Grappling with Purity Culture Regrets

As an evangelical teen girl in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I enthusiastically embraced the True Love Waits movement. I subscribed to Focus on the Family’s Brio magazine and absorbed article after article by Susie Shellenberger on how to be a Godly girl. I begged my parents for a True Love Waits ring, necklace—anything. Brio had so many great stories of fathers and mothers taking their daughters out to a fancy dinner and giving them a special piece of jewelry, symbolizing the teen girl’s commitment to sexual purity until marriage. Those stories always ended up with the girl meets boy and give him the jewelry on their wedding night. So romantic, right? My parents just ignored my requests. Now I’m glad they did.

As a family, we were fully entrenched in conservative, Christian culture, but the gimmick of buying a piece of jewelry to show your commitment to principles was not something my parents were enthusiastic about.

However, they were more than happy to buy me as many sexual purity themed books as I wanted. My bookshelf was full of them, and among the most influential was Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye. As a freshman in high school, I heard Harris on James Dobson’s radio program, and I thought he was the smartest guy I’d ever heard. I didn’t want to get emotionally hurt by guys, and from a self-preservation perspective, Harris’ advice to avoid dating as a teen to “guard your heart” made sense. I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Harris’ follow-up Boy Meets Girl became my manifesto for relationships. I would only be “friends” with guys until I met “the one.” I would guard my heart for my spouse along with my sexual purity. Plus, as Harris noted in I Kissed Dating Goodbye, dating relationships were meaningless if they didn’t lead to marriage. As a goal-oriented person, I definitely didn’t want a boyfriend holding me back in high school and keeping me from going away to college.

I’m now 34, and like so many former evangelicals who grew up at the height of the purity movement all of my romantic choices were influenced by the guidelines of books such as I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I now realize I am damn lucky my romantic narrative didn’t turn into a horror show. I’ve spent the past few weeks reading stories of others who followed the book’s advice, married the first person they met and ended up divorced or experienced sexual shame for not living up to the ridiculously high standards of no physical contact until marriage (including kissing).

How I Kissed Dating Goodbye

After reading I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I went on to read Elisabeth Elliott’s Passion and Purity (because Harris raved about it in his book). Elliot talks about her marriage to the famous Christian missionary Jim Elliot who was murdered on the mission field and whose story Through Gates of Splendor is also on any good evangelical kid’s bookshelf. Elliot talked about waiting on God’s timing and patience. Things which, as a teenage girl who had never dated and now was never going to date, I could relate to. Elliot emphasized she didn’t want “To be among the marked-down goods on the bargain table, cheap because they’d been pawed over. Crowds collect there. It is only the few who will pay full price. ‘You get what you pay for’.” What Harris had said in a softer tone, Elliot said with matriarchial candor. I was terrified. I did want to eventually meet someone, but Elliot and other authors like her emphasized, again and again, MY most important value to a spouse was maintaining my virginity. Looking back none of these books talked about guys and purity. It was always on me. Dress a certain way, talk a certain way, only interact with men in a certain way—the list of how I was supposed to behave and NOT be was longer than who I COULD be.  Brio reinforced the narrative with its self-help articles and suggestions of creating a “list” of top traits I wanted in a spouse and storing it in my Bible.

I remember as a senior in high school sitting down to write my list of what I wanted in a spouse. At the top as a guy who liked skiing, reading and was intelligent, on the side of things I didn’t want was a guy who was a “redneck.” The list was ridiculous. I ended up with the intelligence and reading “must-haves,” but was aiming too high in hoping for an athlete as well!

When I went to college I measured every guy by that list, because as a good evangelical girl I was told that college was not only the place to get a degree but also the place where I could find a good husband. My college was known for students graduating in pairs and women getting an “MRS” degree. I almost didn’t go there because the girls disproportionately outnumbered the guys- not kidding. For years that was my biggest argument against NOT picking a certain college. Not academic- the guy/girl ratio.

Yet, while I appeared to have bought into purity culture completely I was having doubts about my fit in this culture. I realized as a senior in high school I liked wearing “short shorts”—heaven forbid I was tempting the guys! I questioned my conservative Christian school’s rules my junior and senior year and surprisingly didn’t care when I was no longer the teacher’s pet. I wanted the evangelical bubble for college but I wanted a place that didn’t think spaghetti strap shirts came straight out of the devil’s playground.

As a freshman, I realized the Methodist tradition was actually egalitarian and Christian feminism was a real thing. It was mind-blowing. My professors encouraged me to think for myself and told me I was intelligent. I figured out as a freshman was a doctorate degree was and even though I still doubted my abilities the world began to open up. However, the purity culture mindset didn’t go away overnight.

My Narrative Isn’t a Horror Show

By the time I met my spouse in college, I was a confident, Christian feminist who ALSO still believed in “kissing dating goodbye.” I just couldn’t throw off this last patriarchy construct. My husband hadn’t dated anyone in high school and I hadn’t either. We were the first people each other dated. I believed I was living up to my commitment to “guard my heart.”

We were friends for a year before we dated. I will never forget when we finally decide to date. My spouse knew I was opposed to dating if it wouldn’t lead to marriage, and he was a wreck. We regularly went for walks and on one walk he begins a long, rehearsed narrative combining all the communication theory I had been mentioning about relationships drifting apart if they don’t continue and connecting the theory with his desire to date with the “purpose of leading towards marriage.” The poor guy. I told him I had to think on the idea and made him wait until after our night class before I said dating each other would be okay to try out. Looking back, we were young, crazy and had no idea what we were doing. The rhetoric of conservative Christian culture totally dominated the start of our narrative, but thankfully that wasn’t who we really were.

We’ve now been married 12 years and known each other almost 14 years. We’re still best friends. We suffered through graduate school together; both completing our Ph.D’s. Now we are suffering through parenting teens together. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely a partnership. My experience is unique to me. Somehow my narrative fits with the crazy advice given in I Kissed Dating Goodbye and thankfully my life wasn’t screwed up because of it like so many others were.

Purity culture has narrowed our worth down to our virginity and guilted us into following a strict theology of gender heteronormativity.

I’ve begun searching for new narrative ways to pass my beliefs on faith and sex on to my teens. I want them to understand sexuality in a less restrictive model than I choose to follow. It isn’t easy to find stories. Although, I have hope as I stumble across stories about where Joshua Harris is today and realize he, too, regrets I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In a 2016 interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition Harris’ addresses his re-evaluation of his work (he wrote it as a 21-year-old who had only had one serious relationship prior to publishing the book):

Honestly, I haven’t engaged that process of reading through the whole book and saying, this is what I think about all these different areas. I think one area I am seeing is that – where my book was used as a rule book to say this is the only way to do it. I know that that’s not helpful. That was not my intention. But I think one of the things that I’m changing in my own thinking is I just think people – myself included – it’s so easy to latch on to a formula. You know, you do these things and you’ll be great. You’ll be safe and you’ll be protected and you’ll be whatever.

And I just don’t think that’s the way life works. I don’t think that’s the way the life of faith works. And so when we try to overly control our own lives or overly control other people’s lives, I think we end up harming people. And I’m – I think that that’s part of the problem with my book. (¶7-8)

Since writing I Kissed Dating Goodbye Harris went on to become a mega-church pastor, a father of two teenagers, and now a master’s student at Regent College in Canada. He is currently finishing a documentary on the impact of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Finding Harris’ updated narrative has been mind-blowing for me. It gives me hope other leaders can evolve and realize the dogmatic nature of purity and patriarchy are more harmful than helpful.

However, I still don’t think this is enough. My generation of evangelicals/ex-evangelicals is now grappling with how do we educate our teens regarding dating and sex? We are still coming to terms with our own experiences as teens and the resources to help us as parents just don’t exist.

For us to fully move on we have to ensure our children know not to repeat our same theological mistakes, and as parents, we know they won’t listen to us. We need resources, role models and the church leading in an updated discussion on sexuality.

Note: Joshua Harris also did a 2017 Tedx Talk  “Strong Enough to be Wrong”


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