Things I'm Reading: "I Kissed Purity Culture Goodbye"

At First Things, here.

It was hard to grow up as a teenager in the late 1990s, growing up in the American Bible Belt, without bumping up against Joshua Harris. His book I Kissed Dating Goodbye (which advocates for exactly what it says on the tin) was hugely influential, and while my sister and I were never really pushed to give up dating entirely, this whole idea that sexual and romantic purity was very much the ideal and the best way to a lasting marriage and a satisfying sex life within those bounds (which again was very much the gold standard) was so much a part of people's assumptions you almost didn't have to make it explicit by naming it.

Recently Josh Harris stopped publishing the book and apologized for the harm it had done, so a lot of evangelical-niche blogs (and conservative religious-niche generally; First Things is Catholic of course) have been talking about the purity culture the book kicked off. Favale's reaction is one of the better ones I've come across. And I think she's definitely right: any pastoral care of young Christians on sex and romance needs to start with why rather than how. (I think that's true on any number of issues and for other ages, too, though obviously my generation's willingness to question and go against institutions makes this more important with us.)

But there's something big I think she's missing, that I wish she'd have touched on. To be fair, most everything I've read has made the same omission. By my math, Joshua Harris was twenty-two when he published his book; really quite young. More than two decades later, he's had experiences he didn't have at that point, and they've changed his conclusions enough that he wants to repudiate his book. Which is wonderful! I would hate to think I was the same person now as I was at fifteen (how old I was when the book was published). And twenty years from now, I hope I'm wiser or at least different than I am today. That's humanity, that's growth; and for me one of the best things about Christianity was (in principle!) it was all about grace and forgiveness. We are allowed to move beyond what we are; it's almost required. 

But purity culture seems to be about avoiding past experiences that "taint" you. If you're not a virgin, or if you've dated and have past relationships, all of that is part of who you are, it's part of what the person who claims to love you is supposed to love about you. And if the point of monogamy is about two becoming one, either you have to love each other through (and because of) all the changes that are going to come, or else you have to lock down and not grow at all past the moment you say "I do." And obviously some decisions are harmful and we'd do well to avoid them if we can, but even there, grace and redemption is about becoming the best us we can possibly be even in light of those mistakes. Joshua Harris exemplifies that, doesn't he? Because while he may want to take his book back, he can't completely, and perhaps he would have preferred to avoid this mistake; but even though he will always be the I Kissed Dating Goodbye author, that history gives him the ability to be the one to stand up and say the way  those ideas were packaged culturally is wrong. He's the guy who wrote it but also the guy who repudiated it, because his mistakes (while harmful) also made him who he is.

There's a lot of uniquely Christian work to be done there, and I think it's directly relevant to how we talk about sex with young people. That mistakes happen, why it's best to avoid them if we can but also how they make us who we are and how it's Christian as well to own the way our experiences have changed us and move forward with that as part of who we are.


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