When I saw a post on Instagram stating Josh and Shannon Harris were separating, I wasn’t surprised. I’ve seen similar situations with so many of my friends and acquaintances who followed conservative Christianity's prescribed path to the altar, only to become disillusioned one, five, or ten years later. They all had different circumstances, but shared a common denominator - homeschool & church purity culture didn’t do them any favors. Of course, as the author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Josh Harris gets higher publicity. It seems his failed relationship is sinister proof, twenty years later of what my friends have already experienced.
The grief here is overwhelming. Not dating, not touching before marriage, following these incredibly restrictive rules, was supposed to guarantee happily ever after. This magical land of sexual and personal bliss awaited those who were good, and did things right. Sadly, this isn’t the case, for the Harrises, or for so many of my friends who came face to face with a whole world of life they weren’t prepared for by purity culture.
With the Harrises in the news, I want to pull a few strings and examine why this subculture is so dangerous and toxic to relationships. I cover why it's awful for you personally in "Dear Sister." Let me say this now, if you followed the purity culture rules, and you’re happily married, in a mutually fulfilling relationship where you feel seen, heard, known, and you’re able to fully express yourself sexually, and unabashedly participate in your own & your partners pleasure, I’m sincerely happy for you. Also know, your relationship is an outlier.
In my book, “Dear Sister,” I share chapters on releasing shame, and releasing patriarchy. Shame and Patriarchy are the life blood pumping through purity culture. Sure, there are Bible verses plucked from their original context to champion, but the reasons so many followed the rules were shame, and fear.
The concept of purity culture is based in lack of trust. We don’t trust our single folks to self regulate, we don’t trust their relationships with themselves, with each other, or with God. We are afraid of the potential repercussions of sexual contact. Maybe, we’re trying to protect our girls from the burgeoning sexual interest of boys (because girls don’t have sex drives…) or protect them from the sinister side of becoming a woman, because, specific lifestyle and wardrobe choices are guaranteed to prevent sexual assault and abuse… (heavy sarcasm) Tell me, how does this line up with a faith based in grace, truth, and love? Where is the fruit of the spirit, in these fractured relationships twenty years later?
Sadly, instead of protecting everyone involved, purity culture creates shame, isolation, and misplaced worthiness, especially for women. We are the most responsible, and hold the least power. The men aren’t supposed to look or touch, but when they do, it’s our fault. We don’t talk about the messy things, because purity culture is supposed to save us from the awful, sticky parts of life, if we play the game right. So when they happen anyways, when a spouse is unfaithful, when a spouse is emotionally, spiritually, financially, or physically abusive, when before we even get to the altar we experience assault or abuse, purity culture blames us. Outside the conservative christian subculture, we call this rape culture. It feels normal because it’s in the air we breathe. We didn’t get this from our faith, but a 21 year old boy with no life experience got these ideas from his church.
This really isn’t about Josh Harris. What I find more concerning than Josh writing “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” at 21, is that mature, married people read it, and thought it was a good idea to publish and propagate these ideologies instead of realizing they were harmful. I find it troubling that no one in his life sat him down and had a conversation explaining that no matter how many steps you take to make your life feel safe, you won’t avoid heartbreak. I wish someone had asked him why he felt he needed purity culture. Maybe, his healing journey would have started much earlier.
Purity culture taught us that “purity” (which means lack of sexual experience? That’s another whole post) is where our value lies, especially as women. Our worth doesn’t come from being created in Imago Dei, our worth doesn’t come from our redemption, our worth comes from our virginity. But wait, just until we get married, THEN we’re supposed to magically be able to flip a switch, and be intimate with someone who, thanks to purity culture, we barely know. Purity culture teaches women to disassociate sexually. Sexuality (outside of marriage) is seen as dirty. It’s something we have to hide, but not too much, or we won’t be wanted. It’s also not for us. Sexuality is for men, relationships are what we’re told we want. I have a hard time believing an intelligent creator gave women such a great capacity for pleasure just for the men, but again, that’s another post.
If and when we do reach the altar, our shoulders sag under the requirements and expectations of Bride and Groom. We enter our marriages with no recourse for the hard things to come, and no way to unpack the baggage handed us by communities of faith. With purity culture's skewed priorities,we focus so much on our sexual status, we may not have made sure our values aligned, or that our potential spouse isn’t controlling and abusive. After all, “Christians” aren’t supposed to be like that, and we followed the rules, so why worry about it?
Combine all this with the fact most of us weren’t taught to value or explore our authentic selves, and relationships based in purity culture become a time bomb. The question is, after the explosion, what’s left? When all we are left with is the reality of our broken humanity, will there be enough common ground to maintain a relationship? Will we find love there? There’s no intimacy without authenticity, so maybe dropping the purity culture baggage is a start.
Megan is a writer and creator from Wallingford, CT. She is passionate about empowering women to step into the full power and identity they were created to embrace and claim.