It was March 2018 and I found myself doubled over the toilet at my favorite breakfast cafe, vomiting and crying while the woman I was on a date with unknowingly ate her blueberry pancakes outside.
When I’d started a long-distance relationship with a woman I’d met online, everything had seemed easy. This was despite the fact that I’d never dated anyone before.
Only a year earlier, I’d been attending a small fundamentalist Baptist church that functioned much like a cult. Members were expected to put the church above the family unit and were disciplined or excommunicated for matters as small as using the wrong version of the Bible. I felt completely isolated among the girls in the church ― while I was pursuing a career, they were consumed by thoughts of marriage and children.
As the Republican rhetoric coming from the pulpit ramped up in the months before the 2016 presidential election, I no longer felt comfortable in the church’s pews and decided to leave. Leaving a church that regularly compared homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia felt like escaping a dark thought prison, and just three months after my escape, I discovered I was queer. Having come to terms with both my agnosticism and my queerness, I felt ready to date.
Now this brilliant woman was waiting outside of the bathroom and I couldn’t stop throwing up. My anxiety continued throughout the entire weekend. When we slept together in my tiny twin bed that night, she sensed my panic as she whispered, “We don’t have to do anything.” I clung to her gratefully, unable to understand why I was so afraid.
The weekend came and went but every time I thought of seeing her again, prickles of panic vibrated behind my sternum.
“It’s a sign,” my friends said, “that she’s not right for you.” And so I broke things off with her. Since I’d never experienced anything like it before, I dismissed the incident as nothing more than an isolated anxiety attack.
I didn’t think of it again until a few months later, when I read a Twitter thread about the negative impacts of the 1997 best-selling book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Users wrote about how the book had given them unhealthy expectations about marriage, some had experienced anxiety like mine, and some had even been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
As I read the thread, everything I had been taught about purity, virginity, dating and queerness came crashing back.
In his book, Joshua Harris, who was only 21 at the time of its publication, posits that modern dating is a minefield of temptation and heartbreak. Instead, he advocates for a return to the Biblical principles of courtship. The man should ask the woman’s father for permission to court her, and only if the couple intends to marry. Any kind of physical intimacy before marriage is sinful and forbidden.
Other messages from the book: Girls should be modest and meek. Boys are sexual creatures and if they have impure thoughts about you it is your fault. The body and its desires are to be suppressed at all costs. Harris’ ideas were par for the course in the purity culture that dominated evangelical circles like mine.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye appeared during the height of American evangelicalism’s purity movement. A few years earlier, a Washington rally sponsored by the group True Love Waits attracted more than 200,000 young people who signed pledge cards vowing to save sex for marriage. Also in the 90’s, “purity balls” gained widespread traction. At these events, daughters dressed up and danced with their fathers after pledging to save their virginity for their future husbands.
While certainly not the only book of its kind, Harris’ was easily the most trendy. Growing up, everyone in my fundamentalist Christian circle had read it and if they hadn’t, they had at least heard of it. When I read the book for the first time, I was going through a particularly pious phase (lots of floor-length skirts and journal entries about how to be meek and humble).
Couple that with my complete lack of interest in boys and my emotional and intellectual vulnerability, and I was Harris’ target audience. I read his words and immediately bought into the entire premise. One Thanksgiving, I even attempted to convince my “worldly” teenage cousins that they should stop dating.
I didn’t just grow up surrounded by the ideologies of purity culture ― I believed the narrative with every fiber of my teenage being. When I left the oppressive church of my childhood, I naively assumed that I could easily shed the principles of purity culture. The anxiety disorder that sprung up when I attempted to enter the dating world proved that, instead, they had been violently hammered into my psyche.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye has sold over 1.2 million copies, but recently Harris made national headlines when he released a statement saying: “While I stand by my book’s call to sincerely love others, my thinking has changed significantly in the past 20 years. I no longer agree with its central idea that dating should be avoided. In light of the flaws I now see in ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye,’ I think it’s best to discontinue its publication.”
A few months ago, Harris released a documentary entitled “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” in which he meets with readers impacted by his book. I watched the documentary hoping Harris would take accountability for the undeniable and unconscionable ways in which his book shaped an entire culture. I hoped to feel seen by the experiences of those profiled in the documentary.
Instead, Harris simply apologized for the prescriptive rules of his book, failing to acknowledge the damaging legacy of purity culture. There is little representation for those, like myself, who find ourselves decades later, unpacking the trauma that his book and purity culture inflicted upon us.
The summer after the incident in Gailey’s Breakfast Cafe, I dated casually ― going on low-pressure get-togethers that never resulted in anything much more than normal first-date nerves. But when I met a woman this autumn, things instantly felt different. After one date, I felt the potential for something serious.
And again, my anxiety spiraled out of control. I wanted to see her, but an hour before every date, I’d find myself kneeling once again on the floor of my bathroom. Panic attacks, constant nausea and a total loss of appetite were all symptoms of my mounting terror.
It was then that I truly began to realize the deep impact that purity culture had had on my mind and body.
Dating and sex had felt dangerous and sinful for so long ― not to mention the biblical implications of dating a woman. I had trained myself to shut down all bodily desires and now that my desire had awakened, a fight or flight response had been activated. I couldn’t seem to convince my body that dating was safe. I realized that while I’d been convinced during my youth that I was making the choice to not date or have sex, I had actually been stripped of bodily agency. The fundamentalism of my upbringing had terrified me into submission.
Completely unable to function, I started therapy.
Of course, Joshua Harris alone is not responsible for my anxiety disorder, but his book illustrates how lasting the damages of purity ideology can be. Although I haven’t read the book in decades, my body still harbors the trauma of its teachings. As a lesbian, I’m also unlearning the homophobia I’ve internalized. I am not sick and my desires are not evil.
I recently stumbled upon the work of Jamie Lee Finch, a self-described “relationship guide and sex witch.” Finch is an outspoken opponent of purity culture on Twitter and her work has helped me understand the physical manifestations of my religious trauma.
Finch writes, “I believe our bodies have a language and that language is our mother tongue. Trauma in any form ― including toxic experiences with fundamentalist religious belief ― is responsible for breaking down our ability to communicate successfully with our bodies; and any sort of illness or imbalance, dysfunction or disease is our bodies’ frustrated attempts to connect with and communicate to us.”
My body isn’t broken ― she is simply trying to communicate with me. Like Finch encourages, I am learning to listen to my body again ― to believe my body and to speak to her with kindness. I still have an anxiety disorder. I still have panic attacks. But I don’t throw up before dates anymore. I can eat again. I have a partner who respects my boundaries and understands my anxieties. I go to therapy every week. Healing has been a painfully slow process, but I am making progress.
I’ve seen queer people and former Christians leave the church and effortlessly dive into the world of dating and sex. But for me, dating felt impossible, and every time I found myself on the bathroom floor, I berated myself for being crazy.
Recently though, I’ve been reading the stories of those who were also traumatized by I Kissed Dating Goodbye and I’m feeling much less alone. And so I speak my story into the void in the hopes that somewhere someone else might feel valid and seen; known and loved.