I still have a stain on my heart. Harris evoked images of men at the altar bringing all their past partners with them into the marriage to reinforce the point that love and sex before marriage took pieces of your heart and made you less. At the time, Harris was just 21, but he was already a rising star. He was what we, as young evangelicals, wanted to be. And so we strove passionately to attain the ideal of premarital purity he laid out for us. Now, almost 20 years later, even Harris appears to be questioning whether his advice did more harm than good.
Harris probably could not foresee how strongly his book would take root in evangelical culture. He was young after all, and there were others making the same arguments. Maybe it was his youthful status, or his rising star as a pastor, or the hip fedora on the cover of the book. Whatever the formula, the book became the catalyst for the resurgence of courtship and is often cited as the foundational book for purity culture — a movement that uses biblical principles to encourage men and women to stay virgins before marriage.
Since publication, the book has sold over a million copies, which is no small feat, considering that most Christian books only sell a few thousand. And yet at its core, purity culture presumes that giving and receiving love breaks you instead of builds you. It uses fear to mask our bodies and needs, and there are generations of women and men walking around crippled in America because of it. On the surface, I am a purity-culture success story: I am a heterosexual woman, a virgin until marriage, now with two small children and a husband I deeply love.
We believe in God. And yet, for me, the legacy of purity culture is not one of freedom but one of fear. I was taught that men are my cover and my shield, when for the most part they have been the ones causing damage through molestation, rape and abuse. I was taught that my holy calling was to open my legs for one and only one and bear him children.
Barring that, I was to keep them closed and never express desire or lust or fear or longing. They're a reminder of how badly the cult of purity lets victims down. Others were forced into marriages with men who hit them and hid their abuse behind another message of the church borne from purity culture, that God hates divorce. Purity culture also taught me that more than my mind and my talents, my body was my greatest gift. The insidious message of purity culture still clings fast in my marriage, and I often put it at the root of some of my deepest anxieties and fears.
Recently, while telling a friend from church about a disagreement with my husband, she suggested having more sex. She showed me a handout from her pastor on making a happy home. The number one suggestion: In church, being overweight feels like a sin.
Nearly 20 years after publication, Harris has recently begun distancing himself from the book. His comments have touched on a wellspring of dissatisfaction with purity culture felt by generations of women and men raised on his words.
His almost-apologies and willingness to open a dialogue have inspired articles about the impact of the book and even a hashtag KissShameBye, which former adherents to purity culture use when revealing the deep harm caused by the ideology. The previously static idea of what constitutes purity is beginning to crack, and through those cracks, voices and ideas are beginning to be heard that were formerly shut out of conversations on God and sexuality.
They include the perspectives of gay pastors and women of color. And then you oppress yourself and call it holiness. What matters is what you do with that anger. But I never did. And dismantling a structure that taps deep into rape culture and misogyny will take time. But I hope that whatever else comes of this discussion, the fear that has held our bodies in a vise is finally replaced by grace.
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