If you were an evangelical teen in the late 90s or early 00s, more likely than not you were given a copy of or told about Joshua Harris’ book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. While it was not the only book to come out of evangelical purity culture in the 90s (Wild at Heart and Captivating come to mind), it is perhaps the most famous. The book advocated for courtship as an alternative to dating and against kissing before marriage. It encouraged concepts that Harris admitted were not biblical, such as “giving your heart away.” The book’s place at the center of Christian purity culture inspired a whole generation of young Christians to avoid dating, to view marriage as life’s ultimate goal, and to see sexual sin as worse than any other type of sin.
Recently the book’s author, Joshua Harris, issued a statement retracting his support of the book. Harris apologized for the hurt his book caused and has asked that his publisher discontinue its publication.
After the statement was released, I put out a call on Facebook for people to share whether or how I Kissed Dating Goodbye affected their experiences with dating, marriage, and sex. Reading through these comments and private messages was heartbreaking as most of the respondents had highly negative replies. Most of the people who responded expressed how the purity movement in general and the book in particular warped their views of dating, marriage, and themselves.
For many affected by the book, the apology is too little, too late. Katherine*, a 30-something-year-old evangelical woman commented, “the statement he made shows that after the listening sessions he's open to the fact the book hurt people, but I don't know if he can imagine the years of shame and guilt that I felt, and I know some of my friends who read his book felt. While discontinuing the printing of the book is a step — it's still a painful subject.”
She went on to share how purity culture led “to a lot of unhealthy attitudes in my family and church about dating. The responsibility it felt — to me — was solely on women to ‘protect their Christian brothers.’”
Another young woman in her early 30s, Morgan*, shared:
“I felt like my not finding a husband in college like you’re supposed to was punishment for the ‘inappropriate’ behavior I engaged in with someone who was not my boyfriend. … This whole concept of only dating with the blessing of everyone in my life and with the intention of marrying caused me to miss out on not just some fun dates, but potentially guys I could have ended up marrying but missed because I didn’t know it right away. … It also probably alienated a few good male friends because I became so obsessed with marrying them that it scared them out of my life.”
Martin*, an Anglo-Catholic priest who was raised in a fundamentalist tradition that embraced Harris’ teachings responded, “this idolization of marriage makes people feel incomplete when not in a romantic relationship with the opposite sex. Through the discovery of Catholic moral teaching and research on Asceticism and virtue, I now have a much more robust way of thinking about stations of life (chastity amidst celibacy, marriage, or widowhood) and I'm grateful that God honors all stations of life and that people can be complete in any of them!”
Beyond these responses, there were other stories of breakups or near-breakups, of false and misleading expectations about dating and marriage, and in some cases, shunning for not embracing the purity culture wholeheartedly. One woman in her late 30s commented that attending church had become painful because it was the one place in which she felt the most single. Two other women in their 30s commented that the passivity in both men and women that purity culture encouraged led to their finding husbands outside the church. One man shared that purity culture enabled him to stay in the closet longer, because it helped him justify why he wasn’t dating.
Still others expressed gratitude for Harris’ apology, viewing him as a fellow casualty of the purity movement. Brianne, a 30-something woman appreciated Harris’ statement:
“I wish more leaders from all sectors would take ownership of the mistakes and missteps they make. It’s OK to make mistakes ... I hope that he has given himself EPIC Christ-like grace for that because he is also just a product of the culture in which he was raised. And dearest God I pray that we can face sexuality in a more health [sic] and balanced way for this generation.”
I too grew up in a Christian culture that embraced some of Harris’ writings. I was encouraged to break up with my high school boyfriend, though he was also a Christian, because dating him would “distract” me from Jesus. Having recently had a spiritual encounter that pushed me toward Christ at the time (and being a people-pleaser), I reluctantly acquiesced. Looking back, I’m certain that as we grew up we would have gone our separate ways anyway. Instead “kissing dating goodbye” turned a normal coming-of-age activity into something that seemed sinful and wrong.
In fact, that idea that romantic relationships outside of marriage could not in any way drive one toward Christ stuck with me well into adulthood and fed into a lot of warped ideas about dating. As one single woman commented on my Facebook post, “seeing dating as only a marriage interview crowds out the fact that God can work through and bless us through the people we date EVEN IF WE DONT MARRY THEM.”
It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how contradictory some of these “purity” teachings were: A romantic relationship could distract us from Jesus, but somehow being married was a sign of spiritual maturity. This strange view twisted scripture around: Instead of viewing singleness as a blessed station of life in which to be “concerned about the Lord’s affairs” and “devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit,” it is viewed as unmet potential. And instead of seeing married people as having one’s interests “divided,” marriage can often be viewed as a reward for faith or spiritual growth.
As a now-married, working mother, I can attest that my interests are indeed divided and there are some days the only prayer I can muster is “please help me not to screw this up too much.” I miss the days when I could luxuriate in scripture and had the time to love and serve others more consistently and comprehensively as a single woman.
Beyond twisted ideas about singleness and marriage, so many of us were left without healthy models for how to date. When you idolize marriage it transforms sisters and brothers in Christ into objects for acquisition, much the same way that secular views of dating transform women and men into objects for sexual or emotional gratification. It’s the other side of the cultural coin, so to speak.
I recall being told time and again to “guard my heart.” The result for me (and for many of the others who responded to my Facebook query) was that we would either become overly attached or overly guarded. “Guarding your heart” became the other side of the cultural coin of playing defensive games (i.e., don’t call or text until three days has passed, don’t text unless he texts and then wait a while before responding, etc.) One man I dated tormented me for months because he wasn’t sure if we were going to get married, so it meant that he could treat me like crap until/unless it was OK to love me. I confess I likely did this to other men I dated as well.
It wasn’t until I was in a program focusing on Christian contemplative practices that I realized that I should treat the men I was dating with love regardless of whether I married them, just because it was right thing to do. Being an open and loving person actually did “guard my heart” because it belonged fully to Jesus and I trusted him to help me to do the right thing. Breakups hurt but didn’t plunge me into despair because the end goal was dating with integrity, not marriage (although I did want to get married).
Looking back on purity culture within the church, it’s easy to see how very fearful our parents and leaders were, and how much that culture was a backlash against the sexual revolution, rising divorce rates, teen pregnancy, abortion, and the AIDS crisis. It’s easy to see how celebrating marriage and parenthood seemed to make a lot of sense. It’s just that by doing so, achieving that station of life became an idol itself.
As for Joshua Harris? I’m grateful that he has apologized and discontinued his book’s publication. He doesn’t need me to pile on, as I’m sure he is fully cognizant that his ideas had consequences that he never imagined. What gives me hope, especially after all these conversations, was that all of the people who shared their stories still profess faith in Christ. It is a testament to God’s grace that despite our foolish, feeble, and fearful mistakes, despite our best efforts at complicating the already challenging life of faith, no matter what books are published, Jesus still gets the last word.
*Names have been changed