This is part 3 of a series reexamining the claims and teachings of “purity culture,” an evangelical movement that many in my generation say permanently harmed them. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.
There’s an object lesson every kid who attended a church youth group in the nineties will remember. The youth pastor takes a piece of tape and sticks it to the arm of a volunteer. When he rips it off, it hurts. Because, of course, it’s fresh and extremely sticky, which means it takes some hair with it. Then he repeats this on another patch of skin, using the same strip of tape. It hurts again, but a bit less. The third time it hurts still less. Pretty soon, the tape barely sticks, and removing it is as easy and painless as lifting a sheet of paper.
Sexual Sin Has Lasting Consequences
The lesson is that sexual love, like tape, is naturally very sticky. It bonds two people with chemical and psychological cords which science is only now beginning to understand. Becoming “one flesh” is no trivial act, which is why we never forget that first breakup, even if the relationship was never sexually consummated. It’s no secret that breaking up becomes a habit, and after a few failed sexual relationships, an emotional distance develops with subsequent partners, and calling it quits becomes easier. We see it all around us. It’s why second marriages end in divorce at vastly higher rates than first marriages.
Joshua Harris employed some similar metaphors in his books, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” and “Boy Meets Girl.” Writing at the Evangelical Pulpit, John Ehrett refers to one such section on page eight of IKDG, in which Harris describes a nightmarish wedding where multiple young women come forward to the altar and stand beside the bride. This young groom, explains Harris, gave pieces of his heart away to each during his dating years.
We are not told whether the young man slept with any of his past girlfriends, but the context seems to indicate that he did. For John, this sequence is one of several passages in Harris’ books that taught evangelical youth that their worth is tied to their sexual history.
Before I explain why I don’t think this is a remotely fair reading of Harris or other popular “purity culture” authors, let’s look at a few other offending passages John cites.
On page 37 of IKDG, Harris writes of two people who had slept together, broken up, and subsequently suffered “emotional trauma and guilt over past memories,” even many years later.
On page 78 of “Boy Meets Girl,” he likens premarital sex to picking fruit while still green or a flower plucked before it blossoms, both of which “spoil the beauty of [God’s] plan for our lives.” For John, this is another clear example of Harris’ suggestion that our sexual history impacts our worth as human beings.
On page 148 of BMG, Harris recounts conversations with married couples “who sinned together before marriage and who have spent years recovering from the bitterness and distrust it sowed in their relationship.” John summarizes his reading of this page thusly: “if a couple has been sexually active prior to marriage, and then does get married, their relationship will be forever poisoned.”
Finally, on pages 169-170 of the same book, Harris refers to his own wife’s sexual history, writing that “No one tells you about the pain and regret at the end of it all…If only she’d known the consequences of her choices. If only she’d known how irretrievable lost innocence is.”
All of this, argues John, clearly demonstrates that Harris was guilty of tying people’s worth to their sexual history—something I, in my original article, disputed. Unsurprisingly, I will continue disputing it, because none of the passages from either of Harris’ books come close to teaching what John thinks they do.
Let’s get something straight: Sin is serious business. Christian ethics have always required complete sexual abstinence outside of marriage because there are real and lasting consequences to violating our design parameters. These guardrails are worth guarding, not only because crossing them distorts the image of the God Who created us, but because there are yawning canyons of misery on the other side. And our society right now is a living testimony.
University of Denver researchers report that the more sexual partners a woman has had, the less happy she is in any eventual marriage. Those who’ve had multiple sexual partners suffer from increased risk of STDs, cancer, and depression. A generation of children from divorced and broken homes are suffering historic rates of mental health issues, suicidal tendencies, and other behavioral problems. Why don’t we tell these people that sexual sin has no lasting consequences? Why don’t we inform them that Josh Harris’ claims about the long-term devastation of recreational bed-hopping were mere scare tactics? Why don’t we tell them the tape never loses its stickiness?
Not Damaged Goods, But Damaged
The fact is, there was and still is a fundamental truth at the heart of “purity culture” teaching: Sex outside of marriage is a recipe for personal misery and societal destruction. It eats at the core of what makes us civilized, promotes cruelty, exploitation and murder, and trains young people to see one another as conquests or emotional surrogates, rather than as potential lifelong lovers and family members. And casual dating—that ubiquitous institution of teenage in the nineteen-nineties—was its training ground. Harris recognized this, he stood up, and he challenged it in the best way he knew how. The audacity it takes for us, mired in the sexual anarchy of 2017, to look back two decades and tell Harris he ruined our lives (as so many of my fellow millennial evangelicals do) is staggering.
Did Harris and most youth pastors teach that young people’s worth is tied to their sexual history? No. What they taught was that our sexual history has real and lasting consequences, and that these consequences don’t vanish in a puff of smoke when we repent, seek God’s forgiveness, or say “I do.”
The beauty of the Christian life is not that Christ offers instantaneous relief from the consequences of our sin, but that in spite of our sin, He adopts our nature, accepts the eternal sentence of death due to rebels like us, and transmutes our sorrows into something more beautiful and glorious than we can now imagine. Those who’ve sinned sexually aren’t “damaged goods,” and their value as human beings is undiminished. But they are damaged. And the cure, though it promises to be complete, will never be completed this side of the resurrection.
It’s precisely this moral sobriety about the destructive power of sin that I saw in nineties “purity culture,” and which is so lacking from modern, too-clever-by-half repudiations of Joshua Harris. Where it was accompanied by robust Gospel preaching that proclaimed Christ’s invitation to all sinners to be washed, sanctified, and justified, the clarion call to lead countercultural lives in an America plunging toward a sexual free-for-all could not have been more appropriate.
In my next installment, I’ll address the oft-heard claim that “purity culture” promised teens who saved themselves for marriage “super hot wedding night sex.”