On Josh Harris’ Divorce and the Death of Purity Culture

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Josh Harris is separating from his wife, and that is sad. Harris has been on something of an apology tour — even appearing in a documentary on the topic (though the fact that he was involved in production makes the project a little spurious.) Of course I wouldn’t wish the emotional upheaval of divorce on anyone, especially a relationship with kids, but this feels way more monumental than any half-hearted “sorry” he could have offered. It feels like the final nail in the coffin that following the “rules” down to the letter doesn’t unlock everything you want or a perfect life. It shows the system itself is so broken that it’s not even successful for the guy who invented it.

For those who never read it, I KISSED DATING GOODBYE was the handbook in purity culture; all my evangelical peers read it and discussed it. The gist: dating had failed as a system (just look at all the divorce rampant in society — breakups are like mini-divorces!) and this was due to the fact that courtship had fallen out of fashion. Follow this road map, and your life will be golden. The rules:

  • Teens of the opposite sex should never be alone together; you should see potential mates in group settings only
  • The boy should ask the girl’s father’s permission before courting her — a sort of formal trial run to evaluate whether or not to marry a person
  • No sexual activities at all before marriage

But it goes further than that. The book doesn’t just advocate not engaging in sexual activities before marriage — if you had sexual or lustful thoughts, that was every bit as bad as actually having sex. It goes as far as saying your first kiss should be at the altar. You were warned not to “give your heart away,” because by loving another person you’d be taking something precious from your future husband. You were only allowed to really love one person in your entire life (but how would you know who that person should be, if you can’t spend any time together one-on-one, and if courtship should only be proposed if you’re very, very sure it’s serious?)

Dating one-on-one enables a person to establish a facade, Harris wrote, that they wouldn’t be able to keep up in group settings. (No word on why you just can’t do both.) It’s bizarre to twist this around and say that people are more themselves in large groups, rather than behind closed doors. Something tells me Harris wasn’t considering elements like domestic violence when he concocted this half-cocked system.

Harris said dating is too selfish, too inwardly focused. Dating is all about what the other person can do to meet your needs. Instead, you should be thinking about how to serve your mate. (Gosh, I wonder why the other couples from the original I KISSED DATING GOODBYE book are all divorced now?) He unintentionally makes the argument that all Christians are pretty much interchangeable from one another, and the only factor that goes into a decision about who to marry is their commitment to their religion.

Now, imagine you’re a dorky homeschooled 14 year old with a crush, and it is as intense and feels as weighty and important as a teenage crush can be, and you feel like God is mad at you for it. When somebody finds out about your crush, you’re bereft, because people are going to think “she’s THAT kind of girl”, and that’s not even taking into account the normal sexual desires of your teen years, just the feelings. It was crippling.

Being the little nerd that I am, I did my homework and it was troublesome to me that so little of Harris’ rule-making was backed up with any Biblical insight or exegesis. The recommendations seemed like a shot in the dark at best. But evangelical culture loves a good gaslighting, so I just told myself that I was having doubts because I was misunderstanding, or the devil was trying to confuse me, or my spirit needed to be disciplined in order to hear the message.

And here’s the thing: I was right. Harris was 21 when he wrote this book. He didn’t have any special training or insight beyond the fact that he was kind of a superstar in the evangelical movement and his parents were heavily involved as well. (Harris didn’t attend seminary until he was 40, despite having been involved in ministry as a pastor previously.) The Christian publishers knew they could make a buck when they saw it, and they took it. I believe they’re complicit in lending legitimacy to a book written by an unmarried 21 year old about how to find a mate. (This isn’t unprecedented; Bill Gothard’s IBLP program, made famous by the many, many Duggars, is a set of rules about marriage and child-rearing written by a never-married octogenarian who turned out to have been abusing teen girls for decades.)

In his less-successful sequel, BOY MEETS GIRL, Harris chronicles his experience of courting and marrying his eventual wife, now soon-to-be ex. One of the things I remember the most from that book was how afraid his then-fiancee was to confess that she was not a virgin. Josh says he cries, takes time away from her, prays about it and generously decides to accept her anyway. Even at the time, that scene jarred my conscience, and the years have only made it more upsetting. It is the worst type of male fragility writ large, that another man took the prize that was due him.

I didn’t realize how much the cult of virginity had affected me for years afterward. Even after I’d turned away from the church, it nipped at my heels. Even after I threw myself into learning all about what healthy sex should look like, it was there. Even when I knew it was all bullshit, it followed. Telling people — some of whom may not be married for years! — that any sort of sexual desire is verboten until they’re married is toxic. When that messaging is forced into your head for years, and subsequently you’re supposed to have a special and magical wedding night (which is often awkward and painful) and sex is suddenly okay thanks to one day, that idea does not simply disappear. During the last year of our marriage, my then-husband refused to have sex with me. All the ugly shame about sexuality came roaring back in my 30th year, long after I had given it a funeral and called it dead and buried. When I started dating my current boyfriend, I mentioned the dichotomy of sex and affection and he pointed out that it wasn’t a dichotomy, it was all part of loving me. Purity culture was in my head more than I’d known or cared to admit.

The damage that purity culture did to me was not just limited to sex and relationships. The black-and-white thinking that pervades evangelicalism has in turn affected the way I see the world. In a way I feel cheated, because it’s been shown that children raised with these strict dichotomies are less creative, less good at solving problems, and less able to see the nuance in situations. I have attempted to rewire my brain and have done a pretty good job at that in understanding world events, but when it comes to my own life, I’ve been less successful. I sometimes wonder if the black-and-white messaging about a certain part of my body hadn’t been part of my upbringing, I wouldn’t have an eating disorder and the fraught relationship with food and body image that I do today. There’s no way to tell, of course, but I do think about it.

My road back to religion was long and winding (it honestly deserves its own post), but as part of my investigation into conversion I took an Intro to Judaism course. I was shocked when the rabbi spoke about sex joyfully. Sex was good! Sex was about connection. Sex was even permitted on Shabbat, because what better way to rest and reconnect with your partner? In fact, a baby conceived on Shabbat was supposed to be extra blessed! And this time, there was no “but” following those statements. It wasn’t “sex is bad until this thing happens and then magically it’s good”.

I don’t think there’s any way I KISSED DATING GOODBYE would make the splash it did when it was released in the 90s. It ignores the existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and nonbinary kids and gives short shrift to the asexual community. The True Love Waits (yes, I had one) purity culture has wound down in general, and the accessibility of the internet means younger generations seem more savvy about the world and more open to differing cultural viewpoints. Although I’m sure there are people out there who still think the core lessons of I KISSED DATING GOODBYE are salient, I honestly hope nobody else has to grow up with the kind of immense hurt and shame regarding sexuality I experienced.

Ultimately, “not giving your heart away” is an exercise in cowardice. It’s a way to eschew connection, simply because of the mere possibility of hurt. A quote by theologian and author C. S. Lewis comforted me in my teen years as I tried to make sense of my feelings and how they conflicted with what was being taught to me:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Following the “rules” does not protect you from heartbreak. Every time an accident or tragedy happens, I’ve noticed the peanut gallery in newspaper comment sections go wild. “Why didn’t they leave/stay?” “How could the parents do/not do this thing?” “This would never happen to me because I do x, y and z.” It’s ugly and uncharitable, but I think it comes from a desire to make sense of the world. I did this thing, so therefore if I follow the rules, nothing bad will ever happen to me, like it did this other person. That’s just not the way it works.

Nothing good is accomplished by living in fear. I choose to live in love. And I refuse to be afraid any more.

4th generation Houstonian, cat mom, trivia maven, retired Irish dancer, mental health professional in training. MSW ‘22

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