I’ve seen the statistics on STIs in teenagers around the world.
I’ve heard the little boy ask “Why can’t we all live together?” when his daddy drops him off at his mom’s on Sunday night.
I’ve been asked by young men, “How will I know how to have sex if I don’t look at porn?”
I’ve read the note left in the question box at the end of a teen girls’ retreat where I had spoken on the medical, emotional, and relational risks of premature sexual intimacy and sex with multiple partners: “What if I already have?”
This is why I am convinced that we need to talk to teens about sex, about its meaning and its purpose, and why it’s only for marriage. The fractured families, the emotional and mental and spiritual fallout and, yes, the disease are painful reminders that something is wrong. Teens need to know the whole truth about sexuality.
I was reading Gina Dalfonzo’s book on singles, in part a critique of Joshua Harris’ book on dating, when the email arrived with a link to the article in the New York Post entitled “Woman recalls how she ‘broke free’ of Evangelical ‘purity’ movement”. That was my introduction to Linda Kay Klein’s book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. I knew I needed to read this book. Then came the documentary of Joshua Harris’ apology for how his book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, published twenty years ago, hurt so many young men and women. Then report after report on sexual scandal in local universities and national sports clubs, and in high places.
Even though I read and think about sex and relationship issues all the time, I was beginning to feel as if I were in the path of a tsunami.
I read Klein’s book. I grieved at what she experienced as a teenager. And I was shocked at the way she was treated — and neglected — by her ostensibly Christian parents and by the leaders of her church. I was angry about those who so twisted the teaching on sexual purity and in doing so traumatized Klein and so many others.
I also grieved that the word pure was being degraded, deprived of its beauty and its meaning. I thought of how we desire pure air, pure water, pure gold, pure food. I thought of God’s call to followers of Christ to “be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16) and the words of the Apostle Paul, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you … So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20).
And I thought about:
- the young teen boy who said at the end of a presentation on saving sex for marriage, “Nobody ever told me before that I didn’t have to have sex. I thought it was expected.”
- the True Love Waits campaign in Uganda, which resulted in a dramatic drop in the HIV/AIDS rate with the decrease in premarital and extra-marital sex. In seven years, from 1991-1998, the percentage of sexually active young people aged 15-19 declined from 30% to 6%.
- the letter I received a year after the event from the organizer of a seminar I gave in South Africa. I had presented the True Love Waits program at the seminar. The organizer wrote, “The leaders who took part in the seminar subsequently led fourteen weeks of bible studies which terminated in a huge celebration rally with 800 teens signing pledge cards committing their lives to one of celibacy until marriage and being adopted by an adult discipler who would walk with them, pray with them, and support them in the relationship building until they are married.“
All positive results of teaching on the meaning of sexual intimacy and on saving sex for marriage.
Klein describes the purity movement as teaching “that there were two types of girls — those who were pure and those who were impure”; that their feminine bodies — their curves — could be a stumbling block to boys and that they would be responsible for guys yielding to temptation; that sexual thoughts and feelings are shameful; that any physical expression of sexual feelings is a slippery slope that can quickly lead to sexual sin; that girls’ “only real worth is their virginity and ability to remain pure.” ”
Is this an accurate description of Christian teachings on purity? Should you be suspicious of school sex education curricula that emphasize saving sex for marriage? Should you not use the True Love Waits program? You need to consider Klein’s criticisms seriously, but you should also know more about what has come to be known as “The Purity Movement.” What was the motivation for this? What was it intended to be and to do?
The Purity Movement
True Love Waits
In 1993 True Love Waits was founded in the southern United States. It encouraged high school and college students, with their parents in their own homes, to study what the Bible says about sex and marriage and to sign a commitment card pledging themselves to “a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.” These commitment cards were then typically presented publicly, with other teens, during a worship service at their church. In 1994, one year after the founding, 211,000 of these cards were displayed in Washington, DC. The True Love Waits program is now used in 100 denominations and national student organizations in the United States, and around the world.
Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye
In 1997 Joshua Harris, then 21 years old, wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He had had several painful breakups with girlfriends, and concluded that dating was wrong. Rather, as he described in his book, the biblical approach to dating and relationships was not to date until one found the right person and was ready to marry. The ideas in I Kissed Dating Goodbye were accepted without question by churches, families, and thousands of single men and women. The book sold more than 1.2 million copies, and reshaped how a generation of Christians practiced relationships and viewed sex.
Abstinence-based Sex Education
Prior to the founding of True Love Waits and the publication of Harris’ book, in the late 80s and early 90s, abstinence-based sex education programs were begun in schools throughout the United States. Many parents of pre-teens and teens were concerned at that time about the “comprehensive” sex education being offered. Comprehensive” sex education encouraged sexual experimentation, focused on the use of condoms and contraceptives to reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, and presented homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality as equally valid lifestyles. Abstinence was mentioned, in passing, as the only 100% sure way of avoiding pregnancy and STIs but it was assumed that teens would be sexually active.
Abstinence programs, on the other hand, were based on the assumption that teens should not be engaging in sex but should delay sexual intimacy, preferably until marriage. The emphasis was on helping teens develop the skills for engaging in healthy, non-sexual relationships and on being honest about the negative consequences of early sexual debut and multiple partners. This is healthy, age-appropriate, risk avoidance education.
What went wrong?
On the basis of his feelings about dating, Joshua Harris prescribed principles for male-female relationships, ostensibly based on Scripture. Harris was young, and inexperienced. He admits now that he “didn’t press down into the really important issues — what sex really means” and that he gave bad advice. Now, twenty years later, many who read the book “look back with deep regret that they ever read it.”
Abstinence sex education programs, in an honest but misguided attempt to explain why it is important to save sex for marriage, often used examples that made girls feel devalued. Girls who were virgins were compared to a beautiful, fresh rose; girls who had sex, to a rose that had been passed around the class, touched by everyone, and was now faded and wilted — spoiled goods, no longer of any value, no longer desired. Or to a piece of tape that had lost it stickiness. Or to an Oreo cookie from which everyone had taken a bite. The emphasis was too often on “technical” virginity, so that the impression given was that as long as you hadn’t had penetrative sex you were still a virgin: “My boyfriend and I are only having oral sex, because I want to be a virgin when I marry.”
In her book, One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church, Gina Dalfonzo, still single at 44, calls the church to recognize and deal with these mistakes. She wants the church to notice the singles in their midst — still single in their 30s and 40s to a large extent because of these mistaken teachings. These young adults “do in fact follow the moral teachings of the church. Many of these are suffering intense loneliness. Have you considered all those young people who want to be married, who should be married, but who can find no one to marry? The girls who at age twenty-five and older have never even been asked on a date?”
Dalfonzo admits that all the blame cannot be pinned on one book but, she says, Harris’ book “encapsulates most if not all of the distinguishing characteristics of the [purity] movement, and that movement has had an indelible effect not just on the Christian singles scene but on the church in general.” It has made a generation of young women and men “scared to interact with the opposite sex, so afraid of getting hurt that they don’t dare try having a real, lasting relationship. And afraid of not measuring up to the purity standard set by the church. Dalfonzo admits having experienced this fear herself.
The church’s acceptance of Harris’ “no dating” principle left young men and women with no system for getting to know each other. And, as Dalfonzo says, “It’s a dangerous thing to destroy a system, especially when you have nothing adequate with which to replace it.”
These weaknesses and errors, now recognized by many, informed the attitudes and actions of many Christians. Linda Kay Klein was one of the victims. She wanted with all her heart to please God, and she understood from her church’s teaching that her sexual feelings made her a “bad” girl who could not please him. She felt shamed for just being a female and for being a stumbling block to males. This fear and shame carried into adulthood, making it impossible for her to have sex. She describes herself huddling, naked, in her college boyfriend’s bed unable to have sex with him because of the fear and shame that overcame her whenever she tried.
Klein “broke free” from both the purity movement and the church. To deal with her hurtful past Klein spent ten years interviewing women, and some men, listening to their stories of being “shamed” by their families and their church, and subsequently, as adults, unable to engage in sexual intimacy. She has founded “Break Free Together,” which partners with churches and other organizations, and “The Dinner Party,” where individuals can help each other heal from “Christian sexual shame.”
Harris apologized. He spent two years meeting with and listening to women and men impacted by his book, and has made a documentary of these conversations. “While I stand by my book’s call to sincerely love others,” he says, “I no longer agree with its central idea that dating should be avoided. I now think dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally and learning the qualities that matter most in a partner.” He admits to other weaknesses in the book as well: “In trying to warm people of the potential pitfalls of dating, instead it often instilled fear — fear of making a mistake or having their heart broken. It also gave some the impression that a certain methodology of relationships would deliver a happily-ever-after ending — a great marriage, and a great sex life — even though this is not promised by Scripture.” At his request, his book is no longer being published.
True Love Waits continues to be a strong movement. In response to recent criticism of the purity movement Cofounder Richard Ross wrote, “Since (humanly speaking) I am considered a cofounder of True Love Waits, I must consider the possibility that this movement harmed rather than blessed a young generation. Ignoring the criticisms that sincere writers have raised would be intellectually dishonest. Inviting teenagers into a lifetime of sexual holiness and purity, if consistent with Scripture, is a beautiful thing. When someone takes that message, twists it, and then uses it to bash the young, I grieve … I grieve that distorted messages have harmed some teenagers. And I doubly grieve when I learn that some have carried pain into their adult years. But that grief does not cause me to doubt the beauty and the rightness of the original True Love Waits (TLW) message. Multitudes of adults report that the TLW message was an important factor in their sidestepping sexual sin in their teenage years. Multitudes of single adults continue to embrace and live out that message. Multitudes of married adults report that the absence of scarring from their teenage years is a major factor contributing to the beauty and joy of their current sexual expressions. Christ be praised.”
Sex education programs are now more holistic, while still emphasizing delaying sexual activity until marriage. Some have changed their names to reflect this: Sex Respect is now LoveEd, WAIT Training is now The Center for Relationship Education. Purpose statements include “to ensure that every teenager has the opportunity to hear a clearly reasoned, positive presentation on the benefits of abstinence until marriage and instruction on preparing for a healthy future marriage” (A&M) or “Addressing only the physical consequences of sexual behavior – STIs, teen pregnancy – does not effectively serve youth. Youth must understand the whole-person impact of sexual behavior” (CPR) or “encourages teens to become other-centered as opposed to self-centered and to acknowledge that their decisions not only affect their own lives, but the lives of those around them” (OK, Inc) or “We teach the meaning of life, not just the facts of life” (LoveEd).
Gina Dalfonzo’s One by One calls on the church to recognize where it has failed, but she also sees the church as the source of strength for singles struggling with their singleness: “When the church teaches sexuality based on the Word of God, and even more when it helps hold us accountable for following those teachings, it gives us something important and valuable—something that’s very hard to find outside the church:
- It helps us take a more thoughtful, balanced, well-rounded approach to relationships, to stay off the crazy, broken merry-go-round of hookups and one-nighters.
- It offers us a place where that approach is seen as good and right, not freakish and weird. That just might be the most valuable aspect of all. Because when sex outside of marriage is so prevalent and so normalized, there is just one kind of behavior between adults of consenting age that is looked at askance: not having sex.
- There is nothing that gives a person a stronger self-image than knowing he or she is God’s beloved creation, made in His image, redeemed by His sacrifice. This knowledge is one of the most precious, most valuable gifts my faith has given me. I’m not talking just in terms of my sexuality now; this is a knowledge that applies to and enhances every aspect of life.
What does Scripture say?
The Bible is clear about God’s instructions for sexual intimacy:
- Sex is good, a gift of God (Genesis 1:27-28; 2:20-23).
- Its context is marriage. It is the confirmation of a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman (Genesis 224-25).
- Our bodies are designed by God. He gave us our sexual desires and built in erotic zones, designed for pleasure. As Christians our bodies are also a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).
- We can talk about sex. The Bible does, very explicitly. It talks about sexual intercourse and childbearing. It talks about the bad things, too: sex before marriage, adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, sexual abuse. Almost every letter of the Apostle Paul speaks about sex.
- We are to flee sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18).
- When we do sin, God is willing and eager to forgive (1 Corinthians 6:11).
The Culture Translator says it best. Commenting on a letter by a Catholic mother of four sons to a college paper in the United States lamenting the popularity of leggings among young women, The Culture Translator says, “Are girls really that responsible for male sexual thoughts and behavior or should guys control their own thoughts and actions regardless? Is this shaming normal, healthy physical attraction or could this ‘Leggings-Hating Mom’ have a point? It’s easy to forget that modesty is a value that both women and men are urged to cherish, and that there are objective ways we can hold our bodies as sacred places where the Holy Spirit lives. Rather than targeting just one kind of clothing or gender, you can remind your teen that their bodies aren’t sexual commodities to be exploited or gawked at, but rather the very place God has chosen to take up residence in this world and thus due the proper respect and dignity from both themselves and others.” (The Culture Translator 5:13, March 29, 2019)
Purity Is … Japanese with English subtitles
Introducing PureHeart Japan with text in Japanese and English