When a Black Girl Pursues Purity

Purity Culture

by Jameelah Jones

I have a lot of questions for Joshua Harris. I have a lot of questions for anyone who reads I Kissed Dating Goodbye as a book that is helpful in navigating sex, love, and relationships as Christians. I have plenty of questions, but all of my questions center around this one:

Did you think a Black girl would ever read this book?

I came across IKDG at nineteen- and even as I read it- as a wide eyed girl longing for a picture perfect marriage in my future, something was missing for me. While I still held on tightly to the rules of purity culture, I was clear on many of the ways race affected my life. One of those ways was (and still is) closing the cover of a book, taking a deep breath, and saying “yea, that was written for someone white.” It never takes me long to realize that most authors do not write for me. I Kissed Dating Goodbye was no exception.

Upon first read, it is clear that Joshua Harris holds the human body in high esteem. He regards it as holy, sacred, and worthy of protecting against sin and impurity. But in his prioritization of sex as the biggest pitfall of human relationships, he turns the body into a product: something to be coveted not as a gift from God, but a good for man. Why else would one of the chapters be called, “7 Habits of Highly Effective Dating?” If you don’t know that’s a play on Stephen R. Covey’s very popular self help book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Effective. I’m still… haunted by that word to describe the ways that men and women* are supposed to be in community with each other. Effective. Not “healthy,” not “joyful,” not even “Christian”: Effective. Throughout the book, Joshua gives a series of examples of proper kinds of effective, Christian human interaction–interaction that pleases God rather than exposes us to the hellish pitfalls of sinful relationships.

So what does all of this fear mongering talk about effective, God pleasing relationships have to do with my question? I’ll ask it again:

Did you think a Black girl would ever read this book?

I Kissed Dating Goodbye accepts a basic understanding of purity culture that we don’t talk about enough- it accepts the body as currency. And almost every area of research has proved that Black girl’s bodies are worth much less than the bodies of girls of other races. I can tell Joshua didn’t know this before he started writing. I can tell he didn’t know about Black girl’s fast growing rates of high school suspensions, or Black girl’s self-image compared to that of white girls, or the ratio of Black women to Black men* in church spaces. I can tell he didn’t know about the likelihood of Black women to be abused or sexually assaulted. I can tell he didn’t know of the rates that Black women own businesses, or become corporate executives.

Why else would he write a book that framed relationships as business transactions for Christian corporate ladder climbers? Why would he frame consensual sex as dangerous and sinful? Why would he then tell us to be more concerned with what we give, than what we get in a marriage?

As I read IKDG a few years later, I couldn’t help but wonder if the assumption of the purity movement is that we are all running the race of purity from the same starting point.

But what is purity to a Black girl? How does a Black girl maintain a purity that isn’t assumed of her? Purity isn’t a luxury afforded to Black girls. Purity implies an innocence that the world refuses to recognize within us. Enforcing the IKDG model on Black girls is to watch dirt be thrown at us, then yell at us for not keeping our clothes clean. It is to pretend that we are all equal and that we love the same.

I am still in the process of healing from the damaging, capitalist way that Joshua presented human relationships. I am still unlearning these damaging messages about sex–its purposes and “consequences.” Most of all, I am working to live my life under the basic assumption that my body is a good, holy thing. Even now, all I can think about is little Black girls in their tweens, teens, and early twenties. Praying that they become Black women who love themselves in their fullness. I am praying that they discover a God who looks and sounds like them–who writes for them. Until then, it might be enough for authors, especially those whose writings become the authority on Christian living, to ask themselves who they expect to read their books, and how Black girls’ experiences of God, sex, love, and relationships are different than their own.

*In this piece, I use the binary terms “men and women” because those are the terms used by Joshua Harris. I firmly believe that his politics in no way acknowledges the FACTUAL existence of a spectrum of gender and sexuality. I use the terms he used in his book, and hope to write further about the damaging binary that has been enforced by purity culture and heteronormative Christian practices.