Early last week found me getting a check-up for the first time in more than a decade. With medical professionals in my family, I can too easily put off those preventative appointments. So, I sat in the olive-green vinyl chair, the sort that populate doctors’ offices across the country. I felt a bit sheepish, like I’d been getting away with something by not going to the doctor for so long. The nurse took my vitals. The doctor asked the routine questions. What medications am I on? None. Do I have any allergies? No. Am I sexually active? No. Have I ever been?
At 34, I don’t always know what response I will get when I describe my sexual history. This was my first time at the clinic, and I wondered what my doctor would think.
I grew up in the ‘90s, when the purity movement was in full swing -- especially within my homeschool subculture. I read When God Writes Your Love Story by Eric and Leslie Ludy. I meditated on Elisabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity. And like most girls my age, I devoured I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the classic manifesto penned by a young, good-looking homeschool graduate named Joshua Harris.
Like so many other teens during that era, I gave my love life to God and vowed to save myself for marriage. I remained dedicated to the courtship method of dating into my early twenties, even when such conservatism became unpopular among my peers. Things got more complicated once I started putting my theories into practice. My views matured with experience -- but my convictions regarding sexual purity have never changed.
Since its early proponents came of age, the purity culture we all created has received a heavy amount of criticism from within, and with good reason -- it had its problems. Some odd traditions sprang up -- purity rings, purity balls, courtship contracts. Young men and women took the whole thing so seriously that they struggled to even talk to one another. People -- especially women -- were shamed when mistakes were made. Despite our best efforts, so many of us have found ourselves with a string of broken relationships and no marriage to show for it.
And then, starting a couple years ago, our one-time poster boy Harris began rescinding his early teaching on Christian relationships. Last month, he consummated his new position by announcing his divorce and renouncing his faith. While we may all speculate about Harris’ motive for this massive shift in thinking, Dr. Albert Mohler suggested struggles with the Christian sexual ethic were a major factor in Harris’ decision to walk away from Christianity.
I didn’t really believe it when I first heard the news. I took a tour of Harris now infamous Instagram account and was stunned. Then I was sad, and angry, and confused. I offered prayers for both Harris and his family. And I thought about Harris’ legacy, the purity movement, and the way my own life has been affected.
I’ve written elsewhere about some of the hard lessons God taught me through courtship and dating. In the fifteen years since my first relationship, I’ve learned that God’s plan for my love life won’t protect me from having my heart broken. The long years of celibacy have taught me that God doesn’t necessarily reward good behavior the way I once hoped -- being obedient hasn’t earned me a wedding. I’ve come to realize more fully that serving God with my sexuality is about my relationship with Him, not my relationship with a future husband who may or may not exist. These days, I don’t think of myself as “saving sex for marriage,” because that motive misses the point. Instead, I’m honoring God with my body, living in accordance with the natural world he created. The place of sex in God’s creation is between a husband and wife, and I submit to that order by practicing celibacy as a single woman.
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Still, I’m grateful I Kissed Dating Goodbye found its way into my hands. At the time, I was a teenager living in a tiny town in rural North Idaho. We had no bookstore, no Wal-Mart, no Amazon (that we knew of yet). I was beyond thrilled when I found a copy of the much lauded book at a garage sale I was visiting with my mom. Harris gave me a vocabulary for taking dating and purity seriously in my own cultural context. He painted a picture of the way relationships could look when serving God was their focus. At the time, that picture was one of the only of its kind. Everywhere I looked, I saw the world’s way of dating. I could see it on the big screen, hear it on my Sony Discman, read it on the covers of teen magazines. In practical terms, Harris gave me a glimpse of what God might mean by romance. As Matthew Lee Anderson wrote in his Mere Orthodoxy piece:
The absence of a script for how to enter marriage was partially a consequence of the loss of a social vision for why one would marry in the first place—and on those scores, Harris offered a picture of a world that in fact might have been better than the Calvinball-like environment surrounding us. It was nostalgic, yes, and was doomed to be distorted in being implemented. But then, every vision is.
Harris’ call to return to old practices helped many families -- including my own -- recover structures to protect the virtue of young people in days gone by. The courtship movement may have been awkward at times, but I think we all took stumbling steps toward something truly good.
All these thoughts shuffled through my mind the week before my doctor’s appointment. As I sat there that day, I squared my shoulders and answered the medical history question -- “No.”
Being a virgin isn’t popular these days. As one writer put it, it isn’t cute anymore -- even among many Christians. Still, my virginity lets me off the hook from several routine tests and procedures, because I am not at any risk. And to my relief, I got a smile from the doctor who told me how “rare” this is. I joked about still holding out hope for settling down. She said she knew how hard it must be these days. I mentioned the recent news: Joshua Harris may have taken back his teachings in I Kissed Dating Goodbye, but I’m still thankful for the wisdom I gleaned and the boundaries I learned from those pages.