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How a 90s abstinence pledge shamed a generation of evangelicals


“We are the legacy of the purity movement, the people who grew up there, who grapple with its impacts every day.” As a Christian teenager growing up in the Midwest in the 1990s, Linda Kay Klein was drawn into the emerging purity movement, which advocated strict sexual abstinence until marriage. “It actually started around the time I joined my youth group as a seventh grade student. This movement saturated the lives of evangelicals, but it was really just the beginning. He entered public schools, he entered grassroots organizations. “Sex is a good thing in marriage.” “Our country has started to change the way we talk about sexuality. The purity movement introduced an industry of purity, with rings of purity, promises of purity, and balls of purity. “A new ritual to encourage girls and young women to abstain from sex until marriage.” “I live my life the way I think it should be lived, and that’s, uh, staying pure, so.” “They are in fact rings of purity, and they are promises to ourselves and to God that we will remain 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 lived in. “You had the culture that pushed boundaries in different ways when it came to sex. Like, my generation is growing up. Like, MTV for Christians was like, oh my gosh you know all these terrible things that happen in those 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 is sponsored by the Baptist Sunday School Board.” “Thousands of teens swear to be something most teens aren’t: virgins until they’re married.” “I am committed to God.” “To those I’m dating.” At the time, fear of the spread of AIDS only reinforced the argument for abstinence above all. “Stace and I don’t have to worry about STDs, AIDS or an unwanted pregnancy.” “You kind of have this feeling of, I’m going to take the harder 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 do something different from everyone else. As a teenager, Harris was emerging as a leader among his peers. “I remember going to Washington DC and there was a huge Christian concert / festival going on. And they put all these promise cards on the mall. “The teens signed cards promising their virginity and planted 200,000, creating a field of abstinence.” “[shouting] Court! True love awaits. Wait until you get married. Woo! “Purity-promoting gatherings have been held across the United States, and Klein, who grew fascinated with evangelism as she grew up, still remembers the fervor of the one she attended.” We were all, like, this is the biggest, best gig we’ve ever been to. And then there was a motivational speaker who talked about purity and the importance of purity. And in the middle of that, with tears streaming down people’s faces, they distributed these contracts: I promise I will keep my purity for my partner. I will not have sex before marriage. Uh, I make this pledge today, and I I’ll stick with it, you know, for the rest of my life. As a youngster, I was confused, I wanted so badly to be good and I wanted so badly to please God and be acceptable in my community. With my leaders looking in- over my shoulder and more, my peers sitting right next to me signan t their contracts, I signed the pledge. “[shouting] I want to know, how many virgins do we have there? “To court!” “When I embraced my faith, I wanted to understand what it meant to be a Christian and to have relationships with the opposite sex, to think about sexuality. Harris, who almost had sex at 17, redoubled his resolve afterward. “I ended up becoming, really, a mouthpiece for these more radical ideas of saying, we shouldn’t just, you know, keep sex for marriage, but we should date differently.” We should reject dating because it leads us to compromise. “Do you see the problem with so many of our romantic relationships today?” Instead of keeping sexual intimacy sacred, we steal it. “If you’re, uh, an alcoholic, don’t go to a bar. You know? It was like you didn’t want to have sex, so don’t get into those short-term romantic relationships where you expect to get intimate. Harris’ book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” has sold over a million copies. And as he and others pushed for purity, another more insidious message took hold. “Well ladies, I believe you also have a unique opportunity to protect the purity of your brethren in the Lord. What I think you probably aren’t aware of is how hard it is for a guy to look at a girl with purity in his heart when she is dressed shamelessly. 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 fear. The narrative that we have internalized is that pure girls and women keep us all safe. They make sure that by covering up properly, not taking up too much space, anything, then none of us will have any. sexual thoughts and feelings. Klein had quit evangelicalism at the age of 21, but she continued to struggle for years thereafter. “When I had a sexual experience with my boyfriend, I found myself in tears and balled up in the corner of a bed, crying My eczema comes out, which it does when I’m stressed, and itches until I bleed, and have a deep shame reaction. I could actually be so close to doing something that, if they were right, if the purity move was right, would make me feel bad. their. Klein began reaching out to friends in the household and then, over the next 15 years, to others across the country, collecting their stories of growing up in the purity movement. She published a book on the subject in 2018 and continues to hear new stories all the time from people she meets at her book events. “It all sounds really new to me. Like, it wasn’t until a few months ago that my therapist brought up the concept of cultivating purity to me, and I didn’t even know what it was. But I realized that I had grown up in it, and it led me to find your book. And when I read it, I kind of cried through it all because it now makes so much sense why I have this trauma that I’m carrying and why it doesn’t go away. “They had learned word for word the same things that we had learned and we were experiencing them in their bodies the same way we experienced them. Once it happened not three times, not four times, but 30 times, 40 times, I started to think to myself, OK, that’s obviously a lot bigger than me, it’s obviously a lot bigger big than my youth group, it is much bigger than my state. During Klein’s conversations, one name kept coming up: Joshua Harris. Harris had become a pastor, but in recent years he was beginning to question his leadership role and quit in 2015 to attend a graduate school of theology. Soon he also began to reexamine the messages in his book. “It was something that gave me a sense of achievement and personal identity. Uh, and so, asking questions that made me feel like I was sorting out, honestly. I remember a key moment that sort of tipped this into the public realm was that, uh, a woman on Twitter wrote, your book was used against me like a weapon. And I answered him by saying: I’m really sorry. “Whoa. It changed everything, right? All of a sudden people said, what did you say? Did you say you were sorry for something? So now we’ve had a lot of people tweeting, I’ve been hurt by it, I’ve been hurt by this, I’ve been hurt by this, I’ve been hurt by this. You’ve had all of these different conversations going on, and they’re really about people coming together and healing themselves in a collective experience. Harris, meanwhile, decided to engage with his critics in person and made a film about the process. “I looked in the eyes of people who said, it created fear in me. It created intense shame and guilt for me. And your book was sort of in my head and shaped, you know, the way I, I saw myself. Harris, who withdrew his book from publication, has been criticized that the film does not go far enough. He has since issued more excuses. 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 regret for me. It doesn’t make up for or correct the hurts of the past, but I, I want to try to take responsibility for it. Klein continued to meet women in cities across the country. “I like to hold a boy’s hand when I was 14 and cry, you know, like I feel really unclean. “Unintended consequences are what we really have to face today.” “I didn’t know why I was physically shaking, why I would burst into tears, why I was curling up in a corner, why all these things were happening to me. “Some of the things we put there don’t work, but they don’t cause any damage either. This is something that did not work and caused tremendous damage. “It’s not about taking big steps. It’s about taking those small steps. Teach your brain to function differently by trying to do just enough where you don’t trigger a huge shame response that reiterates this old neural pathway. Is it useful? “” I think that change will happen when we have people on the ground speaking out to each other and telling their truths to each other. We will all continue to learn. And that’s the real job.



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