On May 10, author of Girl at the End of the World and Spiritual Sobriety, Elizabeth Esther tweeted that she never went to prom because of her Fundamentalist upbringing. In response, one of her followers tweeted that she didn’t have a prom because of Joshua Harris, the author of the influential book I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
Harris himself replied with an apology, tweeting: “Sorry about that, Jess.”
His comments reignited the debate over purity culture that Harris himself championed in his life and his book. I Kissed Dating Goodbye was published in 1997 and quickly became a hit among the Evangelical crowd. Here was this young guy, only 21, preaching chastity, virtue and not kissing until you got married. It was a supremely conservative message packaged with youthful fervor and a fedora. In the wake of its publication, churches held purity conferences, purity balls, and had teens take purity pledges.
My own parents vowed that their children would never date, we would court, as laid out in Harris’ book. But beside my non-existent teen love life, the book had a larger impact that as an adult, I’m only now coming to grips with—damaging expectations of myself, men, and sexuality—beliefs that have cost me love, friendship, and given me a life of shame.
Over email, Verdell Wright, Lola Prescott, Sarah Galo and Keisha McKenzie and I talked about the impact I Kissed Dating Goodbye had on our own lives and how each of us has worked to untangle our lives and relationships from the shame of purity culture.
On the Impact of I Kissed Dating Goodbye
Sarah: Since fourth grade and my first headlong crush, I had wanted to date so badly, so I’m not sure why I picked up I Kissed Dating Goodbye (IKDG) about four years later near the end of middle school. I remember seeing the cover, and thinking how cool it looked, tipped fedora and all. The sepia tone seemed romantic, and maybe, when you’re an awkward, depressed teen, that’s all you need to convince you of purity culture: it seems romantic. The approach Harris offered was a way forward that bypassed the physical possibilities. It seemed safer: who wouldn’t trust their parents to have a say in their husband? Who wouldn’t want to please God with a pure heart and body on their wedding day?
Of course, it isn’t as simple as all that and, really, IKDG is revealing a method that cedes self-autonomy for what God and your parents want. It’s fostered the sort of shame that follows me into my relationship now, and it makes me angry at how dating or relationships without marriage as a pre-determined point, let alone sex or any kind of physical affection, were robbed of any joy for me. It’s like a low level noise of distrust and anxiety that some would probably call the conviction of the Holy Spirit. I once called it that, but no more.
Keisha: I first read IKDG while in college in Jamaica. I’d moved there from the UK where I’d attended an all-immigrant congregation that packaged purity culture as counter-cultural self-empowerment and self-love. Premarital sex and pregnancy were major social disgraces and a lot of guidance from parents and older family friends (we call them all aunts and uncles) was built around avoiding those disgraces.
I found [the book] very white and male-centered, very dismissive of emotions and intimacy, and very body-dissociative. The wider teaching also undermined a relationship I had toward the end of college. It actually had potential and we had a lot of intellectual, emotional, and sexual chemistry but I felt I had to break it off before we “got into trouble.” So I felt pressured to be guarded. And though he was interested in marriage, I was sure we were too young to go ahead (we weren’t).
I’m now in my early 30s. During my most vulnerable years, I was separated from the American evangelical purity culture industry by ethnicity, denomination, and continent. But the sad thing about religious colonialism, which I see IKDG as part of, is that it doesn’t respect borders well. I would never have known Josh Harris’s name were it not for this book and his elevation based on it. Even though I didn’t see myself as his primary audience, I and others like me reaped the consequences of his work. The US church was afraid of sex and sin, and so we became afraid too. That didn’t serve us well.
Verdell: I read [IKDG] sometime in my early twenties. I was always an avid book reader and since I took my evangelical faith so seriously, I wanted to learn all I could about dating. Even in the black churches that I attended, this book was widely read. In hindsight, it’s a bit scary that a white evangelical had that much sway over people whose bodies are already policed by white ideas.
The teaching in Harris’ book is much like what I encountered in white and black churches. I have to listen so hard to myself to actually know what I like, what I don’t, and what I desire, because the idea of pleasure is a foreign idea. And that’s so much bigger than sex; there’s a critical portion of a healthy life that I have to strain to reach that was damaged in the name of God.
Lola: I actually didn’t read the book until a couple years ago. I was in high school when it came out, and many of the concepts around gender dynamics and “purity” were part of my upbringing. I think that was probably why I avoided it for so long. I also read some of Not Even a Hint.
In the spring of 2013, I started a hashtag #noshamemov (short for No Shame Movement) so that people would have a platform for sharing their stories of growing up in purity culture. This evolved to a Twitter account and then Tumblr. In the 3 years I’ve been doing this, lots of folks who shared their stories point to IKDG as either central or playing a significant role in how purity culture was enforced. It came up so often I finally decided to check it out from the library. As a teen and young adult I knew some of the basic concepts of the book: you shouldn’t get involved with too many people because that means you’re cheating on your future spouse.
Lyz: I first read IKDG when I was 15 and it didn’t feel right, but I didn’t have the words to put to that feeling. I don’t think I had the language or the structure to articulate what about it I didn’t like. So, that feeling, ended up being identified by my youth pastor and others as “sin.” I was told I had a sinful attitude when it came to the book and being pure. (Which is ironic since I stayed “pure” until marriage.) So for a long time, I tried to pray that out of myself.
As an adult I fought against the precepts in IKDG and from purity culture at large, yet it’s only recently I’ve realized how deeply ingrained these ideas were in me. These warped ideas of agency and power have really skewed our idea of partnership and marriage. Honestly, me finding my own voice within my own faith and also my own life, has been a huge relief for my husband and myself.
Another way this has affected me is in the idea that is so insidious in IKDG is the idea that our bodies are our power–that as a woman the best gift you can give to a man is your virginity, as if that weren’t some culturally messed up idea anyway. And it’s a message that continues long into marriage and motherhood, where women only find their power and strength through their bodies, appearance, and ability to have and raise children. But while we have power there, we have power so many other places.
On Purity Culture
Keisha: From the very beginning, the Church has been chief police of all of the rules and chief judge and executioner for people who stray from them. There’s the Jezebel who attracts too much attention to herself with hips and confidence and dangerous things like that. There’s the profligate buck who can’t control his own urges so women have to take responsibility for denying him.
As I started studying sexuality, I learned a lot about how pre-colonial cultures defined sexualities and how the family norms that we developed were and still are presumed inferior to the ones the White Church insists on. The part of that story that affects me and my family is that a British church (Anglicanism) with restrictive sexual rules imposed itself on enslaved Africans in Jamaica, and some of those enslaved people later converted to an American church (Adventism) that also had even more restrictive sexual rules.
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 disfellowshipped 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.
Even the line of reasoning that says “You are not your own; you have been bought with a price… the wife doesn’t have authority over her own body…the husband doesn’t have authority over his own body” (1 Corinthians 6-7) reads very differently to me, the descendent of people enslaved by White Christians. It’s not the kind of reasoning I want at the foundation of my relationships today.
Sarah: I’m glad that verse has been brought up! I actually remember it being taught in my eighth grade health class. There are so many implications beyond that though: the colonization of bodies, as has been noted.
In that view, the body becomes secondary; natural, healthy desires aren’t truly us—it’s our damnable bodies which will be left behind with the decay of the earth when God gives us new heavenly bodies! And it’s rather horrifying to look back and think of it that way because it has so many toxic implications and uses. But then, there is also “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,” which I believe proceeds the “You are not your own” line in Corinthians. Your body is meant for holy things, but that’s still employing distance and dissociation from the body.
Lola: There have been studies about how people who break purity pledges are more likely to do so without protection. It’s easier to think of sex as something that happens during a “moment of weakness” so to intentionally take precautions is to admit that you plan to “sin”. If the “sin” happens spontaneously, you can repent.
Verdell: Also, I think this book is representative of purity culture as a whole. This book is the result of purity culture. There’s countless books, sermons, and programs that promote these ideas. It’s just that Joshua’s book was very popular. People are born in, shaped by, and have familial connections around these ideas, connections that are threatened if people dare to challenge them. So while I think looking at this one book as having all the power is a stretch, Joshua benefitted mightily from a project that has a negative impact on people’s lives.
Evangelicalism/Purity culture tells us from early on that our bodies are for the pleasure of someone else who isn’t us, a god, a father, a revival preacher, etc. We’re primed to always look outside of ourselves to know what should be done to our bodies. And in a culture like that, we are primed to ignore our orientations, our sexual desires, and to excuse the abuse that so often happens. The spirit is supposed to quicken us and make us alive, but instead we’ve been deadened.
It’s so tragic.
On Harris’ “Apology”
Sarah: I’ve been thinking about issues like this a lot over the past year, so when I saw Joshua Harris’s apology and seeming willingness to discuss IKDG and reflect on how harmful it’s been, I nearly cried. Of course, it is quite a small step on his part, but the way I felt after, like a rush of hope of maybe—seeing him step away from the book, it showed me how much this all bothers me still no matter how I’ve changed or grown into my own perspective. There’s still a hurt teen in there hoping for someone to tell her that it’s okay to be a person. I think that’s the part of me it spoke to.
Keisha: I’m not impressed by the Twitter exchange or by Christian celebrity public apologies in general. I also had a fairly direct “ugh” about [Harris’] brief apology on Twitter because there is an awful lot it did not say. Sympathy is not repentance, and not knowing Josh I have no evidence that he has divested from either the IKDG franchise or the theology that made it so influential. An apology has got to be more substantial than what he’s offered so far.
Verdell: I hope he’s actually sorry. I’m okay with second chances. But in order for me to really take it seriously, I need to see him publicly, formally apologize and say where he is now. This throwaway line isn’t enough.
Lyz: I feel mixed about Harris’ apology. On the one hand, I’m glad he’s seeing things differently. But on the other hand, at what cost? I know that Harris was part of the bungled rape cover up at The Gospel Coalition. And in that wake of that he talked about his own molestation as a child. So, I’m happy for honesty. And I definitely have sympathy that he was just a kid himself at the time. He was a token of this purity myth. He was their golden child. I cannot imagine how good that must have felt. And I can’t imagine it because I’m a woman. I will never be an anointed Evangelical leader. But I also think, as a leader, he has some real accountability and he is responsible for so much damage. Damage that probably would have persisted with or without the book. But was made very possible by the book.
Verdell: I don’t think people realize that an apology doesn’t rectify the scores of people who’ve been urged to life their lives by his work and who are now hobbling in life because of it. A tepid “I’m sorry” doesn’t fix that.
Keisha: But that’s what I’m saying: It’s bigger than Josh Harris, as big an impact as he did have. He was a handsome wholesome popularizer, and he is therefore responsible for his influence in spreading the model. I don’t know how much of the model he’s reconsidering, if any. But I’m a lot more focused on the system that elevated him and would have found someone else to play that role if he hadn’t been willing.
On Finding Freedom
Sarah: There’s also a passage in IKDG about sin and forgiveness called “The Room”: Harris recalls a dream of walking into a room with a library catalog, each note card cataloging everything he has ever done. This is how an apparently sixteen year old Harris thinks of his lustful thoughts: “When I came to a file marked “Lustful Thoughts”, I felt a chill run through my body. I pulled the file out only an inch, not willing to test its size, and drew out a card. I shuddered at its detailed content. I felt sick to think that such a moment had been recorded.” He specifically highlights his lustful thoughts as the worst sin a sixteen year could commit. I remember reading this at around 12-13 years old and feeling that same flood of tears and shame at whatever I had thought then (which when I look back now was so either stupidly normal or even rather innocent). It’s an estrangement from yourself.
So, thinking back to then, which was around the time I made my own purity pledge, I’d tell myself that in the grand scheme of things that are more important things to stress about. I think of all the energy I wasted on feeling ashamed or the way I probably projected this very uptight persona of holiness to hide how shitty I felt all the time. In the end, for me at least, there’s been nothing truly earth-shattering about being in a relationship. It’s been comforting and wonderful, but I find the hyperfocus on abstinence and purity nearly laughable now because it doesn’t prepare you for anything. A relationship (especially a long-term one like marriage) is more than if you’ve had sex or not beforehand.
I’d also just tell myself not to be so frightened. It’s all that anxiety that creeps up now that can make things seems unattainable.
Verdell: I think my situation was a little unique. I was bullied intensely growing up, my parents were pseudo-Christians who told me nothing about sex other than don’t get anyone pregnant, and then being immersed in white purity culture in blackface.
It’s the Comm scholar in me, but I really urge people to deeply consider the implications of these messages that we’ve heard. They aren’t benign. When you hear them for years and years, they become a part of how your view the world. That doesn’t go away overnight.
Also, I’d urge compassion, for self and others. I know that I’ve had to learn to be kinder to myself, because I often feel like I’m 1,000 steps behind everyone else. And I’m constantly reminding myself to only look at the number of steps that I’ve taken.
And lastly, I’d like to say that the way to deal with coming out of purity culture isn’t necessarily to have all the sex in the world. I think that’s the message that comes across sometimes. Rather, I think the opposite of purity culture is having the choice to express your sexuality as you wish, in ways that are best for you. Purity culture takes away freedom, and freedom means being able to choose.
Lyz: I was re-reading that passage where Jesus talks to Nicodemus and he tells him to be born of the spirit and he says this, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
And I was floored by that, because it implies so much freedom. Not only is the source of our rebirth unseeable like the wind, that part has been hammered into us. But that those who are saved are free, not encumbered or crippled by fear, but free.
I don’t want to be preachy, but I do believe that the fundamental message of Jesus was one of freedom and there is no freedom in purity culture or in assessing all of our lustful thoughts in card catalogs. (That image is so hilarious now.) But it’s like what you said Verdell, “Purity culture takes away freedom, and freedom means being able to choose.”
Verdell: Lyz, that scripture has been a well for me. Because I often don’t have the answers that people desire for what my beliefs are but I know that they are there. My salvation, whatever that means, is a mystery. Not in the sense that it’s a secret, but in the truest sense of the word: a story that is constantly and continuously playing out that I have a chance to participate in.
Lola: I’ve been thinking a lot about depression and how much of it can be traced back to purity culture. I’ve had it most of my adult life, and I can definitely trace some of it back to the constant self-loathing I went through growing up. And I keep going back to something that I’ve been thinking about when it comes to purity culture and depression is the possible link between the two.
I keep going back to Joshua Harris’ book Not Even a Hint. There’s a section in the book that lists all these “What would you do” types of scenarios in which different “temptations” are posed. The example that keeps sticking out in my mind is the one having to do with masturbation. Suppose you have a wet dream (a wet dream. something you have absolutely no control over) and you wake up and you feeling some kind of way and OMG you might want to touch yourself.
That is when I feel like it that is most toxic; when you’re shamed for something that’s completely natural. The amount of self-loathing that kind of mentality invokes is, for me, the epitome of the self-loathing that purity culture creates within us.
As far as I’m concerned, sites like that and books like IKDG teach us to hate ourselves, that by default we are broken, filthy, worthless human beings. They may try to dress it up with talk of “redemption in Christ” and “God loves us no matter what” but the problem with that is the notion that any natural sexual thought or (consensual) action with or about anyone on the planet other than a person with whom you’re in a heterosexual marriage is something that we need to seek redemption for in the first damn place.
That is the violence of purity culture.
Keisha: The things I’d want my 15-year-old self to know, despite IKDG and that whole subculture:
You’re not property.
You’re not property your parents will one day hand over to your spouse.
You’re not a commodity or a trade item. Your value doesn’t rise or drop like stock.
The world can be hard enough and you might be tempted to get hard-hearted with it.
But your openness is not a flaw, and feeling might not always be fun, but it is good.
The guys are figuring themselves out just like you are.
You can have standards without growing cold.
Fear is not the way of grace or growth.
Verdell A. Wright is a preacher, teacher, and scholar. He specializes in the areas of evangelical culture, black theology, and how race, gender, and sexuality impact the practice of faith.
Sarah Galo is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian US, The Establishment, and Bustle, among other publications. You can follow her thoughts on religion on Twitter @SarahEvonne.
Keisha McKenzie works with faith-based and social good organizations around the US on communication, development, and strategy, and also serves on-staff at a small church in Maryland. Read her at mackenzian.com or on Twitter, @mackenzian.