In 1997, Joshua Harris published “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” a book that was in part a warning about the harm that relationships before marriage could cause. Harris evoked images of men at the altar bringing all their past partners with them into the marriage to reinforce the point that love and sex before marriage took pieces of your heart and made you less.
At the time, Harris was just 21, but he was already a rising star. His parents were pioneers of the evangelical home-schooling movement, and Harris had already founded New Attitude, a countercultural magazine for teens that gave tips for proselytizing and offered in-depth analysis on why pop culture songs like Joan Osborne’s “[What If God Was] One of Us” was unchristian.
As a young home-schooled evangelical, Harris was a paragon of all the Christian virtues — an autodidact, motivated and pure.
He was what we, as young evangelicals, wanted to be. And so we strove passionately to attain the ideal of premarital purity he laid out for us. Now, almost 20 years later, even Harris appears to be questioning whether his advice did more harm than good.
Harris probably could not foresee how strongly his book would take root in evangelical culture. He was young after all, and there were others making the same arguments. But Harris’s book was hugely influential. Maybe it was his youthful status, or his rising star as a pastor, or the hip fedora on the cover of the book. Whatever the formula, the book became the catalyst for the resurgence of courtship and is often cited as the foundational book for purity culture — a movement that uses biblical principles to encourage men and women to stay virgins before marriage.
Many of my friends at the time refused to even kiss before their wedding day, citing Harris’s books. Since publication, the book has sold over a million copies, which is no small feat, considering that most Christian books only sell a few thousand.
And yet at its core, purity culture presumes that giving and receiving love breaks you instead of builds you. It uses fear to mask our bodies and needs, and there are generations of women and men walking around crippled in America because of it.
On the surface, I am a purity-culture success story: I am a heterosexual woman, a virgin until marriage, now with two small children and a husband I deeply love. We attend church. We believe in God. And yet, for me, the legacy of purity culture is not one of freedom but one of fear.
Purity culture taught me that I ought to be passed down from father to husband, more an inheritance than a human. I was taught that men are my cover and my shield, when for the most part they have been the ones causing damage through molestation, rape and abuse. I was taught that my holy calling was to open my legs for one and only one and bear him children. Barring that, I was to keep them closed and never express desire or lust or fear or longing.
So many women in my life cracked under the untenable pressure, often giving up on God all together. Others were forced into marriages with men who hit them and hid their abuse behind another message of the church borne from purity culture, that God hates divorce.
Purity culture also taught me that more than my mind and my talents, my body was my greatest gift. The insidious message of purity culture still clings fast in my marriage, and I often put it at the root of some of my deepest anxieties and fears. Recently, while telling a friend from church about a disagreement with my husband, she suggested having more sex. She showed me a handout from her pastor on making a happy home. The number one suggestion: “being available to your husband’s needs.” As if what was between my legs was the problem and not the very center of my heart.
And I am not the only one working out the threads of this Gordian knot. Nearly 20 years after publication, Harris has recently begun distancing himself from the book. In an NPR interview that aired on July 10, Harris noted that he was finally at a place where he was able to listen to the criticism about the book, noting, “I think I’m finally at a place where I’m really trying to listen to those voices. And I think it’s taken time for the consequences of the way that people applied the book and the way the book affected people to play out.” Harris also recently announced that he would be accepting feedback about the book via his website.
His comments have touched on a wellspring of dissatisfaction with purity culture felt by generations of women and men raised on his words. His almost-apologies and willingness to open a dialogue have inspired articles about the impact of the book and even a hashtag #KissShameBye, which former adherents to purity culture use when revealing the deep harm caused by the ideology. And even before Harris began rethinking his youthful magnum opus, writers like Dianna Anderson, author of “Damaged Goods” and websites like the No Shame Movement have taken purity culture to task for inciting shame and excluding victims of rape, and people who are not cisgendered or white.
The previously static idea of what constitutes purity is beginning to crack, and through those cracks, voices and ideas are beginning to be heard that were formerly shut out of conversations on God and sexuality. They include the perspectives of gay pastors and women of color. In the conversation on the impact of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” published in the Toast, Keisha McKenzie notes how purity culture worked to annihilate her cultural understandings of relationships and her body: “We were taught a lot about ‘what we don’t do,’ even though people being people actually did do those things, and were judged or dis-fellowshipped for doing them. And ‘what we don’t do’ was a way to be pious while building social standing for being “different” and more controlled. It’s pernicious because it encourages you to bring the external self-serving colonial standard into your own conscience. And then you oppress yourself and call it holiness.”
Others are also tapping into this need for change as well. In her recent book “Good Christian Sex,” author and pastor Bromleigh McCleneghan argues against a rule-based look at biblical purity and opens up the scripture to a more holistic approach.
I remember being promised at a youth rally that I would find freedom through the confining structures of purity, which were for my protection. But I never did. Instead, I’ve only uncovered message after message that encourages me to police my body at the expense of what is truly in my heart and mind. I’ve heard arguments that I was protected from early pregnancy because of my fear, but I’d rather rely on birth control for that, because the only thing fear protects against is life. As McKenzie noted in the Toast, “Fear is not the way of grace or growth.”
The conversation has only just begun. And dismantling a structure that taps deep into rape culture and misogyny will take time. But I hope that whatever else comes of this discussion, the fear that has held our bodies in a vise is finally replaced by grace.
Lyz Lenz’s writing has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, Marie Claire, Pacific Standard, BuzzFeed and the LA Review of Books. She has her MFA from Lesley University and lives in Iowa. You can find her on Twitter @lyzl.