I Kissed My Humanity Goodbye: how the evangelical purity culture dehumanizes women

When I look at this picture of myself on my wedding day, I don’t see a happy bride. I see a frightened little girl who was under incredible pressure from her family’s ministry. Not only was I expected to be physically pure, I was expected to be emotionally pure.

Emotional purity meant that I received approval from my father before I developed romantic feelings for a man.

In my fundamentalist church, we didn’t date. We courted. We didn’t really fall in love because FALLING in love was lack of self-control and failure to guard our hearts. Falling in love was for “worldly” people who didn’t read their Bibles and pray for God’s will.

“Follow God’s will and the feelings will follow,” my fundamentalist father often told me.

Following God’s will meant getting prior approval before doing anything. And emotional purity meant getting prior approval before feeling anything. 

Essentially, church leadership told me how to feel.

My problem was that I developed romantic feelings for my husband before getting approval.

It happened while traveling home from a summer missionary trip. I had the rare opportunity to talk with Matt alone. I’d only ever related to him in a group setting or at church. It was an exquisite experience of true, authentic connection (you’ll get to read about it in my book) wherein we discovered we were kindred souls.

A few days later, I blurted out that I liked him. He said he liked me, too but that we couldn’t talk about it anymore until we received approval for courtship. During the year and a half we waited for courtship approval, I was expected to act (and feel!) like Matt meant nothing more to me than a casual friend.

So, I shut down my emotions.

This is a common experience for young women raised in the evangelical purity culture. For the sake of “emotional purity,” we are taught to deny, repress, shame and shun our feelings.

Hannah of Wine and Marble shared her own experience with me:

I was introduced to the idea of emotional purity, like most conservative Christian girls of my generation, from the opening pages of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, where Josh Harris told a story of a nightmare where someone’s showing up at the altar to get married, but all their former “significant others” are holding onto this person and each claiming a “piece of [his/her] heart.”

My mom and dad told me when I was very small (5? 6?) that while my friends might date, we didn’t date. We courted, because dating is practice for divorce. And ever after that, they would quiz me to see if I had a crush, and I would pride myself on saying “no! that’s bad!” When I was going through puberty, I did have crushes, and I confessed them in great agony to my mom, sure I was ruined to keep my heart for the one I’d eventually marry. Her response would always be a sober “well, lift that up to the Lord. Just give it up to him. You’re too young to get married.”

It was assumed that having a crush and not marrying them was committting emotional adultery before you were even married. And so I shut down my emotions. But I experienced misery and guilt any time my emotions “rebelled” and dwelled on someone “prematurely.”

As Hannah’s experience illustrates, even schoolgirl crushes are blown up into massive moral failures described as ‘committing emotional adultery.’

This is dehumanizing because it shames a woman for experiencing normal, human feelings during normal, human development.

So, how do girls in strict, courtship environments cope? We shut down our emotions.

The bad news is that you can’t shut down one feeling without shutting down them all. I thought that by ignoring, denying, shaming and shunning my romantic feelings for Matt I was preserving my “emotional purity” and “guarding my heart.” Instead, I ended up completely numb.

It got so bad that eventually I believed if something felt good it was probably sinful. If I was happy, I wasn’t suffering enough. Sometimes I wished I were a robot so I could turn off my feelings with a push of a button.

When we finally received courtship approval and it was OK for me to have romantic feelings for Matt, I was a mess. I was depressed, exhausted, confused and literally sick all the time. 

My journals from age 18-20 describe my constant fatigue, exhaustion, confusion, depression and general malaise. I spent many days in bed just trying to recover from the constant stress of living inside this repressive environment.

Purity culture took a literal toll on my body. Purity culture is horrifically exhausting.

When spiritual authorities tell you how to feel, they are usurping your God-given autonomy and exercising a subtle form of spiritual abuse.

It is nothing short of a miracle that my husband and I are still together. What saved us? Getting OUT of that environment, leaving intense holiness behind, feeling our feelings.

We found a way to remember those few moments of pure, authentic connection we once had and we’ve carefully built a new relationship together. Our recovery is still an ongoing process.

But together, we are becoming human.

  • Laura

    I recently told a guy I liked him and I have to admit, I felt like I was sinning. Reading this makes me realise how absurd that is. Thank you. :)

  • Aprille

    EE I recently blogged about this very thing. I went through a “failed” courtship where I had “given my heart away.” When it didn’t work out, I felt like my life was ruined and that I was completely worthless. I didn’t struggle with numbing as much as I struggled with feeling ruined because I had FELT. Thankfully over the last 7 years I have taken small (and some big) steps out of that culture and now have a great marriage and husband. But even recently I really had to go head to head with these ideas in my mind and shoot them down as untrue. http://beautifulinhistime.com/2013/01/07/the-myth-of-the-construction-paper-heart/

  • http://twitter.com/SheilaScribbles Sheila Siler

    When my husband and I had our first child the “Kissed Dating Goodbye” craze was just staring up. Admittedly I did not read the book, but took what I “heard” and we thought it sounded great. We raised our eldest with the idea that everything should be done in groups, dating was for when you were truly looking for a mate, etc. We started pulling out of that when he was midway through high school and realized we did not agree with that concept completely. While we never told our kids they couldn’t like someone and we understood crushes, we have decided that dating (age appropriately) while in high school and home is good – so that they can practice making good choices and have a safety net (parents) to help them navigate the emotions and consequences that come with the ups and downs of relationships. We teach boundaries in relationships, but understand it helps our kids grow.

  • Anonymous

    When I read these stories of yours, I can hardly believe it; it seems so foreign and so obviously wrong. It’s amazing that you have become as strong and healthy as you have. Amazing, and a testament to the strength of your faith and your character that you didn’t chuck the whole works–God and all.

    • http://twitter.com/waywardson23 James

      I know what you mean. I was in college when the craze hit. I guess I was a bit baffled by how anyone could take it all seriously. But then again, I didn’t grow up in that culture.

      And yes, I have read about people who found Josh Harris’s books helpful, but once again, those who did didn’t grow up in that culture either.

  • Michelle

    I think it’s interesting…these fundamentalist ways seep into homes that don’t even think they are fundamentalist. My own parents dismissed my “crushes” so much so that I ultimately completely hid the “crushes” from them. This ultimately did nothing good for me, LOL. But now with my own 11-year-old who is going through puberty and experiencing her first “crush” on a boy, I can’t bring myself to shame it in any way. Personally, I think it is sweet. And cute. And normal. My parents think I am encouraging her to a life as a Jezebel or something. So glad you and your husband have been able to work through these things together.

  • http://howtotalkevangelical.addiezierman.com/ Addie Zierman

    Love this Elizabeth. I have major I Kissed Dating Goodbye baggage too, though it was so self-inflicted. I dated the Super-Christian boys who read and believed these things, and the shame came from them, not my parents or my particular church leaders. Thanks for making me feel less alone in all that I continue to work through from those hard days.

  • http://www.jrforasteros.com JR. Forasteros

    Thanks for sharing this.

    I wonder if this is the consequence of taking a practice (courting) out of a culture where it makes sense (arranged marriages, extreme separation of males and females, like what we see in some middle eastern cultures) and dropping into the middle of a Romance culture like ours where men and women interact all the time.

    Obviously, in some cultures, courting makes a lot of sense. But as you demonstrate, it can be toxic in others. We need to be more careful and attentive to the cultural aspects of our relationships.

  • Leah Shoop

    “When I look at this picture of myself on my wedding day, I don’t see a
    happy bride. I see a frightened little girl who was under incredible
    pressure from her family’s ministry.”

    Oh, wow. I teared up when I read this. I could have written every word (heck, that goes for most of this post as well). I, too, was exhausted, ill, and depressed through a lot of my courtship and felt terribly guilty for being that way. Now I’ve been married for three years and in therapy for almost two. Things are coming back to life now, but what a mess and what a lot of work to clear it up.

    Thank you for your insightful post. Can’t wait to read your book. :-)

  • the Blah Blah Blahger

    Holy hell…this all still blows my mind!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mrssummersmith Summer Lynn Smith

    My husband and I grew up in this culture. I was actually his first g/f and every guy I ever dated my father decided if I was allowed to have feelings for them and if the relationship could start and when it would end (if God told him he was the ‘one’ or not). I was incredibly respectful of my father, and still am. BUT, at almost 20 years old, things got ugly as my husband and I fell head over heels for each other. I too was sick emotionally and up and down physically with depression through our oppressive dating year. After my guilt I would always confess when we’d overstep a physical boundary and ask for accountability… we didn’t have sex, but were sexually active, though striving miserably not to be and beating ourselves up as our sins were plastered on a billboard for the entire church to judge (mind you, we were open and honest and just trying to remain pure while many couples were doing it secretly and still in ministry). My father eventually got a little crazy and started talking terribly about me and eventually the whole church was involved and we had to step out of any type of ministry (I was in choir and involved in the youth and he played bass on Sundays and also was involved in the youth). After this my father sentenced us to 90 days without speaking to each other and if we still were in love he would give us his blessing. I thought I’d die, but we agreed. After 2 weeks my little sister told me dad said she couldn’t talk about Johnny because I was forgetting about him. I went to my dad and told him I still love Johnny I’m just serving my sentence so everyone will finally accept that we want to get married. He said he never said he’d give us his blessing he’d have to wait and see how he felt after the 90 days. I told him I was packing my bags… my heart couldn’t handle it and Johnny and I would just go get married. Well, a week later we did (I told my father I called johnny and everything because I didn’t want to be disobedient and break his rules) I guess he didn’t believe me. We’ll be married 8 years in April and it was still the best day of my life. It’s been a long long long road, and we are still healing, but we had to do it.

  • http://jennyrain.com/ JennyRain

    Wow. One of the things I have worked so hard to do when I mentor young Christian women is to validate their feelings. It seems to me like the church in SO many ways tells us not to feel and yet “Jesus wept” and “Jesus was grieved at his soul” in John 11 when ppl didn’t believe he could raise Lazarus.

    If Jesus can feel, why is the church teaching others that they shouldn’t?

    And I always wonder for young women and men – so you are taught to deny your feelings for each other and then you are married. So at that point – are you just supposed to magically turn them on?

    It’s so debilitating… God gives us emotions as a part of who we are and yet the church tells women and men that they are bad. Sad.

  • falfie4

    Oh, the courtship movement. Yikes! I was accepted into a family as an “honorary member” where the husband took over the father role (since my own father was an abusive alcoholic). They introduced me to a man who they believed God told them was my future husband. We courted for a bit, until he turned out to be a narcissistic, marijuana addicted, serial cheater. When he broke up with me, they told me to pray and ask God what I had done to make him leave. SO much damage is done by that movement! I always appreciate it when you speak out about it!

  • herewegokids

    You guys are seriously adorable. I see that frightened girl too…she grew into a strong and brave woman.

  • ariel schmidt

    My parents almost got into this. When I was about 12, they suddenly told me I’d have to court and gave me a bunch of books about it. I was very upset but warmed up to the idea somehow.
    A few years later they divorced and gave up the idea of courting, so I feel pretty lucky.
    However, I did end up getting married super early because of religious pressure. Since it was so “terrible” to live with each other before marriage, I got married almost as soon as I turned 18. Luckily it worked out and my husband and I have been married 8 years now, but it would’ve been nice to wait a bit and enjoy being young before jumping into starting a family….
    (We both realized we were agnostics a couple years after getting married.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephaniebillman Stephanie Michelle Cuff

    My mother really wanted us to do courtship. I was rebellious and got pregnant at 17, so my parents threw their hands up and did not force me to do courtship. Thank God!! I met my husband a few years later, and we did everything “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and “When God Writes Your Love Story” (my mom’s favorite book) said not to do! We are very happily married anyway!

  • Handsfull

    You are on a roll at the moment!
    This is all so horribly familiar – I can relate to all of it. My particular cult had a theory that if you had to make a choice about something and weren’t sure which option was God’s will for you, the option that you didn’t like would be the right one. I’ve been out nearly 16yrs now, and thankfully it all feels more and more foreign. I was talking to my mother the other day (she’s still in there) and realised what a long, long way I’ve come since I left. Yay for me! And yay for you! And yay for all the other survivors out there who are doing the hard work of acclimatising themselves to real life :)

    • Dana

      I distinctly remember ATI/Gothard interpreting the verse “his ways are higher than our ways” to mean that, as a rule of thumb, whatever our natural instinct was in a situation was probably the wrong thing. I can’t tell you how many years of being totally out of touch with my own intuition have been the result.

  • http://www.mymusingcorner.wordpress.com/ Lana

    this is me too. I shut down my emotions over it.

  • Margaret Feinberg

    You are a beautiful bride, Elizabeth! What a lucky man.

  • pleschke

    When was this book popular? I’ve been going to an evangelical church for 20 years (since I was 22), and I’ve never seen it taught/promoted . . . I have heard the title, though. Thanks for the heads-up about the content. Oy. The only thing I’d disagree with is your post title — seems dehumanizing to both men and women, since it causes men to be held at arms length so women can shut off their feelings about men . . . So, so sad.

    • http://www.facebook.com/katie.reicks Katie Reicks

      I think it came out about 13 (or so) years ago. I generally agree with the book, but taken to the extreme I can see it going bad like these stories. The horrible things committed in God’s name makes my heart ache for those hurt.

    • Anonymous

      It came out in late 1997, I believe.

  • Anonymous

    When you write these type of posts, it feels as if I am reading my own history and struggles. The “badness” of emotions was prevalent in every are. We had to constantly look happy and healthy, though many times nothing could be further from the truth.

  • http://www.momma-onamission.blogspot.com/ AnnaC

    Wow, this post brought up some really big feelings for me, things I’d thought I’d already worked through and moved past. I could have written most of this, word for word. My husband and I went through an intense courtship process that was strictly overseen by my dad- to the point that when DH told me that he loved me, I was terrified(happy, but terrified) to the point that I didn’t tell him that I loved him too(I did!), because I didn’t have permission from my dad to do so. *sigh*

    The whole repressing emotions thing was totally me too, and I didn’t even realize I was doing it until after I started moving away from fundamentalism and started actually *feeling* things. Wow, what a huge shock!

    And the part about it being nothing short of a miracle that you and your husband are still together- I literally just ended a recent blog post with that exact sentiment.

    I hope this isn’t wildly inappropriate, but this post really stirred up some deep emotions for me, and I wrote a post inspired by this one, sharing some of my own experiences. So thanks for the inspiration, and I’m sorry that you’ve been through this too.

    http://www.momma-onamission.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-dark-side-of-courtship.html

  • Grace Alexander

    I
    can so relate to this. I remember as a girl being monitored anytime we
    went anywhere by car to be sure my eyes remained in the car and I wasn’t
    looking at people in other cars or billboards or anything that would
    make me have “impure thoughts”.

  • Ann

    This is spot on; I lived through this for several years in a “Christian community”. The only thing that bothers me is that it’s described as a uniquely evangelical/protestant problem, and our community was Roman Catholic; it belongs to a “community of communities” that’s very Catholic, also. I think too much of the wrong kind of authority leads to abuse no matter what the religion. In fact, this whole thing reminds me of Muslim culture.

  • Anonymous

    “Purity culture is horrifically exhausting.” YES! Yes it is!

  • colleen

    i get this. i get this so deeply. interestingly, it wasn’t my parents or church that made me feel this way necessarily, it was the Christian schools i went to, particularly high school.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christy-Chomer-Karnatz/611216017 Christy Chomer Karnatz

    Can I get an “amen” up in here?!!! Unfortunately for me, I used my feelings of being creeped out by the purity culture and ran the opposite direction for a while. I remember my mom find a poem I wrote once that was very sensual, but by no means explicit and freaking out about it. It was a natural part of what I was experiencing as a teenager, but I felt like I was this terrible human being for feeling that way.

  • Rae

    Even when I was a young teen in Christian culture, and at a time where the “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” fad reached its peak at *exactly* the time all of my peers were at an age that they’d start dating, I found a gaping hole in their logic: How would “courting” make you any more likely to select the right person to marry than “dating”? Because if you “courted”, it was with the clearly stated expectation that you’d be willing to consider marriage to someone, and the unspoken explanation that in the absence of cheating, abuse, drug use, etc, you would eventually get married to that person.

    So, then, my question was, wouldn’t entering into relationships with so much serious investment, and all but a promise to get married, actually be *better* practice for divorce than dating?

  • Christian Spinster

    I find your blog so intriguing, mostly because I, too, was raised in this same culture. Now at the age of twenty-six when I am looking for an acceptable marriage partner, I have no idea how to navigate the male/female dynamic. I’ve never had a beau, or interested party because I shut myself off from male relationships, including friends. I’ve never had a male friend at all. I feel like this system completely screwed me over and will keep me a spinster for life.

  • Maggie

    Whew. Every time I read a little more of your story I’m blown away by your determination and will. I’m really looking forward to reading your book.

  • BB

    This may be semantics, but I feel like “evangelical purity culture” is not the right name for this. Perhaps “patriarchal purity culture” would be better and not misleading everyone into thinking evangelicals are mostly like that, because they’re not. FUNDAMENTALISTS may be like that. PATRIARCHAL types certainly are. But I have been in several different areas of evangelical culture in my life and the father worship, shutting down emotion, etc. were NEVER part of evangelicalism no matter where I lived or which evangelical church I was part of at the time.

    I was raised in a family/churches that prized purity for women AND men before and outside of marriage. Yes we were told not to lust, etc., but that there was forgiveness if we did, but we weren’t told to worship our fathers, didn’t have to court, etc. But we were all taught to save sex till marriage and most of us tried to – e.g. staying pure a.k.a. purity culture. I did do that. I wasn’t repressed. I was happy, not scared, as a virgin on my wedding day.

  • Rev. Regina

    I’m writing my doctor of ministry thesis on how to foster a healthy spirituality, because of the unhealthy spiritualities like this spiritual abuse. In pastoral counseling, I have “been there” for too many spiritually abused people, had to un-wright a destructive narrative for too many beloved children of God. Your article will find a place in my footnotes and bibliography.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Linda-Nicola/1002206962 Linda Nicola

    I’m so sorry you went through this, and so happy you were able to work through this (I know its still on-going). You are a wonderful writer. I think true happiness *is* god’s Will.

  • http://www.servingjoyfully.com/ Crystal

    What you describe is definitely a bad thing. However, I think courtship and purity can also be beautiful things. The way they did it is bad. But that doesn’t mean that the right thing would be to go completely the other way. I believe that purity is honoring to God (His word says in Corinthians 6:18-20 I think it is that sexual sins are worse because they are against our own bodies).

    So, I can see how that particular way of teaching made you feel like it cost your humanity, but that doesn’t mean that striving for purity and holiness, as commanded in scripture is a bad thing overall, just that their way of doing things is extreme.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    One of the things that shocks me about stories like yours is that this craziness is NEW. I grew up in a conservative fundamentalist church – we weren’t supposed to dance, but dating was just considered normal teenage behavior, and the notion that you had to feel guilty about having a crush on a boy would have been laughed out of church. (This was back in the early sixties; yes, I’m old). I wonder who invented “purity” culture, and whether it goes back even thirty years??

    • http://www.facebook.com/angelia.sparrow Angelia Sparrow

      Here from Slacktivist. It was just barely starting to kick off in the early 80s, with the “I don’t date, I don’t kiss, I won’t even hold a girl’s hand” attitude being lauded in the Youth For Christ groups. Quiverfull and the opposition to birth control, fueled by Mary Pride’s _The Way Home_ were just getting going. Rick Santorum, aside from being Catholic was embodiment of our ideal president in those days.
      I’m pagan now and a bit horrified at my 20-something self.

  • Nenya

    This is beautiful–that you two have been able to find (or re-find) the true connection you had, despite all the garbage. I’m so happy for you.

    (And so relieved that the purity culture shaming I had was slightly less intense than yours. That shutting down all feelings thing, though? Oh, boy. Yeah.)