I feel a rather satisfied sense of irony that my post about Nadia Bolz-Weber’s new book “Shameless: A Sexual Revolution” is set to go live today, March 08, International Women’s Day. There’s something rather authentic and volatile about sharing openly about sex, purity culture, and patriarchy on the day women around the world are celebrating each other, and affirming how much work is yet to do in our world. It’s like tapping into an untested, unrevealed energy that has never really been given permission to speak out, but is ready to bowl the world over with bruised glory.
This post is not a full book review necessarily. I’m not seeking to summarise every point for readers, and then give my star rating on Goodreads. Rather, I want to highlight a few of Nadia’s points that stood out for me and then carry the conversations forward.
Overall, I loved it.
Finally, a clerical voice is specifically addressing the damage done by conservative Christian purity culture and the need to live into a different way of being. For that to happen, we have to talk about sex differently — in our lives, in our families, in our churches, in our communities. So many of us have been left permanently scarred by purity culture, but our voices have been left silenced and shamed.
Damage continues to be done.
Nadia explains in her Invocation, “So my argument in this book in this: we should not be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people.”
When a teaching, any teaching from any group, becomes so toxic as to be its own idol, while stuffing people into closets for its own elevation, the teaching needs die. When people are so damaged as to be unable to function within the context of relationships because of a doctrine, not only must the doctrine go but our focus on doctrine rather than people needs to serious healing.
Nadia is careful to point out that abstinence has worked and does work for a lot of people. But it works when the people involved in the relationship choose for themselves that this path will create deeper intimacy with one another and with God. It doesn’t work when it’s imposed as the true-one-and-only path to righteousness for all people, in all times. and in all places. Having said that, shaming people for choosing abstinence is unhelpful as well. Abstinence isn’t the enemy here.
The focus of purity culture was and is on doctrine. Despite what internal messages would say that it’s focused on God above all things, the wake of damage in the world would confirm: doctrine is more important than people here.
What do we all do now?
I appreciated Nadia’s focus on concern as we all as consent and mutuality. Instead of preaching for everyone to sleep around with as many partners as possible or become as sexually experienced as possible, she nuances the situation with this concept of concern — loving our neighbours and ourselves in our adolescence of a new sexual ethic.
In other words, it’s not all about me when it comes to sex.
Just as it wasn’t all about men or right doctrine in purity culture, my sexual life code isn’t all about gratifying my own self for my own self’s sake. My sexual self exists in community, just as the rest of myself does. Love God, love others — that goes for sex too.
Purity culture doesn’t love others. Purity culture loves patriarchy.
WHAT ABOUT ABORTION AND PORN?
Nadia has received extensive criticism about her pro-choice stance on abortion, and what sounds like her approval of pornography culture. Be aware that, as readers, that Nadia is clear from her introduction that this is a work of pastoral reflection — her expressions of her parishioners and their stories. This book is not a theological treatise, it’s not a feminist critique, it’s not an academic article on morals and ethics. She can’t hope to address every objection or question in this one small book.
If we go in with reasonable expectations, our objections then can be framed in a reasonable context.
What I would say is this: I can’t determine your opinion on her work based on your values. What I would recommend is that you read the book first and find points that you do agree with. This conversation is so radically important for generations of people, and we need this voice who willing and able to continue to keep it open.
Nadia did confess to having an abortion when she was twenty-four, and that she knew it was the best choice for her at the time. I did struggle with her view that many Christian women have adopted a biblical view of pregnancy in that life begins at birth.
For me, the pro-choice and pro-life designations have become useless. They are utterly meaningless now in our world except to divide people so vehemently that sometimes we can no longer share space together over the matter. What were we just talking about in regards to doctrine being more important than people?
I no longer believe the hardline pro-life stance is loving or correct. I haven’t for a long time. However, I’m not convinced that a hardline pro-choice stance is any healthier. I want to see another way forward that doesn’t just hear pro-life and pro-choice arguments, but forges sometime entirely new.
Chapter 8 deals with people’s use and misuse of porn. Nadia does mention that the adult entertainment world has a lot of work to do around justice. It’s a world rife with problems. One thing I wish Nadia would have attended more to would be to talk more emphatically about the injustices prevalent in the adult entertainment industry.
Nadia doesn’t sound like she has a problem with porn usage as long as it’s something that benefits the entire relationship between the people viewing it. She is clear that over-use — including sites like PornHub — are probably doing incredible damage to our sexual health. It’s clearly written from a consumer’s perspective.
Nadia is trying to dismantle shame around anything sexual. I would be hesitant to judge her approval as somehow anti-woman or anti-patriarchy. She is trying to explain how purity culture has actually exacerbated porn consumption rather than dismantle it. In this, I can agree with her 100%.
I’m not into porn. I’ve had too many experiences sitting with former sex trade workers, and women trapped in prostitution/pornography who have suffered under the demand of men who make up the lion’s share of the people accessing paid sexual services. Supporting a capitalist system to continue demanding sex from women for men because one group has consented to offer such services seems unhelpful to me.
These aren’t one-off stories of having bad on-the-job experiences. These are people who have been subject to repeated rapes and assaults, have had their images shared and re-shared millions of times online without consent, have been subject to systemic racism, ableism, homophobia/transphobia, and have been shamed, shamed, and shamed again by clergy, law enforcement, healthcare officials, and counsellors when trying to access help.
That said, there are people who enjoy sex work and engage in it willingly and with full consent. These voices need to be heard too. Not every person involved in the adult entertainment industry believes that every sex worker is a victim of exploitation.
Again my concern isn’t with one side or the other. I would say I’ve had a hardline abolitionist stance in the past. Yet while I’ve moved towards the middle more, I wouldn’t say I’m completely convinced that full legalisation of paid sexual services is healthy either.
Both sides have people who have suffered from shame, humiliation, degradation, and abuse. Both sides are speaking from lived experiences. Both sides want to dismantle patriarchy at its roots, and yet both sides see the other side as contributing to patriarchy.
When the stakes are this high — life and death — how can we forge new ways forward together? How can we surge past this dividing line that keeps us from healing and reconciliation with one another?
I understand if you feel abandoned or betrayed by Nadia after reading her opinions and beliefs around such sensitive issues. If, by some weird alignment of the stars, she had decided to write how she had suddenly become anti-LGBTQ+, I’d be devastated.
All I’m asking is this: the damage of purity culture is enormous. Incalculable. Nadia has chosen a loving, compassionate approach for people who have suffered in this culture to find healing, hope, and grace. I’m not suggesting we all agree with every single point she makes.
What I’m suggesting is: let’s make room.
Let’s allow messiness with and from one another. I hesitate to even use the word mistake because what I believe is wrong or a mistake might be the divine light for someone else. We need to keep having honest talks about abortion and pornography. But if Nadia’s work around dismantling purity culture has shown us anything, it’s that any particular stance can become a deadly doctrine.
We’ve suffered greatly under this Angel of Light — purity. Our responses aren’t going to be monolithic, nor should they be. If anything, we can learn from the monolith that is purity culture which demanded everyone act in only one way for all time.
Whether addressing sex, relationships, abortion, porn, or God, maybe we can take our cue here and embrace difference. And while embracing difference, we can embrace the kind of concern for neighbour Nadia talks about. What might work for me may not work for the person next to me, and we can live together to find what’s best together forward.