Young Christians are rejecting the traditional Christian approach to sexual morality.
The movement has been brewing for years and reached a boiling point recently when Joshua Harris, author of the unofficial textbook of 1990s sexual purity, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, suggested he might be sorry for the culture that flourished in the aftermath of the book.
If you did not grow up wearing purity rings and t-shirts over your one piece bathing suits here’s a brief primer on purity culture. The Christian religion has always considered sex outside of marriage a sin, but in the 1990s a more stringent approach to romantic relationships was proscribed by Harris and adopted by many Christians.
In I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Harris advocated for — wait for it — kissing dating goodbye and replacing it with marriage-oriented courtship. Harris advised young people to only socialize with the opposite sex in group settings and encouraged parents to play an active role in facilitating courtships. He also emphasized emotional purity and the idea that any romantic attachment that didn’t end in marriage took away a piece of the heart that could never be retrieved again.
None of these ideas were entirely new, but under Harris’s guidance they became the cultural norm.
The No Shame Movement, a website dedicated to sharing stories about Christian sexuality, defines purity culture as “The view of any discussion of things of a sexual nature outside of the context of heterosexual marriage as taboo.” Jameelah Jones, participating in a weekly Twitter chat hosted by The Slate Project called #SlateSpeak, got more specific by describing purity culture as “the church culture that is obsessed with (cisgender) women’s sexual purity/virginity.”
In the aftermath of Harris’s semi-apology, critics of the book took to Twitter using the hashtag #StillPurityCulture to describe what they perceive as the remnants of purity culture still normalized in churches today.
I asked some of those on the thread to share what response they were looking for from church leaders.
Attaching any kind of moral judgment to personal choices that don't hurt anybody is always going to be #stillpurityculture
— Perfect Number (@pnumber628) August 27, 2016
As is, "we need to stop treating premarital sex like it's worse than other sins" #stillpurityculture
— Emily Joy (@emilyjoypoetry) August 26, 2016
Teaching that unmarried sexually active women don't respect themselves is #stillpurityculture
— Christmas is a Die Hard holiday (@MeganRenaeOK) August 25, 2016
— Perfect Number (@pnumber628) August 25, 2016
to admit that they're not the end-all be-all of Christian teaching. To admit that their interpretations are rooted in misogyny.
— Samantha Field (@samanthapfield) August 26, 2016
comprehensive sex ed; open and safe place to tell stories, ask questions, be exactly who & where we are; like @thankgodforsex;
— Tina SchermerSellers (@TinaSSellers) August 26, 2016
a healthy sexual ethic should be based on consent, autonomy & respect.
— Bethany Suckrow (@writesnrights) August 24, 2016
"We were wrong.
We're grieved by the damage we caused.
We will make reparations.
We will be quiet now & learn."
— Rebecca Lujan Loveless (@rlujanloveless) August 24, 2016
for people to quit promoting the dominant evangelical sexual narrative as normative and morally required of all, full stop
— Emily Joy (@emilyjoypoetry) August 24, 2016
The first thing that becomes clear from these responses is that purity culture wasn’t just a misguided doctrine that people can now laugh about. It caused real damage to real people, as evidenced by the scores of personal stories catalogued in Life After I Kissed Dating Goodbye).
The second thing that becomes clear is that this is more than a call to end purity culture. It is a call for a complete overhaul of Christian teachings regarding sexual morality.
Emily Joy, a spoken word poet and one of the creators of #StillPurityCulture, is adamant that there’s only one way for the church to move forward.
“Christian leaders and teachers must give up the idea that abstinence until heterosexual marriage is morally and biblically required of everyone,” Joy said. “I’m glad pastors are being told not to tell girls in their youth group that they’re like chewed up gum, that’s great; but as long as you’re teaching that the Bible, and by extension God, requires them not to have sex until they manage to get into a heterosexual marriage, they’re going to end up feeling like chewed up gum in the end anyway.”
This was the dominant theme among everyone I spoke to. They do not think it is enough to do away with the specific moral norms of purity culture, but rather believe that teaching abstinence as the only moral option for Christians is harmful. They might be right, but emotional harm will not be enough to convince the Christian establishment to revise centuries of accepted theological teachings.
So far, those leading the charge against purity have mostly avoided larger theological questions (with the exception of Samantha Field, who has written a blog series on “sex positive” Christianity). Instead they have focused on building a social media brand, aggressively criticizing anyone who questions their narrative, and sharing personal stories.
Read collectively, the stories are unanimous in their condemnation of purity culture. This goes beyond the backlash to Harris’s book. For years, many leaders in the Christian community have questioned purity culture. In fact, I couldn’t find a single book, article, or person proclaiming that Christianity’s current approach to sexual morality was getting it right. The much bigger question is: now what?
Addie Zierman, a blogger and author, wrote a post wrestling with her own questions about who bears responsibility for the damage done by purity culture.
“I’ve been wondering about author intent and also about author responsibility,” she wrote. “Whose fault is it when a book—particularly a Christian book—causes pain and damage and fallout? Who do we blame here?”
In other words: who thought it was a good idea to enshrine the words of one unmarried, 21 year-old male as official Christian doctrine?
“In the hands of immature teenagers, Harris’ work became a weapon for shaming and controlling one another and hiding our sexuality,” Joy wrote in a post for Life After “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”
And it wasn’t just immature teenagers. Adults, pastors, professors, and parents—they are all responsible for legitimizing this concept.
I think this gets to the heart of the problem facing these activists. Twenty years ago, Joshua Harris was just like them. He was a young trailblazer with a radical idea to transform the church that ended up changing the trajectory of modern Christianity. His theology was embraced and celebrated without question and the consequences were terrible.
The real problem here is bigger than purity culture. It’s even bigger than the already pretty huge task of rewriting Christian sexual ethics from scratch. It’s a struggle to advocate for a doctrine without being carried away by cultural trends, to not simply replace one harmful indoctrination with another, to teach truth without disempowering critical thought.
“Thoughtful young people are full of revolutionary zeal,” wrote Sam Torode in a post on Life After I Kissed Dating Goodbye in which he expresses regret for writing the forward for an edition of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. “If this is directed towards cleaning the environment, promoting equality, or building wells, for instance, it’s a wonderful thing. For those of us devoted to some brand of fundamentalism in our teens and twenties, though, it’s tough to wake up and realize our energy was wasted on an undeserving cause.”
Only time will tell if the energies of the newest wave of religious revolutionaries are being wasted.