How an Abstinence Pledge in the ’90s Shamed a Generation of Evangelicals

“We are the legacy of the purity movement, the people who grew up in it, who grapple with its impacts every day.” As a Christian teenager growing up in the Midwest in the 1990s, Linda Kay Klein got swept up in the emerging purity movement, which advocated strict sexual abstinence until marriage. “It had, in fact, started right around the time that I joined my youth group as a seventh grader. This movement saturated the lives of evangelicals, but that was really just the beginning. It entered into public schools, it entered into grassroots organizations.” “Sex is a great thing within marriage.” “Our country started to shift the way that we talked about sexuality. The purity movement introduced a purity industry, with purity rings and purity pledges and purity balls.” “A new ritual aimed at encouraging girls and young women to abstain from sex until marriage.” “I am living my life the way that I think it should be lived, and that’s, um, staying pure, so.” “They’re actually purity rings, and they’re promises to ourself and to God that we’ll stay pure until marriage.” But before purity made its way into pop culture, evangelical Christian teens like Joshua Harris often found themselves at odds with the world they were living in. “You had the culture pushing the envelope in different ways when it came to, to sex. Like, my generation growing up. Like, MTV for Christians was like, oh my gosh, you know, all these terrible things that are happening in these music videos and so on. So there’s a reaction in the, in the Christian culture to that.” “The campaign is called ‘True Love Waits’ and it’s sponsored by the Baptist Sunday School Board.” “Thousands of teenagers are vowing to be something that most teens are not: virgins until they are married.” “I make a commitment to God.” “To those I date.” At the time, fear over the spread of AIDS only bolstered the argument for abstinence above all else. “Stace and I don’t have to worry about STDs or contracting AIDS or having an unwanted pregnancy.” “You kind of have this sense of, I’m going to choose the more difficult path and do the right thing, and God is happier with me because of that. It’s kind of like the Christian form of veganism or whatever. You know? It’s like I’m, I’m special. I’m doing something different than everybody else.” By the time he was a teenager, Harris was becoming a leader among his peers. “I remember going out to Washington D.C. and there was a huge Christian concert/festival that was taking place. And they placed all of these promise cards on the mall.” “Teenagers signed cards pledging their virginity and planted 200,000 of the cards, creating a field of abstinence.” “[shouting] Woo! True love waits. Wait till you get married. Woo!” Rallies promoting purity were held across the U.S., and Klein, who became enthralled with evangelicalism growing up, still remembers the fervor of one she attended. “We were all, like, this is the biggest, best concert we’ve ever been to. And then there was a motivational speaker who spoke about purity and how important purity was. And in the midst of that, with tears rolling down people’s faces, they handed out these contracts: I promise that I will save my purity for my partner. I will not have sex before marriage. Uh, I’m making this commitment today, and I will hold to it, you know, for the rest of my life. As a young person, I was confused, and wanted so badly to be good and wanted so badly to please God and to be acceptable in my community. With my leaders looking over my shoulder and moreover, my peers sitting right next to me signing their contracts, I signed the pledge.” “[shouting] I want to know, how many virgins do we have out there?” “Woo!” “When I embraced my faith, I wanted to figure out, what did it mean to be a Christian and relate to the opposite sex, to think about sexuality.” Harris, who had come close to having sex at 17, doubled down on his resolve afterwards. “I ended up becoming, really, a spokesperson for these more radical ideas of saying, we should not only, you know, save sex for marriage, but we should do dating differently. We should reject dating because it’s leading us towards compromise.” “Do you see the problem with so many of our dating relationships today? Instead of guarding the sacredness of sexual intimacy, we are stealing from it.” “If you’re, uh, an alcoholic, don’t go into a bar. You know? It was like, if you don’t want to have sex, then don’t get into these, sort of, short-term romantic relationships where there’s an expectation to become intimate.” Harris’s book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” went on to sell over a million copies. And as he and others pushed for purity, another more insidious message took root. “Well ladies, I believe you also have a unique opportunity to protect the purity of your brothers in the Lord. What I think you probably are not aware of, is how difficult it is for a guy to look at a girl with purity in his heart when she is dressed immodestly. You have no idea how difficult it is. You have no idea.” “I remember feeling like I was a threat. And I remember feeling like I was a bad person. My sexuality was dangerous. It was something to be feared. The narrative that we’ve internalized is that pure girls and women protect us all. They ensure by their proper covering up, by their not taking up too much space, whatever it is, then none of us are going to have sexual thoughts and feelings.” Klein had left evangelicalism by the time she was 21, but she continued to struggle for years afterward. “When I would have any sexual experience with my boyfriend, I would find myself in tears and in a ball in the corner of a bed, crying. My eczema coming out, which it does when I’m stressed, and scratching myself until I bled, and having a deep shame reaction. I could actually be this close to doing something that, if they were right, if the purity movement was right, would make me worthless.” Klein began reaching out to friends from home, and then, over the next 15 years, to other people all around the country, collecting their stories about growing up in the purity movement. She published a book on the topic in 2018 and continues to hear new stories all the time from people she meets at her book events. “This all feels really new to me. Like, it wasn’t until a few months ago that my therapist brought up the concept of purity culture to me, and I didn’t even know what that was. But I realized I was raised in it, and that led me to finding your book. And when I read it, I kind of cried through the whole thing because it now makes so much sense why I have this trauma that I carry and why it’s not going away.” “They had word for word been taught the same things that we were taught and were experiencing it in their bodies in the same ways that we were experiencing it. Once that happened not three times, not four times, but 30 times, 40 times, I started to be like, O.K., this is obviously much bigger than me, this is obviously much bigger than my youth group, this is much bigger than my state. During Klein’s conversations, one name kept coming up: Joshua Harris. Harris had gone on to become a pastor, but in recent years, was starting to question his leadership role, and quit in 2015 to enroll in graduate school for theology. Soon, he was also beginning to re-examine the messages of his book. “It was something that had given me a sense of success and personal identity. Um, and so, to question that felt like I was kind of unraveling myself, honestly. I remember one key moment that, kind of, tipped this into the public sphere was that, uh, a woman on Twitter wrote, your book was used against me like a weapon. And I responded to her saying, I’m so sorry.” “Whoa. That changed everything, right? All of a sudden, people were, like, what did you say? Did you say you were sorry for something? So now, we had this huge slew of people who were tweeting, I was hurt by this, I was hurt by this, I was hurt by this, I was hurt by this. You had all these different conversations going on, and they are really about people coming together and healing in a collective experience.” Harris, meanwhile, decided to engage with his critics in person, and made a film about the process. “I’ve looked into the eyes of people who’ve said, this created fear in me. This created intense shame and guilt for me. And your book was, kind of, in my head and shaped, you know, the way that I, I viewed myself.” Harris, who pulled his book from publication, faced some criticism that the film didn’t go far enough. He’s since issued more apologies. Last summer, he announced his separation from his wife, and that he no longer considers himself a Christian. “The process of unpublishing my books is a pretty big statement of, of regret for me. It doesn’t make up for, or fix the, the past hurt but I, I want to try to take responsibility for that.” Klein has continued meeting with women in towns and cities all around the country. “I like held hands with a boy when I was 14 and cried, like, you know, like felt really impure.” “The unintended consequences is what we’re really dealing with today.” “I didn’t know why I was physically shaking, why I would burst into tears, why I would cower in the corner, why all these things were happening to me.” “Some things that we put out there don’t work, but they don’t do damage either. This is something that didn’t work and that has caused a tremendous amount of damage.” “It’s not about taking big steps. It’s about taking these little steps. Teach your brain to function differently by like, trying to do just enough where you’re not triggering a huge shame response that reiterates that old neural pathway. Is that helpful?” “I think that change is going to happen when we have people on the ground, coming into voice with one another, and telling their truths to one another. We’ll all continue to learn. And that’s the real work.”




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