From the time I first picked up a New Attitude magazine at the age of 13, until I told my husband-to-be “I think you should ask me out” (the summer I was 31), I lived and breathed the principles Joshua Harris shared in his widely popular 1997 book on relationships, I Kissed Dating Goodbye (IKDG). This week, Josh created a buzz within my circles by announcing that he and his wife Shannon are separating after 19 years of marriage. Josh followed up that announcement yesterday with an Instagram post in which he shared that his journey has taken him to a place of "deconstruction". "By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian" he said, in in case anyone needed him to be more clear. For his Christian readers, he helpfully translates: "the biblical phrase is 'falling away'."
There’s been a lot written about the impact of I Kissed Dating Goodbye over the years. Whole books have been written in response (I Gave Dating a Chance, for instance) and entire blogs have been dedicated to the damage done to young adults’ views of themselves, their bodies, relationships and sexuality as a result of this book and the "purity culture." After last year's announcement that Josh has reached an agreement with his publisher to intentionally force IKDG out of print, there's been much conversation and speculation about the journey Josh may or may not be on, and many voices emphasizing how important it is that he issue an apology for IKDG and its aftermath. There is no doubt that the “purity movement” has been deeply harmful, and I hope that Josh's direct and clear apology this week will provide some measure of healing for victims of this movement.
Josh’s book was used as a weapon. Entire church youth groups were upended when youth pastors got ahold of the book and started teaching it as scripture. Parents used it as a weapon of manipulation and control. Young adults shifted their entire relational paths in response to it. But for me, there’s more to the story.
Joining the Movement
You see, I didn’t just kiss dating goodbye; I actively tried to bring as many people with me on the journey as possible. I organized and trained a team of teenagers who traveled around my state, speaking at churches and youth groups about the importance of chastity. We did skits where a girl tore her heart into smaller and smaller pieces that she gave away to boys she dated. We handed out roses and made teens destroy them, pulling one petal off at a time, to show what you’re left with if you date around carelessly. I taught abstinence-only education in the schools, and yes, we used the scotch-tape example and did that totally disgusting (yet effective!) demonstration where each kid chews up a cracker or an Oreo and spits it into a cup of water and you pour them all together, illustrating just how terrible it is to have unprotected sex with someone who’s had unprotected sex.
In the last decade I have learned how damaging it could be for a teen to be told they are a shredded rose, no longer beautiful, or a filthy cup of water with bits of chewed food floating in it, never to be clean again. “I’m sorry” seems a cheap way to express my grief at being part of creating and teaching shame. And so I add it to the list of things I did with the best of intentions, right next to reading Leviticus to a 13 year old girl in love with her best (female) friend and sitting with her while she cried because their love was an “abomination.” I can only make repairs when I have the opportunity, and hope somehow that my love for those in my audience came through, and they were left feeling cared about, not judged. Or that they just wrote us off as nuts, and went on with their lives. I’m okay with either option.
All I know is, the me that existed ten or twenty years ago was doing her very best, based on what she knew and what she’d experienced. I didn’t speak about chastity because I had some puritanical ideals I wanted to enforce on other teenagers, I didn’t encourage others to give up dating because I wanted them to reach some unrealistic Biblical ideal. I did it because I felt like it was working for me, and I wanted to share my experience with others. I was working hard to create a life free of romantic and sexual pain, and I had no idea I was internalizing shame and sharing that with everyone around me. I’m just grateful that I was never given a world-wide audience. I’m grateful I never published a book.
Birth of the Movement
One thing that I think often gets missed in criticism of IKDG is the context out of which it grew. Like me, Joshua Harris was raised in the heart of the Christian homeschool movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s—his family has been referred to as “homeschool royalty.” About four years ahead of me, Josh was finishing up homeschool high school as I was starting, and as one of the first graduates of the new Christian homeschooling movement, his education and faith experiences were being taught as a model for how homeschooling should be.
Like so many of us at that time, Josh moved directly from high school into leadership, beginning a national magazine for Christian homeschooled teens. From its inception, this magazine was positively liberal in comparison to what we had available to Christian homeschooling teenagers in the past. Josh published articles on secular music—not condemning it, but using it to ask questions about God. He encouraged us to read a book which contained “the f word.” (That letter to the editor chastising him for recommending such a book without warning us? That was me. Sorry.) He published an interview on pop culture, asking us to engage the question of how we might benefit from being more open in our consumption of films and T.V. shows of the time. He wrote about relationships from the assumption that friendships with the opposite sex were not only possible, but could be beneficial. For your average teenager, New Attitude would, I’m sure, have been unbelievably puritanical. For me, it was a breath of fresh air.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye as a Liberal Book
When I Kissed Dating Goodbye was published it was not, for teens like me, a constrictive, guilt-inducing book. It was a response, in many ways, to the heavy-handed courtship and betrothal teachings we were struggling to avoid. The predominate voices of our time in the Christian homeschool culture were advocating such things as a 7 year betrothal period (starting in one’s teens), arranged marriages (choice made by the girl’s father), transferal of authority from father to husband on the wedding day (thus avoiding any inconvenient independent thinking a female might develop if she lived on her own) and strict 24/7 supervision of children until the marriage day, allowing for no physical contact with the opposite sex or (heaven forbid) time alone to get to know each other without parents within earshot.
This, then, is the world from which IKDG was birthed. It was “our” book—the book which allowed “liberal” fundamentalist homeschoolers like my family a space to breathe. Far from being destructive or limiting, it freed us to continue pursuing our opposite-sex friendships while reminding us to be careful.
And we wanted to be careful. We wanted to get it right. Many of us had parents who were products of the ‘60s or ‘70s, who had devastating stories to tell of their own relational struggles which they blamed on pre-marital sex, the sexual revolution, and unscrupulous dating. Marriage was, for us, a once-in-a-lifetime decision, and getting it right was imperative. We didn’t want to be trapped in an unhappy marriage (we saw far too many of those in our daily lives) and we didn’t want to bring unnecessary regret or pain into that forever relationship. We didn’t know how to get it right, but IKDG gave us not only hope that we could have happy, healthy relationships, it gave us practical, hands-on ways to go about it. The fact that it was written by a young man who’d never been happily married really didn’t matter. What he said made sense, was consistent with our ideologies, and was far more workable than letting our fathers pick our spouse when we were 14 and being betrothed until we were 21.
Liberal is Subjective
I don’t think anyone predicted the success of IKDG in the non-homeschool market. For whatever reason, it struck a chord in the mainstream church and became widely read, taught and (in some cases) enforced upon youth in all manner of denominations. And while from our perspective IKDG was a breath of fresh air, from the perspective of mainstream “public school” church kids it was destructively confining and shame-inducing, especially when used as a weapon by their parents and teachers.
The outcry demanding that Josh apologize for writing and publishing IKDG has been long and loud. Pain was caused and needs to be acknowledged. When Josh first responded to a tweet about IKDG with a simple “I’m sorry about that” and it made headlines in my world and touched off all manner of big feelings and conversations. This week’s revelations are doing the same.
While I understand the need for apology and closure, I can’t help but think that apologies we offer about things like IKDG or my chastity campaigns are like putting on one of those T-Shirts that say “I’m sorry for what I said when I was hungry.” IKDG was written from a place of lack. Lack of experience, lack of perspective, lack of world-knowledge. At the same time, I think it was written from a place of desire. The desire for love that was safe, and beautiful, and lasting. The desire to believe relationships can be kept from being messy and painful if only we follow the rules. The desire to come together and create a new way to do things that will have better outcomes than the ways that came before.
But then those desires, shaped into actionable strategies drawn from inexperience and lack of knowledge but heavily influenced by our parents and respected elders, were written down. And published. And spread to youth groups and families everywhere.
The problem with writing that I think so many of us aren’t prepared for is this: Once your words are put to paper and sent out into the world, you lose control of them. A book written to a certain people, at a certain time, which brought hope and love to them can become a damaging weapon in the wrong hands, in the wrong context. (Hm. Wonder what book that sounds like?) Words we send out to the world are not us; they cannot represent all that we were and are and will be. They are merely a picture of who we are at that moment. They are the best thoughts we are able to think on that day, in that week, in that year. And they can never be taken back.
Should apologies be demanded from those who write words that cause harm or are used harmfully? Maybe, maybe not. But if apologies are issued, perhaps it should be something like this: I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I’m no longer who I was. May we all be given the grace to no longer be who we once were. I know I need it.