Last week, twenty-one years after its initial publication, Joshua Harris officially denounced and discontinued publication of his bestselling book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a volume that shaped the hearts, minds, and bodily habits of young Evangelicals in my generation.
“My thinking has changed significantly in the past twenty years,” Harris explained in a statement on his website. “I no longer agree with its central idea that dating should be avoided. I now think dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally and learning the qualities that matter most in a partner.” Harris also apologized to those who were misdirected or unhelpfully influenced by the book. “I know this apology doesn't change anything for you and it's coming too late, but I want you to hear that I regret any way that my ideas restricted you, hurt you, or gave you a less-than-biblical view of yourself, your sexuality, your relationships, and God.”
When I was a teenager in the late 1990s, my parents bought me the audio version of this book. I gave it a half-hearted listen, but did not follow Harris’s advice (to put it mildly). I opted for more conventional forms of kissing and bade farewell to my virginity instead. Nonetheless, the ideas in Harris's book influenced me—if not my habits, certainly my sense of self.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye is a primary emblem, along with purity rings and True Love Waits pledges, of what has come to be known as Evangelical purity culture—a movement peaking in the 1990s and early 2000s that urged sexual abstinence before marriage by emphasizing a reductive and often harmful understanding of “purity.” Because the emphasis was on a rule—don’t have sex outside of marriage—the conversation tended to revolve around when to have sex, rather than the underlying purpose of sex and why it belongs in marriage.
Moreover, the purity culture conversation is rife with fear- and shame-based rhetoric—rhetoric on prime display in the opening pages of Harris’s book. The first chapter features a beleaguered groom at the altar, plagued by ghosts of girlfriends past who have each devoured a piece of his heart, which he can no longer present to his bride. Scare tactics like this, while seemingly innocuous, convey notions that are antithetical to the gospel of grace.
Foremost among these is the reductive notion of “purity” itself, which becomes more or less synonymous with virginity. In this understanding, a person exists in a default state of purity, which can then be corrupted or lost through sexual activity. The implied trajectory is from purity into corruption, from which only partial redemption is possible. Virginity, once lost, can never truly be regained. This inverts the arc of the Christian life, in which one moves from original corruption into purification by grace. While the biblical understanding of purity includes sexual activity, it is hardly reducible to it. Rather, purity concerns conversion of the whole self to Christ, a continual and lifelong process.
The Evangelical purity paradigm also ignores the question of how to faithfully live out one’s sexuality after getting married—especially after one has been taught to associate sex with shame and sin. This is a major flaw in Harris’s approach, which he acknowledges in his statement of retraction: “The book also gave some the impression that a certain methodology of relationships would deliver a happy ever-after ending—a great marriage, a great sex life—even though this is not promised by scripture.”
Most criticisms of purity culture, particularly from secular sources, focus on the “damaged goods” phenomenon. This is the implication that a person’s—particularly a woman’s—moral and spiritual worth is determined by her sexual history, which ironically contributes to the sexualization of girls and women. It was on these terms that the purity movement began to draw serious criticism almost a decade ago, initially from secular feminists such as Jessica Valenti, whose polemical take-down The Purity Myth was published in 2009. Criticisms of purity culture then began to arise from within Evangelicalism, a trend I wrote about in 2013. By 2015, flagship Evangelical publications like Christianity Today and RELEVANT magazine were regularly featuring articles with titles like “Have We Made an Idol out of Virginity?” and “The End of Purity Culture.”
And now, with the news that I Kissed Dating Goodbye has been laid to eternal rest by its author, we hear the loudest death knell signaling purity culture’s demise. What remains unclear, however, is what will take its place.
We are in an important moment of transition. While it is tempting to remain in a critical mode and kick at the shards of purity culture’s fallen idols, what young Christians need is a revitalized articulation of Christian sexuality—not a tired litany of rules, but a renewed expression of the compelling why behind them.
Christianity does not offer mere prescriptions; it offers a worldview, one centered on a God who descended into our bodily nature and thereby vivified it. Within the context of this worldview, the sexual mores of Christianity become compelling, connected as they are to the cosmos as a whole. Removed from this context, they enslave.
The young people I know, and the young person I was, are hungry for meaning and purpose; they value love, beauty, freedom, and human dignity. We need to articulate how the Christian worldview, rightly understood, uniquely preserves precisely those things: an understanding of the self as relational, made for communion; an understanding of love as radical self-gift; an understanding of the human body as beautiful, good, and integral to personhood; an understanding of freedom as living into, rather than defying, our place within an ordered cosmos.
Two recent books give me hope that a holistic, incarnational paradigm is emerging to replace the flawed and defunct purity movement: Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality, which I reviewed for First Things earlier this year, and Tim O’Malley’s Off the Hook: God, Love, Dating, and Marriage in a Hookup World. These authors provide what we sorely need: not mere repudiation, whether of purity culture or the pop-Gnostic secular alternative, but rather a resounding yes to Christianity’s incarnational cosmos and the human person’s place within it.