While Joshua Harris, author of the infamous pro-abstinence book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, has been on an apology tour of sorts for the harm his advice caused, four women spoke to Cosmopolitan about what it was like to have their churches use this book in place of sex education.
“I started romanticizing the idea of not being physical,” Lyvonne says. “My relationship would be ‘pure’ and perfect. I totally bought into it.”
She and some friends from her gospel choir set about following Harris’s dictates, trying to “keep my legs closed,” she says, so that “God would send me a chocolate man who was 6 foot 3 with a killer smile.” It wasn’t always easy — in the eight years that followed, she had slipups, each ending with a burning rush of shame.
That she was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse only intensified her regret. “I felt ashamed of my body and trauma,” she says. “I didn’t know how to reconcile it with my faith.”
That’s just one issue (on top of several) with purity culture: There’s no room for healing for assault survivors. Sex — unwanted or not — essentially tarnishes and stains a person’s soul in ways that other sins do not. The enforcers of purity culture might object and say otherwise, but the proof is in the way they treat sexual transgressions differently than any other behavior they deem sinful.
Samantha Field, now 31, describes staying with a sexually abusive partner for years, believing that because they’d had sex, she was “disgusting garbage” that no one else would want. “I have to constantly fight against the lie that because I wasn’t pure enough, that because I had ‘dressed provocatively’ and allowed myself to be alone with him, that I invited it,” she wrote on her blog.
Lyvonne says she struggled with feeling “damaged, broken, dirty, and evil” for years. “We were supposed to kiss dating good-bye, but I kissed sexuality good-bye.”
Then last October, Harris, who had by then become an influential megachurch pastor, pulled a sudden 180 and disavowed much of his work, even going as far as to ask his publishers to stop printing IKDG and two books that followed it.
For the women who’d molded their lives to conform to his demands, moving on wasn’t so easy.
Not surprisingly, purity culture is also strictly heterosexual, which can be doubly stressful for queer women like Emily Joy:
Emily Joy, now 27, grew up with Harris’s books — after IKDG, he would publish five more — and calls them “foundational to my understanding of what a healthy relationship should be.” And yet, as a teenager, his writing made her “hypervigilant of everything my body was doing at all times,” she says. She feared full-frontal hugs because if a boy pressed against her breasts, she might inadvertently cause him to have lustful thoughts, which, according to Harris, could set him on the path to damnation. Never mind that Emily was queer (she didn’t know it at the time). For years, “it felt like every muscle in my body was clenched,” she says, as she tried to avoid turning men on.
Harris has tried to make amends, via a documentary, for the damage his book caused, but the interview subjects aren’t convinced that his repentance is genuine:
To some of these women, Harris’s so-called apology tour still feels incomplete and convenient, like a desperate plea for relevance or a rebranding rather than a serious reevaluation. “I don’t remember where I was when he issued his apology, but I was pissed,” says Emily. “It’s very clear to me from the documentary that he is sorry for the wrapping paper of his beliefs but not the actual beliefs themselves.” To her, Harris hasn’t gone far enough to address the LGBTQ community. “Instead of making a documentary, maybe he should just come back to us once he’s unlearned it all,” she says. “Come back to us when you’re sex-positive.”
That right there is part of the problem. Harris is an infamous symptom of the problem. He didn’t create purity culture; he just became a public face of it. Even without him in the picture, there are plenty of pastors saying all the same things and perpetuating the same problems. In their view, the only sex education anyone needs can be discovered after saying, “I do.” Everything else is forbidden no matter how innocuous it might be to everybody else.