry is made.

    Given these vast cultural differences, while I think it's all find and good for Christians to make a personal choice to read the biblical text as prohibiting sex before marriage, I also think that the church should make room for those who thoughtfully and prayerfully discern that the Bible doesn't speak directly to the dating society we live in today - a society where compatibility is a key component of committed relationships.

    [Second, how do you think the church could have more open conversations about this where new ideas are explored?]

    There's a project that I'm involved with called Thank God For Sex. Our primary purpose is helping to heal the church from religious sexual shame and one of the prime ways this healing takes place is by creating a space where people can share their stories.

    There are already a number of blog posts and videos up on the site where people talk about their own stories and how they've found a better way to think of their own sexuality in the context of the church. We also have a carefully curated Resources page with lots of helpful book recommendations and links.

  7. There's a book coming out next year titled Damaged Goods by Diana E. Anderson and it's a hearty critique of just the sort of purity culture Beck is talking about here. I, for one, can't wait! This is a much needed conversation in the church right now.

  8. Here is why I think we treat men and women differently: 1). The hymen situation very much creates a before/after scenario. This could speak to why the purity is viewed as un retrievable.

    2). Sounds silly and simple, but I think the "innie" vs. "outie" genital situation propagates all of this. Graphic: A man ejaculates inside of a woman. I mean, can that ever (practically speaking) be FULLY cleansed away?? It's hidden, it's dark, I can't see in there, etc. In sum: in my mind I can always imagine a part of him in there. So it is unclean.

    ...But me?? Well, my external genitals can be cleaned and washed as new!

    And I think all of this is very sinful thinking. But I think it is true and speaks to where our minds might be evolutionarily.

  9. There probably is something to be said for cultures where dating is something you do in public, seems like an easy way to say where the line is then when it comes to physical affection.

    Getting into this minefield seems to require lots of definitions though. There are lots of recreational activities that will not result in babies but generally speaking those are not talked about because of unspoken ideas about what is normal and Christian even after you are married.

    My thought is to talk openly with your partner about the idea, and to work it out together. It is much harder to cross verbalized lines about how you will treat and respect each other. Plus then I think it will lead to healthier long term relationships if you are able to talk about what you find interesting or fun sexually. Well within reason I suppose, but I think we all know an explicit sext message is different from a mature conversation in a coffee shop.

    I too though am curious how the normally very tactful Dr. Beck would weigh in on it :)

  10. I must, with a heavy heart, agree with you. But it's wrong on so many levels. And I hope we can all agree that the easiest, mostly natural (read "evolutionary") response isn't always (usually) the right response. Indeed, this is "very sinful thinking."

  11. JMF, it's actually a myth that you can determine whether a female has had intercourse by examining the hymen.

    [Aust Fam Physician. 2011 Nov;40(11):873-5]. The prepubertal hymen. The hymen is a thin, elastic membrane that forms during development and then (mostly) dissolves. The orifice varies so widely in size that it is impossible in most cases even for forensic purposes to determine whether trauma has occured. [J Pediatr Adolesc Gynecol. 2008 Aug;21(4):177-85. doi: 10.1016/j.jpag.2007.08.005. Genital findings in prepubertal girls: what can be concluded from an examination?] What this goes to say is that not every hymen is torn and bleeds upon first intercourse; the opening can be so wide it makes no difference, it may not tear, or it may have broken for other reasons.

  12. Sorry for the delay in responding. I was on the road all weekend and just got back home.

    I don't know if I have a particularly insightful answer. Two related thoughts.

    When it comes to reframing the conversation I think we'd do well to ground ourselves in the Wisdom tradition of the bible. That is, rather then asking the question "Is this a sin or not?" we ask instead "What is the wise thing to do?" I've found that reframing helpful when talking with students about their sexual behavior. Wisdom helps us shift away from discerning "right vs wrong" to attend to the halo of consequences that surround our choices. If I do X what is set into motion? Are there longer-term consequences that I'm not paying attention to in my focus on what I should do (or what I want to do) right now? Etc.

    Which brings us to the wisdom of marriage. What's the wisdom of linking sex to covenant fidelity? In the article of mine you cited I noted how covenant fidelity can protect us from the vulnerabilities inherent in sex. I still think that's a part of it. But I also think that marriage is a monastic vocation where eros is divinized in the discipline of marriage, where sexual love comes to participate in the Triune love of God. My concern about sex if it's decoupled from that monastic discipline is that sex is tempted, as all pleasures are tempted, into something that is individualistic, instrumental and consumptive. Perhaps not wrong, sinful or wicked but setting into motion a wave of consequences that can ripple throughout your sexual, spiritual, relational and moral biography

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