I was around twelve when I encountered Josh Harris for the first time. He was quite the thing at the Northwestern Bookstore. OMG, ya’ll, this young kid wrote a book about not dating, he’s going to start a revolution! The premise was dating was “practicing divorce” because the more you date, the more pieces your heart breaks into and the less you have to give to your future spouse. Josh was also very focused on physical and mental purity. Very focused.
As a young girl who developed early, this book terrified me. Using very specific stories, Josh Harris wove a hideous tapestry of what dating and premarital hanky-panky (which included full-body hugs, playing with a guy’s hair, and kisses) led to. My memory is a little blurry, but I believe it led to the spiritual equivalent of living on the street and training cockroaches to dance for nickels to pay for the porno theater, a fate so dire that only the sweat brought on by the spotlights of abstinence conferences and WOW concerts could possibly heal your soul.
I resolved to never date. I had already held hands with a boy at this point and after confessing my sin to both God and my parents, braced myself for the pure life. Being fixated on school and cats, and possessing what I believed was a holy fear of my own body, sensuality and dating never really came up again until I was fifteen. My resolve wavered. I imagined going on dates with my crush, holding hands and running across the beach. However, he was also a kid raised up in the tradition of Josh Harris, and so as is fitting for a young man, first approached my father to ask to court me. Yes, court. Because dating is for people who can’t commit. I still remember getting into the car after my crush scuttled away and having my dad look back at me with the strangest expression. It was somehow both a mixture of amusement and horror.
Thus began my first foray into romance. Since we were “courting,” more was to be expected. My boyfriend (we did agree to use the term because no other term seemed to fit) even wrote up a plan for what his intentions were. Courting meant intentional dating, the intention being marriage. By the way, I was sixteen years old. I’m pretty sure my parents only agreed to this because I had been madly in love with this boy for three years and to deny me would result in World War III.
My dreams had come true. I was holding hands with a boy. I had my arm around a boy. As our relationship progressed, my Josh Harris-planted fear followed. What was ok? Could he touch my leg? No, that was too close to “that area.” Ok, taking note from Josh Harris’ other book, “Not Even a Hint,” anything that led to sexual thoughts was to be avoided at all costs. Soooo….being in the same room as each other? Instead of barricading ourselves in separate rooms, I decided that anything I wasn’t sure about, I should ask my mom. She essentially confirmed most of my worries and I spent the rest of my romantic relationship going back and forth between what was allowed and what was heading into cockroach-training territory.
Only once did I really falter. Toward the beginning of what would be a catastrophic breakup, I asked the boy to kiss me. He would not. My ego a little more than bruised, I retreated, and the relationship dissolved shortly after that. Looking back, I’m very glad that he wasn’t my first kiss, but we’ll continue with that story a bit later on.
Now being single, I had time to think about how Josh Harris’ plan for my purity had worked out. Honestly, not very well. It was exhausting and saturated with guilt. Trying to keep track of all the things we could or could not do sucked the life right out of the relationship. If, as Josh Harris says, anything that makes you feel turned on is bad, then yeah, you probably should just leave the room. When has the suppression of natural physical responses ever worked out? I’m not saying to just let natural physical responses run wild, either. Obviously, there is a line. It’s different to hug your boyfriend/girlfriend goodbye and get a twinge than it is to make out for two hours. The twinge is not the devil poking you with his pitchfork. The feelings you get after making out for two hours will be a little stronger, and if you’re trying to attain a certain level of purity, you’re certainly not helping yourself, but I’d say you’re still not bathing in hellfire. And people’s bodies and hormones and twingy things are different. Josh Harris acts as if everyone is the same, which they are not.
Since the boy and I begun with the intention of marrying, or at least thinking about it, the breakup was truly like a divorce. If we had casually dated, as Josh Harris discourages, the breakup would not have hurt as much. “Dating” doesn’t have to be like a mini-marriage. It can just be going to movies or out to dinner. To say that when you stop doing that is a divorce, is saying marriage is nothing more than a series of Olive Garden visits and rollerskating some Friday nights. It also implies that anyone who has dated a lot and doesn’t feel especially devastated, should be ashamed. Josh, just because you feel bad that you had a few casual girlfriends before meeting your wife, doesn’t mean everyone in the world has to feel the way you do.
It took me a good three years to get over my first love. When I met Chris, I was concerned (though wary is probably the better word) about the physical aspect. Now knowing that my body was not the devil’s playground until it was sealed in marriage, I was less terrified. It had just been a while since romance had played a part in my life and I was not sure how I would respond. On our first “real” date, Chris held my hand. I did not burst into flame. On the third date, he put his arm around me, and after leading me to my dorm, tried to kiss me. I panicked and stealthily turned the kiss into a hug. It was pretty awkward. I immediately ran upstairs and typed up an email that explained that I was saving my first kiss for when I was engaged. I hadn’t actually been planning that, I just sort of wrote it. The funny thing is, the minute I wrote it, I knew that Chris was the person I would probably end up kissing. A few weeks later, he was.
Chris was my first kiss. I was not Chris’ first kiss. Guess what? It was just as special for both of us! Because it isn’t just “the kiss” that’s significant, it’s the person you’re kissing. Josh Harris makes kissing seem like the equivalent of sex (he actually uses the word “penetration” when describing it), but it doesn’t have to be. He has made so many kids afraid of their own bodies and urges, that if they do so much kiss someone, their hormones erupt like a volcano and pretty soon we’ve got pregnant teenage bellies popping all over the place. It’s all or nothing.
The problem with all or nothing thinking is that it is hard to fit grace into the picture.