it's not ok, and we're not alright

Moving Forward

Since LifeAfterIKDG.com launched, we’ve heard from so many of you about your experiences with Joshua Harris’ works– I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Boy Meets Girl— and the wider purity culture he was a part of and helped promote. Many of your stories have been shattering, heart-breaking. I was personally left devastated for years because of the lies purity culture and Joshua Harris fed my earnest, God-fearing, innocent heart.

We’ve been through a lot, and have the scars to show for it.

Thanks to everyone who’s been sharing their stories, there’s a new light shining on purity culture and the consequences I Kissed Dating Goodbye has had. Unfortunately, not everyone sees us, or the bravery we’ve shown in sharing our stories, and approves. Yesterday, the managing editor of Christianity Today tweeted this:

As you can tell, it was a sentiment relatively well-received. Many of the people who responded to Katelyn Beaty’s tweet shared how there’s no need for us to be “melodramatic,” and the #IKDGstories team has also received similar thoughts through tumblr and twitter. Katelyn’s tweet, though, is a good place to start talking about a really important concept that all of us– those of us who are critical of purity culture and those not– needs to understand moving forward.

Purity culture is not just “weird.” It is an oppressive system.

Joshua Harris is certainly not solely responsible for it– in many ways, his books are merely a result of the purity culture he’d been imbibing since he was a child. Elisabeth Elliot wrote Passion and Purity way back in 1984, so Joshua was hardly being original when he penned I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Although he became the poster child for it and his book allowed purity culture and “courtship” to enter the mainstream in a way previously unseen, purity culture is a much larger problem than just his book.

Purity culture teaches that men are inherently monsters, and that women are responsible for being sexually assaulted or raped. Purity culture is incompatible with teaching consent or any model for healthy sexual relationships, inside of marriage or out of it.

In purity culture, there’s no opportunity to explain to vulnerable girls and boys that they are in control of their bodies and what happens to them. Teaching concepts like bodily autonomy and consent muddies the waters of a strict no sex until marriage policy, because those concepts tell us that we are not required under any circumstances to have sex– not by our unbridled hormones, not by a marriage contract. Teaching consent undermines the idea that there’s “no exit off the expressway” (in Joshua’s words); it undermines the whole premise that young people can’t be trusted to be alone with each other, or shouldn’t be permitted to hold hands or kiss because that would inevitably lead to “dangerous” (again, Joshua’s term) consequences.

Since the purity movement took hold in the 90s, most Christian teenagers grew up being taught that there’s only one way for relationships to unfold. The young woman is the sexual gatekeeper who is responsible for keeping both of them in the clear. If she slips up in any way– for example, dressing “immodestly,” a standard that changes from person to person–then anything that follows is her fault. If she’d followed the rules, then she would have been able to avoid any negative consequences. Young men are to do everything within their power to control the raging beast inside of them. They “bounce their eyes” and have “accountability partners” and keep a tight leash on a monster threatening at every moment to rage out of control.

All those messages combined remove consent from the equation. There’s nothing left but blame and control. There’s no room for love or grace and compassion, just condemnation and shame.

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None of that means that everyone single last person who grew up in purity culture is going to experience it the exact same way. All our experiences are unique, and it is entirely possible for someone to have embraced the teachings of purity culture and not been harmed in obvious or dramatic ways. Not everyone will experience divorce, or be diagnosed with vaginismus or dyspareunia, or left in an abusive relationship with no way out. People like Katelyn and those who responded to her tweet experienced purity culture as merely “weird,” and seem to be baffled by the idea that there’s a connection between purity culture and rape culture.

However.

Just because not everyone experiences the fallout of an oppressive system in the same way does not mean that the oppressive system does not exist.

When someone reduces all the harm, damage, and trauma of purity culture down to something “weird” or calls our responses “melodramatic,” they are erasing us and dismissing our legitimate grievances. This happens because they have had the privilege of living in an oppressive system and not being significantly harmed by it. As some in Katelyn’s twitter thread pointed out, it’s possible for mitigating circumstances to moderate some of the potential for hurt. But the possibility for some to come out on the other side of a war zone unscathed means that they were remarkably lucky– it doesn’t mean that they somehow were “better” or “did it right.”

We were all in the battle together. Some of us were emotionally or psychologically traumatized, some were physically hurt, and some of us made it out of there “okay.” It’s incredibly wrong for someone to point at the rest of us bearing battle scars and try to claim that the battle never happened.