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.
Long ago, well, twelve years ago to be more exact, my Good Friend Chris Wooding and I had debates on the merits of romance. He was a staunch defender, I the cynical opposition. The joke is on me because I eventually married him. However, I still carry a healthy amount of realism when it comes to getting all twitterpated and dousing our brains in dopamine. Today, I decided to let you in on my inner rant world with one of my biggest pet peeves: "Romantic" movies. I'm warning you now. If you love "The Notebook" you might want to skip this post. I'm not hating on you enjoying a movie, I'm just.... hating on the movie.
I have a few beefs with movies typically labeled as Romance.
The first: All's fair in love. Codependence, Emotional abuse, Manipulation, and Gaslighting are all romantic if you choose the right setting, time period, and music.
I apparently disagree with 80% of movie makers who seem to think healthy, consensual relationships between two adults with full autonomy aren't interesting. You don't need that crazy misunderstanding that would never actually happen plot line, I promise. It's just lazy writing.
There are a few TV couples whose depth of character development and relationships I would like to laud.
Marshall and Lily from How I Met Your Mother,
Turk and Carla, from Scrubs,
and believe it or not, I ship Deadpool and his girlfriend too.
A superhero movie holds way more spark and romance than any iteration of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan ever had, think about that.
The second: You may have seen me gearing up for this in #1 - Misunderstandings blown way out of proportion, and juvenile disagreements. There is enough drama, hurt, and hard ish in life without resorting to the plot where Love Interest A sees Love Interest B out with Attractive Stranger and twenty minutes of angst and hurt feelings ensue over nothing because Attractive Stranger is Love Interest B's family member.
Please just stop.
The third: The Terminal Illness. Movies based on historical events get a free pass here, but in general the movies that involve gut wrenching heartache for no reason, again, really? This is what you resort to? If I want a full empath meltdown I don't need "romance" movies, I can just watch the news.
The fourth: Movies that expect me to empathize with people suffering the fallout of their own bad decisions. "The Notebook" is a top contender here for me. I don't feel bad that you don't have love in your life if you chose a superficial relationship over deep connection. Imagine how short that movie would be if the characters were self aware, had mutual respect, and personal boundaries? In case you forgot, this is Allie's "I'm engaged to someone else, but I'm still in love with you so you can't really move on" face.
Oh, also, Serendipity. "Let's NOT exchange numbers, and wander around New York, wasting 90 minutes of our viewers time before we magically bump into each other again and live happily ever after."
Maybe I just have a different definition of Romance.
When I think of *actual* romantic movies, a few come to mind.
The first, an older movie, "What Dreams May Come".
Robin Williams pursues his love through the *afterlife* to rescue her from her own personal hell. I love so much about this movie. I love how he supports his wife through her mental illness after the loss of their children. I love how he knows exactly what to do and say to restore her. This movie has depth. While most of it takes place in an imagined afterlife, there's so much reality. The grief and loss pictured are what so many of us have dealt with on various levels, not to mention mental illness. These issues are the ones we walk through.
"This is one of my favorite movies for so many reasons. It is laced with loss, but also two people who refuse to give up on each other through it. After the first loss, their relationship is tested to it's limit, Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) learns an important lesson. He learns about presence. In an iconic quote he says:
"That's when I realized I'm part of the problem. Not because I remind you. But because I couldn't join you. So I left you alone. Don't give up, okay?"
Later, he puts action behind his understanding, joining his wife in her own personal hell and showing her she's not alone. That's romance.
Next up: "Silver Linings Playbook"
Chris and I started this movie thinking it would be a romcom with Bradley Cooper and Jlaw. I'm really glad we were wrong, because this movie has sooo much depth. I loved that the two of them, who were working through their own mental health diagnoses, had more self awareness and clearer understanding of their lives than the rest of the characters in the movie. The supporting characters all had their own challenges as well, but they weren't facing them. I liked that this was realistic, Bradley Coopers character spent most of the movie hung up on his ex, but he shows personal growth in moving through those feelings and finding healing. They do end up together, but it's not overblown or insanely dramatic.
The last one, is more of the oddball, and definitely not a movie that even specifically features romance, but I really appreciated the dynamics: "Wish I Was Here"
This movie was crowdfunded and directed by Zach Braff. It tackles tough topics like the financial weight of a family, finding identity and fulfillment as adults, intimacy in marriage, the vulnerability and limited time available to reconcile with aging parents, and more. I know some people didn't like that it doesn't have a huge story arc. It doesn't start with Some Huge Problem and end with Happily Ever After. But it shows my favorite thing, growth. I especially appreciated the aspects of marriage it highlighted. Kate Hudson's character is working full time to support her husband, (Zach Braff) a struggling actor. Again, these are the challenges people face. Aging parents with terminal diagnosis. Estranged family. Shifts in personal identity.
To me, romance isn't just a dopamine hit. Romance is showing up for each other, day in and day out. Romance is working on *ourselves* and committing to authenticity and vulnerability with our partners. Romance is knowing the quirks, smiling over inside jokes, and experiencing those moments that yes, sometimes take your breath away. There's enough story here for unlimited movies, books, and TV shows. Hollywood, you've already shown us you can step it up. We're waiting.
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.