The book begins with a young couple on their wedding day, besieged by relationships past. The groom’s ex-girlfriends have all appeared at the altar beside him, each having claimed a piece of his heart. Now, he has only the scraps to offer his distraught bride.
“I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” published in 1997 by then-21-year-old Joshua Harris, launched a revolution in the evangelical Christian world. Aimed at teenagers and 20-somethings, the first-person polemic discouraged casual (or even serious) dating and argued strenuously against physical intimacy outside of marriage. Sexual impurity was a “grimy film that coats the soul,” Harris wrote — but if you managed to wait, you would receive God’s best marriage.
The book was perfect for the moment: Abstinence-only sex education had become well established in many public schools, and organizations such as True Love Waits were taking evangelical culture mainstream. “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” sold more than 1.2 million copies and has remained a fundamental text even as purity culture peaked and cooled.
I never really kissed dating goodbye as a teenager in the mid-2000s — to be honest, I was pretty late in kissing it hello. But like many who were brought up in contact with evangelical culture, I absorbed its tenets almost by osmosis even though I never even read the whole book. Falling in love means sharing a piece of your heart that you’ll never get back. Sex is a slippery slope, generally with disaster at the bottom. Hard decisions could be boiled down to one rule: Keep it chaste. Do things right, though, and you’ll get the reward you deserve. Follow the instructions: results guaranteed.
I wasn’t the only one so affected. A quick survey of four nonreligious acquaintances revealed at least one youthful romance stymied by the principles of Harris’s book (think: a relationship that never went past hand-holding and ended because one party was “tempting the other into sin”). Its messages about virginity, gender and shame escaped evangelical circles and seeped into the collective subconscious.
Fast-forward to 2016: Those teens who swore off dating have grown up, and they’re angry. Harris starts to engage on social media with his former readers, and many of them say that “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” stunted their relationships, skewed their views of marriage and sexuality or otherwise changed their lives for the worse. He begins to publicly apologize, soliciting feedback about his book and stories about how it affected individual lives.
Last month, two decades after his book burst onto the scene, Harris published a statement on his personal website: “While I stand by my book’s call to sincerely love others, my thinking has changed significantly in the past twenty years. I no longer agree with its central idea that dating should be avoided.” There was a bombshell conclusion: “In light of the flaws I now see in ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye,’ I think it’s best to discontinue its publication.” He has directed his publisher to cease printing the book.
In essence, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and its (inevitable, if you think about it) fall represent a mind-set prominent in evangelical culture, but also in American society more broadly.
We insist that meritocracy works and combine it with a valorization of hard work (which itself stems from our country’s majority-Protestant roots). To maintain the story that success is accessible to all, we’ve developed a tendency to seek out and elevate simplistic formulas that we hope come with guarantees. Stay pure until marriage, and your marriage will flourish. Follow the “success sequence,” and you’ll never be poor. Go to the right school, and all career doors will open. Elect the right candidate, and America will be great once more.
But the dark side of all this is that when the formulas fail — as they so often do — it’s you who must have done something wrong. And then it’s up to you to fix it on your own. Bad marriage? You must have screwed around as a teen. Still in public housing? Should have gotten a better job. The if/then mind-set doesn’t take into account how much is actually out of our personal control, or the systemic forces — race, class, family history — that might hold someone back.
It is difficult to counter such an ingrained — and easy — habit of thought. But give him credit: In reevaluating “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Harris is modeling one way of doing so — he’s admitting to complexity and engaging directly with others, rather than sending down recommendations from above. Alas, even this admirable attempt won’t undo the harms that his formula caused in the first place.
But let the implosion of a cultural touchstone like “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” serve as a lesson, or at least a warning. The next time we’re tempted toward too-formulaic thinking, we’ll know to take it with a grain of salt. After all, life is rarely so pure.