Joshua Harris, an abstinence advocate and author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, is in the spotlight having announced that he and his wife have separated. In recent years, Harris has rethought his stance on the purity culture principles that made him a best-selling author in conservative Christian circles.
In my first novel, Snow Country, Beth Dawson follows the teachings of a fictitious Christian author, Dr. Benley, who is inspired by Harris and other popular authors.
Beth grew up buying into a formula for a happy life that Dr. Benley laid out in his book Before I’m Intimately Yours. Beth followed God’s rules for Christian courtship with Alan, a man she met at a Christian ministry where she worked after college. But Beth was left reeling, questioning God’s goodness, after Alan broke off the engagement three weeks before their wedding. She was devastated.
What would she tell the teen girls she mentored? She had talked about her engagement with them, using it as a model of how life works when you wait on God. What had gone wrong?
Like Beth, I grew up in the purity culture. I read Christian dating and relationship books, because I wanted to do it right. I learned there was a price to pay for sexual impurity. Sex before marriage would be like cheating on my future spouse. It would forever mar the relationship. If I waited, if I followed the rules, then the one true love that God created for me would appear at the right time, and I would be guaranteed marital bliss.
Recently I went through some of my high school papers, and I had to laugh. For my tenth-grade World Affairs class, I wrote a paper on communication in marriage. For my senior-year English class, I wrote a paper on abstinence. I had dating and marriage all figured out well before my mid-twenties when I met the man who would become my husband.
I didn’t realize at the time that the purity culture narrative would be a heavy weight to carry through the messiness of life. I had to process my ideals against entering into a relationship with Todd, a committed Christian guy who had made some poor choices along the way.
The purity culture narrative didn’t leave much room for redemption, because the abstinence advocates didn’t want to leave the door open even a crack to excuse a teen’s or twenty-something’s sexual appetite. There might be forgiveness, but that wouldn’t erase the consequences of premarital sex. Grace was often sacrificed in the interest of motivating people to abstain from sex before marriage.
Fortunately, Todd was patient with me. Whenever he told me he loved me, I responded, “Thank you.” I resisted saying I loved him until I was sure I was ready to commit.
I believed love was more than a feeling. It was a commitment. But how does anyone ever have enough information to commit for life? Was I willing to make the leap of faith required for marriage?
I had a tough time letting go of the narrative that said people who don’t have self-control to abstain from sexual intimacy before marriage are less likely to have self-control for fidelity in marriage. And was it really true that a marriage bond is weakened by prior relationships?
I still had time to figure it out, because we hadn’t yet been dating for a year. The relationship experts said to “summer and winter” each other before engagement, so that one could find out the true nature of the other person. Nonetheless, Todd and I began talking about the possibility of marriage — and I still hadn’t told him I loved him.
As much as I was a stickler for purity, I was also a stickler for honesty. One day, I was shopping at a thrift store and happened to see a Carolina Herrera wedding dress. I lifted it up, and a woman said, “Hey, I was going to get that. That’s a $5,000 dress.”
Well, that’s not how thrift-store shopping works. If you walk away from the rack, you lose. My competitive nature came out, and I held onto the dress.
The woman asked me, “Are you getting married?”
In that moment I had to give her an answer, so I made a decision. “I’m getting married next summer.”
That evening, I met Todd at his condominium and told him I had a surprise. “I bought a wedding dress today — and I love you.”
I’m now re-examining the purity culture narrative as a mother of a teenage daughter. I think there’s some value in it. In the secular, hook-up culture, sex is detached from meaningful relationships. I’d argue that’s not good for the human psyche or society.
A higher view of sex says it can be more than just primal compulsion when it is an expression of intimacy in a relationship where there is deep friendship, emotional connection, and commitment. That’s marriage.
So I’ll stick with the narrative, but not go so far to imply a successful relationship is impossible for those who stray sexually. I won’t teach that one’s sexual mores are the sole determining factor for whether or not a relationship is healthy. And I’m not going to teach my children that following rules is a guarantee that Mr. or Mrs. Right will appear and life will be blissful.
Life is messy, and we all need love and grace.