The Christian “purity” movement promoted a strict view of abstinence before marriage. But two decades later, some followers are grappling with unforeseen aftershocks.
“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.”
To the uninitiated, Christianity’s evangelical movement can seem like a monolith that brooks no dissent on certain core issues: Same-sex relationships are sinful, men’s spiritual dominance over women is divinely ordained and, on the political front, Donald J. Trump was an improbable but nonetheless valued protector of the faith.
Not everything is what it appears to be. The movement is in fact rife with division, a reality reinforced last month when Beth Moore, an evangelical writer and teacher with a huge following, formally ended her long affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention, principally because of its tight embrace of the licentious, truth-challenged Mr. Trump.
It was a rupture several years in the making. As Ms. Moore told Religion News Service, disenchantment took hold when Mr. Trump became “the banner, the poster child for the great white hope of evangelicalism, the salvation of the church in America.” But the former president’s behavior is not the only issue buffeting the evangelical movement. White supremacy, male subjugation of women, a spate of sexual abuse cases, scandals involving prominent figures like Jerry Falwell Jr. — all have combined to undermine the authority of religious leaders and prompt members like Ms. Moore to abandon the Southern Baptist Convention.
Retro Report, which examines through video how the past shapes the present, turns attention to an artifact of religious conservatism from the movement. This is the so-called purity pledge, taken in the main by teenagers who pledged to abstain from sex until they married. Some swore to not so much as kiss another person or even go on a date, for fear of putting themselves on the road to moral failure.
Devotion to this concept took hold in the early ’90s, when fear of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases bolstered the evangelical movement’s gospel of teen abstinence. It was a view put forth as God-commanded and had the support of like-minded political leaders, from the White House of Ronald Reagan to that of Mr. Trump.
Many people certainly found lifelong contentment because of having waited for the right mate. But for others, as the Retro Report video shows, the dictates of the purity movement were so emotionally onerous that their adulthoods have been filled with apprehension and, in some instances, physical pain. They are people like Linda Kay Klein, who embraced the movement in her teens but left it in disenchantment at 21, two decades ago.
She described the trauma and the shame she felt this way: “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 till I bled, and having a deep shame reaction.” Ms. Klein found she was far from alone. She collected tales of enduring anxiety in a book, “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free” (Touchstone, 2018). “We went to war with ourselves, our own bodies and our own sexual natures,” she wrote, “all under the strict commandment of the church.”
It was under the aegis of the Southern Baptist Convention that the vow of virginity took distinct form, in True Love Waits, a program begun in 1993. As the movement grew in the ’90s, estimates of teenage adherents reached as high as 2.5 million worldwide. Youngsters wore purity rings, signed purity pledge cards and attended purity balls, with girls dressed in white and escorted by their fathers.
The fundamental message, inspired by a verse from Paul the Apostle’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians, was this: “I am making a commitment to myself, my family and my Creator that I will abstain from sexual activity of any kind before marriage. I will keep my body and my thoughts pure as I trust in God’s perfect plan for my life.”
Separate from religious imperatives, American teenagers in general have become warier of premarital relations — and certainly of unprotected sex. According to the federal government, there were 61.8 births in 1991 for every 1,000 young women in the 15-to-19 age group. By 2018, that figure had dwindled to 17.4, a decline that cut across racial and ethnic lines.
Among those who regarded purity in terms of spiritual enlightenment, few in the ’90s came to be more celebrated than Joshua Harris, a young man who preached that even sex-free dating was a dangerous first step on the slippery slope of a compromised life. His 1997 book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” sold roughly a million copies. In his writings and speeches, Mr. Harris advocated courtship under the watchful eyes of a couple’s parents.
His message back then, he recalled for Retro Report, was that one should avoid conventional dating just as an alcoholic ought to steer clear of a bar. “It was, like, if you don’t want to have sex,” he said, “then don’t get into these sorts of short-term romantic relationships where there is an expectation to become intimate.”
Controlling teenage hormones, however, is easier said than done. Mr. Harris, who lives in Vancouver, eventually pulled his book from circulation, and has apologized for the role he played in causing anyone feelings of shame, fear and guilt. Today, he no longer considers himself a Christian.
Part of the problem for some critics of the movement is its emphasis on virginity as the greatest gift a man and a woman can bestow on each other. To them, other aspects of a healthy relationship seem to take a back seat, including core human elements like emotional attachment, intellectual compatibility or the simple virtues of kindness and understanding.
There is also what the writer Katelyn Beaty has called the “sexual prosperity gospel” — the promise, hardly always realized, that abjuring sex as a teenager will be rewarded later with a lifelong marriage of physical joy along with spiritual fulfillment.
Then, too, some grew unhappy with the singular burden that seemed to be placed on young women. Reining in lust — the guys’ lust as well as their own — tended to fall to them. “It’s women and girls’ responsibility to dress right, to act right, to talk right, to do everything just right to ensure non-sexuality for all people,” Ms. Klein said in a 2018 interview with National Public Radio.
This credo may even have had echoes in the recent shootings at massage parlors in Georgia. The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, belonged to a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and was described as someone who struggled with sexual temptation. Brad Onishi, who grew up in a strict evangelical community in Southern California that emphasized sexual purity, told The New York Times that the culture he was raised in “teaches women to hate their bodies, as the source of temptation, and it teaches men to hate their minds, which lead them into lust and sexual immorality.”
For spiritual guides like Beth Moore, the male-dominated culture of evangelicalism had its political incarnation in Mr. Trump, who was famously captured on tape bragging how he had forced himself on women. “There comes a time,” she said, explaining why she left the Southern Baptist fold, “when you have to say, ‘This is not who I am.’”
The video with this article is part of a documentary series presented by The New York Times. The video project was started with a grant from Christopher Buck. Retro Report, led by Kyra Darnton, is a nonprofit media organization examining the history and context behind today’s news. To watch more, subscribe to the Retro Report newsletter, and follow Retro Report on YouTube and Twitter.