I Kissed Dating Hello

The teenagers from the 90s purity movement are now all grown up—and rethinking everything they were taught about dating and sex.

Editor’s note: Tim’s article was so provocative to us and suggested so many follow-up questions (like, say: If the 90s purity movement was the wrong way to teach sex, is there a right way?) that we invited him onto our sister podcast, Blue Ocean World, to kick these issues around with Tom Wassink, Dave Schmelzer and guest co-host Leah Martens. Look for it in a couple of weeks.

“So . . . are you gonna ask me out or what?”

It was the fall of 2001, and I was dropping off my date, Jenn[1], at her front door after our senior year homecoming dance. I took a deep breath to collect my thoughts before responding; I knew this was going to be awkward. Jenn and I had been friends for a while now, and we’d been spending a lot of time together since the beginning of senior year—getting flirtatious, growing more intimate, and generally appearing to the outside world, and to her, as a teenage couple in love. But I was inwardly conflicted, and although she had been waiting for me to make the first move, she had also picked up on my hesitance. Understandably, she wanted to have a frank discussion about the nature of our relationship.

I cleared my throat. “I, uh . . . I don’t date.”

Huh?

Earlier that year, in the wake of a previous heartbreak, my Christian mother had given me a copy of Joshua Harris’ book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Published in 1997, IKDG caused a firestorm among mostly white, conservative, evangelical Christians, arguing that not just pre-marital sex, but any pre-marital romantic entanglement had the power to derail God’s perfect plan for your future marriage. Harris’s solution, which he expounded upon in his follow-up book, Boy Meets Girl, was “courting”—which was basically the same thing as dating, except that it was chaste to the point of being a-romantic, highly supervised by the couple’s parents, and singularly focused on evaluating someone as a potential life mate. The books drove home the idea, widely accepted among Harris’s audience at the time, that sex was powerful and dangerous, and therefore no effort to forestall its dire consequences was too great. The reward for following the books’ precepts was a heavily-romanticized view of marriage, including the promise of amazing, earth-shattering sex on your wedding night, with God as your personal matchmaker. Your responsibility was simply to stay “pure”—God could, and would, handle everything else.

This was the idea that I tried to explain to Jenn that night—and to her great credit, while she was disappointed and didn’t understand it at all (she wasn’t a Christian), she respected my religious beliefs. We remained friends, and like most high school friends, fell out of contact once we left for college. She went out with other guys. I know, thanks to Facebook, that’s she’s now married with an adorable young daughter.

I, on the other hand, like so many other Christian teenagers from that era, have spent the last 15 years grappling with the lessons I learned from Harris. Recently my cohort, now in our 30s, have taken to social media to collectively reflect on our experiences. Many have expressed anger at the damage the sex-negative views of purity culture and IKDG have done in their lives. Harris himself, showing a surprising level of accountability, has even been on an apology tour of late, speaking to the media about what he wished he’d known back then (he was only 21 when IKDG was published), encouraging people to share their stories with the Twitter hashtag #IKDGStories and #KissShameBye, and compiling those stories in a blog entitled Life After I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

The experiences reported on the blog range from the mundane to the traumatic. Some people talk about small but significant moments, like being kissed by (or even just being alone with) a boyfriend/girlfriend and feeling shame that they had “slipped” and failed to “avoid even the appearance of sin.” Some followed IKDG’s guidelines to a T, only to find that the fear and shame about sex that they carried with them their whole lives didn’t magically go away on their wedding night. Others report serious sexual trauma: several people, both men and women, write of being sexually abused or raped and subsequently internalizing the attendant shame—because they must have brought it on themselves, because they were now “damaged goods.”

My own story falls more on the mundane side but still reflects many of the pitfalls of IKDG’s line of thinking. I grew up with some unhealthy family dynamics[2] that left me very insecure when it came to women, dating and sex. IKDG offered me an out of sorts: dating was scary and messy, and the promise that my obedience to IKDG teachings would be rewarded with the marriage of my dreams was attractive. But that obedience had to be absolute—so much so that a large portion of my energy from my late teens to my early 20s was focused on resisting sexual temptation in any form.[3]

And while I didn’t hold on to the strict “no dating” rule for very long, I didn’t begin to learn healthy relationship skills until I unpacked and let go of the fear and shame surrounding dating and sex that I had internalized as a teenager. Perhaps the most significant of these experiences was deciding to lose my virginity, while still unmarried, at age 26—with a woman who cared deeply about me, and who listened to, and understood, all my baggage going into it. And believe it or not, the sky didn’t fall—after all that anxiety, after all the warnings about the damage premarital sex would do to me, the fears I had wrestled with for all those years turned out to be unfounded.[4] I’ve spent the years since intentionally seeking out advice from a variety of (mostly non-Christian) experts on healthy sexuality, and I am currently in what is certainly the healthiest relationship of my life, with a woman who has helped me grow by leaps and bounds.

I carried a lot of anger at Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and Christian purity culture for a long time, but thankfully, I now feel like I’m on a journey of healing and growth. And although reading stories of others’ shame and trauma is saddening, I’m encouraged by the conversation that’s arising. I think that, like Harris, the church at large needs to take responsibility for these ideas that have led to so much harm. But I also believe that we can learn from the mistakes of the past, pursue healing and reconciliation, and preach a message that combines God’s boundless love and acceptance with a healthy and positive view of our sexuality. That would be a legacy worth passing on to future generations of Christians.

 

[1] Not her real name.

[2] There’s often a chicken-and-egg relationship between religiosity and sexual dysfunction: does religion lead people to adopt unhealthy ideas about sex, or do people with unhealthy ideas about sex gravitate toward religion? For me, I think the answer was a little of both.

[3] I recall hearing a story of a college-age Christian woman who, after sitting in on a young men’s Bible study, later remarked that “all they did was talk about how they weren’t supposed to masturbate.”

[4] I recall wrestling with what was essentially a version Pascal’s Wager with regard to premarital sex: even though I didn’t *know* what would happen if I didn’t wait until marriage, it seemed best to hedge my bets by avoiding premarital sex, just in case all those warnings of terrible consequences turned out to be true.

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