By Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers
I put the paper down. I was 15 papers in with 17 to go – reading the sexual autobiographies I’d assigned my graduate family therapy students. It was the second paper I had read in the last two hours of a young woman who had pelvic pain and vaginismus. My stomach was in knots. How many of these papers have I now read in my career?
This young woman had been married three years and had been unable to have sex – it just hurt too much. She was completely freaked out about sex and hated herself for it. It was like her vagina had a mind of its own and had shut itself closed. She felt like a freak.
A product of the Christian right’s purity movement, my student had waited her whole life to be married, had kept herself “pure” (a virgin), had not dated until she met her husband in college, and even they had hardly dated. They were involved in ministry at their church when they met, got accountability partners to help them stifle their sexual desire during their courtship and waited for the day they would be married. They’d been taught that honoring God by denying their sexuality would be rewarded with blissful marital sex.
What she hadn’t noticed was what she felt and thought about her body, her husband’s body, or sex in general. She had spent years avoiding everything she could about the topic, but now that she was in a (supposedly) sexual relationship, she could no longer avoid the disdain she had for her body – especially for her genitals. She had grown up seeing them as dangerous. They were almost separate from her. “They” were the tempters. She barely tolerated her genitals. She dealt with them functionally for elimination and dealing with her period. That was it.
She saw his body as dangerous too, as was his desire. She had been told so many stories in her youth group of how men could not control themselves that she wasn’t sure his desire had anything to do with her at all. It was a force – a force that frightened her. This only made her hate herself more. She thought – “What wife is afraid of her husband and won’t or even, can’t, give him sex?” She wasn’t sure what she had done wrong growing up, but she was sure she must have done something.
Sex was supposed to be easy, beautiful, blessed when you married as virgins – but their experience was hardly that. They loved each other, yes, but nothing about their sexual life felt easy. Both struggled with sexual desire, performance issues, depression, and anxiety. Both felt isolated with no one to talk to. Both were sure it was somehow their fault. Both felt horrendous shame.
The purity movement has been in the news lately thanks to Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, who recently gave a very unexpected and surprising interview with NPR. It seems Harris has been rethinking his work in light of recent criticism from readers like my student. He said,
As a professor and a therapist who sees the impact of messages like that of I Kissed Dating Goodbye every day, all I have to say to him is, THANK YOU! Josh: Thank you for stepping up and owning the impact your words have had on others. I admire your willingness to listen to the stories – the profound pain and anger. It is searing and immense and devastating. I feel the radiation of shame you must feel.
After years of relative quiet of pastoring and writing, Harris has been thrust back into the spotlight and become a beacon for the anger of those who experienced the trauma of the purity movement. He has a target on his back for the pain experienced by an entire generation of evangelicals.
But here’s the deal: Harris was only 21 years old when he wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He told Rachel Martin in their interview, “I think the problem when I wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye is that I had not walked through that relationship yet myself. And I was - it was very speculative.” It shouldn’t take a family therapist to point out that he was not developmentally, socially, or emotionally equipped with the wisdom to write a guidebook for his peers. (Which was evidently and inexplicably a major selling point for the book--see Rebecca St. James’ introduction to the volume.)
Without realizing it, Harris himself was a product of a much, much bigger political enterprise sweeping our country. When his book came out in 1997, Harris was part of the fallout. As a young adult, still developing spiritually, mentally and emotionally, he likely saw life the way his readers read his book: tied up in a neat and tidy bow.
The truth is the purity movement was already 15 years underway when Harris published I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In his book Sex, Mom, and God, Frank Schaeffer (a former ‘child star’ of sorts of the Christian right, and son of religious right leader, Francis Schaeffer) explains the sociopolitical forces at work in America in the 1980s and 90s that set the stage for the purity movement and what Harris’s childhood was marinating in. Like all the other ascetic movements in Christian history, it was politically motivated. NOT motivated by God or Jesus. In fact, if Jesus had been around, he would have been right in the middle of it, opposing everything going on.
Harris is taking the heat for those who came before him: the men who started the purity movement when Harris was just a small child and who have yet to acknowledge the trauma they’ve caused and have yet to apologize. All the Southern Baptist ministers who, in their fear fueled by Jerry Falwell and the Christian right, started the True Love Waits Campaign in 1992. Josh McDowell, who wrote one of the first purity movement books True Love Waits in 1987. LifeWay Ministries, which launched the True Love Waits organization with the pledge cards, purity rings and merchandise that is still going today. James Dobson, who started Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. Randy Wilson, who founded the Purity Balls.
These and the many others who were instrumental in this movement have one thing Harris did not: they were old enough to know what they were doing--and they did it anyway. And many are still at it.
Every day I have clients and students who exhibit the effects of trauma that linger from the purity movement that Harris undeniably contributed to. His book is a big problem, but it is sadly only a tiny piece of the political machine that started long before his came onto the scene.
I for one am grateful that Harris is willing to see the impact of his work with new eyes. He could have easily decided to fade farther out of the public eye and he didn’t. I admire his willingness to take more than his fair share of the heat for the damage the purity movement has had on so many lives. He did the brave and hard thing by engaging the public and owning up to the impact of his work. This is a humble move that hopefully can eventually lead to fruitful conversations about how to live abundantly into the gift of spiritual intimacy.
Now, how will we hold the real leaders of this movement accountable?