The author of a best-selling abstinence manifesto is reconsidering the lessons he taught to millions.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye opens with an unforgettable scene. A bride is walking down the aisle toward her beloved on their wedding day. Stained glass, string quartet: Everything is perfect. As the couple begins to say their vows, a woman in the congregation stands up and walks toward the front of the church, silently taking the groom’s hand. Then another joins them, and another, and another, forming an ominous chain at the altar.
“Who are these girls?” the bride asks her groom, tears welling in her eyes.
“They’re girls from my past,” he answers. “They don’t mean anything to me now, but I’ve given part of my heart to each of them.”
Then the bride wakes up.
The reader would have had no trouble interpreting this nightmare: When you have sex before marriage, the mistake sticks to you forever. I Kissed Dating Goodbye, written by Joshua Harris and first published in 1997, argued that traditional dating was “a training ground for divorce” because it puts people in the habit of quitting relationships when things get tough. Aimed at teens and twentysomethings, the book discouraged teen relationships and proposed that courtship, in which a couple moves purposefully toward marriage with their parents’ blessing and involvement, was a superior model to dating. And it argued that any kind of physical intimacy before marriage was a violation of the sacredness of married sexuality, and could lead to lifelong regret.
Published at the height of the 1990s purity movement, which emphasized the spiritual, physical, and psychological importance of abstinence before marriage, I Kissed Dating Goodbye became a phenomenon in conservative Christian circles. It inspired both praise—from the likes of purity matriarch Elisabeth Elliot and Focus on the Family—and book-length rebuttals. Harris was already a popular speaker at conferences for Christian home-schoolers and had started his own magazine, but the book’s influence quickly outpaced its modest built-in audience—it has sold more than 1.2 million copies to date.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye made abstinence seem both romantic and noble. You weren’t just not having sex, you were adopting “a revolutionary pattern of living” that would make you both a better Christian and, someday, a better spouse. It was even better not to even kiss before you got to the altar, Harris suggested, and beware of “emotional hookups,” too. He shared scary and supposedly true stories like Ben and Lisa’s: Christians who dated seriously, had sex, eventually broke up, and years later still “expressed emotional trauma and guilt.”
Harris was 21 years old when he wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He was a virgin who had been home-schooled his whole life—an unusual profile for the author of a book proposing “a new attitude toward romance and relationships,” as the subtitle put it. He married at 23 and later served as the pastor of an evangelical megachurch in Maryland for more than a decade. Over the years he wrote more books about dating and marriage, including Not Even a Hint: Guarding Your Heart Against Lust and Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship. Nineteen years after I Kissed Dating Goodbye, he is the father of three kids—two of them teenagers—and he is pursuing formal education for the first time in his life. And these days, he’s having very mixed feelings about the book that turned him into a Christian celebrity.
“Part of the reason this has been so hard for me is that I have so much of my identity tied up in these books. It’s what I’m known for,” Harris told me recently from Vancouver, British Columbia, where he moved his family last year to enroll in a graduate program at evangelical Regent College. “It’s like, well, crap, is the biggest thing I’ve done in my life this really huge mistake?”
Harris’ conversation with me was part of an ongoing not-quite-apology tour in which he is grappling earnestly with the legacy ofI Kissed Dating Goodbye. Last month he gave an interview to NPR in which he said he is re-evaluating the book’s impact, and he has been responding to critics on Twitter and having phone conversations with some of them, too. A few months ago, he started soliciting messages on his website from readers about how the books affected them. So far he has received more than 300 submissions, ranging from reflective to raw. In the fall, he hopes to embark on an independent study in which he’ll read about the religious culture that informed him as a young man. “I want to do more than just say, ‘Oh, I should have said a few things differently,’ ” he said. “I just need to listen to where people are before I come out with my own thoughts. … I don’t have all the answers yet.”
I Kissed Dating Goodbye wasn’t just a book people read; it was a book they obeyed. It prompted some people to marry the first person they dated, even if they were unhappy together; to view the opposite sex with fear and suspicion; or to be afraid of starting any relationships at all. Others have struggled with viewing sexual abuse as evidence they were tainted. As one recent response on Harris’ site put it, “I feel the only man I deserve is one who is broken like me.”
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