This story is part of a series about purity culture, sex education and the role of family, faith and communities in addressing the lasting impacts of purity culture’s teachings.
Joshua Harris’ book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” was published in 1997. More than 1 million copies of the book have been sold. In 2017, Harris produced a documentary titled “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” where he met and talked to people who were impacted by the book. In 2019, he announced he would cease publication of all six of his books, citing the negative impact of the books. He later announced he was no longer a Christian and that he and his wife, Shannon, were getting a divorce. Harris talked with Reckon about what has happened since these announcements in 2019.
This interview has been edited for length.
Last year, you announced your publisher will no longer be printing new copies of your books. You also announced you can no longer call yourself a Christian. How do you feel about those issues now?
When I did the documentary, I didn’t realize that that process was going to lead to me questioning my faith. I didn’t know everything that was going to be happening with my marriage and so on. So I feel like there’s been a lot of change for me since the documentary was released a couple of years ago, but I’m still really proud of that process. It was really important to change me in many ways.
I think since then I’ve just seen how widespread the impact of these ideas has been on different people. I’ve heard so many other stories that are very similar to mine. It’s been enlightening and in many ways it hasn’t been my total primary focus. I’ve just been kind of moving forward with my own life and focusing on my kids and my business and all those types of things.
Some people have said your book or the teachings in your book have harmed them or created an unhealthy or an unreasonable habit. Are there any of your own teachings that have negatively affected you or your relationships?
I relate to all of the things that people were saying. I think part of the process of the documentary for me was hearing these stories without trying to be defensive. Instead of really listening in the past, I was always ready with the explanation. “Well, that’s not what I meant or that’s not how you should have taken it” that kind of thing.
All of that stuff affected me. I definitely think that those stories were important for me even processing my own journey.
In the book there was a line that said dating is preparation for divorce. You followed your own teaching right and now you’re divorced. Do you have any feelings about that?
I think that undoubtedly the decision to end our marriage is something that’s like the ultimate indictment of the book in some ways. It’s silly in some ways but I think that was a pressure in my own life of having this sense of, “Well, I wrote this book and I have to have a good marriage. I’m a pastor, I have to have a good marriage.”
If there’s a point at which you can’t explore certain ideas or you can’t consider that maybe you don’t feel the same way or you can’t consider that you were wrong, you’re really being controlled by some group or some ideology and you’re not being completely honest with yourself. I think one of the things that I’m realizing is that can be present inside and outside of the church.
It’s something I really want to guard against now.
Did you expect the book to become a pillar of what some evangelical churches teach about dating and sex?
No I did not. Every author I think hopes that your book will do really well. When something captures a moment and sparks the way that “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” did, you just have no concept of how wide-ranging that is far-reaching it will be. At the time, my book was really radical. That wasn’t the mindset of most churches and so the idea that it would be adopted by a lot of churches was something I wouldn’t have even considered.
Were you homeschooled?
I was my whole life, yeah.
In one of the last chapters of the book you said, “Someday, I’ll have a story to tell and so will you. How will you respond when one day you look back on your love story.” What do you think about that quote now?
I think it’s wonderfully idealistic and naive in different ways, but it’s interesting. I look back on my life and even though I see mistakes, I experienced different pain and so on, there’s still a beauty to that and I think that’s what was missing in my understanding back then. Then, I thought that the only kind of story that you could look back on with gratefulness was one that closely followed this certain script.
The things that you thought were gonna be so good can turn out to be not so great and the things that you thought were going to be not so great can turn out to be really life enriching and beautiful. There’s a complexity to every story. In a way I still think that rings true to me but it rings true in a much richer and deeper way than I would have understood when I was 21.
What would you say to a pastor today who’s trying to grapple with how do I teach my young people about sex and dating and how do I do it in a healthy way?
You have to face up to the challenge to not be influenced by different special interests in your church. I think the reason that there are not as many really honest conversations and helpful conversations around sex and those types of things is because leaders are not just thinking about the young person that they’re speaking to, they’re thinking about Sister Betty who’s 70 years old and is gonna make a huge fuss if she hears that you were talking about masturbation, sex before marriage, those kinds of things. I think it’s a big disservice to people when we’re really serving this other audience not the actual people.
If you don’t actually have a conviction that premarital sex is the worst possible thing that could ever happen then don’t teach that just because Sister Betty or I should say sister Karen wants that or because it will affect your tithes.
(Read our story about how the Southern Baptist Convention is reckoning with teaching sex, and reflecting on how it’s been taught in the past.)
You posted about the new Cardi B song WAP. You compared it to Song of Solomon. If 20-year-old Josh saw that, what would he have thought?
I did have fun with that for sure. What I was poking at there is just how sanctimonious I think religious people can be and how reactionary they can be regardless of your opinion about a Cardi B song.
I love Cardi B. There’s a reality of human sexual desire, female sexual desires that people just try to pretend away. The Bible and Song of Solomon and particular is a very erotic and honest about sexual desire by a woman. I was really just wanting to kick the hornet’s nest a little bit and say don’t be so sanctimonious about this.
What would you say to people who either still support your book and to people who are angry or hurt from your book?
I hope that my processing of my past work and even the conversations that are happening online will just facilitate dialogue. I think that it’s totally understandable for people to be really upset with me for the impact of my books. I think that’s part of the healing process for all of us is to be able to process those feelings.
I know that there are many people who followed the ideas in my book or not necessarily my book but purity culture and they appreciate what they experience and they weren’t negatively impacted. I just think that instead of writing off other people that had a negative experience, it’s just so important to listen to each other.
I think we have to be able to honor a lot of different stories. The way that I put it is all stories matter. The person that chose to save sex for marriage and was a virgin when they got married and now has a great marriage, that story matters too.
One of the hardest things about the process of doing the documentary and even discontinuing my book is that for a lot of people it felt like I was invalidating their experience. I’ve not wanted to do that but I also had to be honest about my own beliefs and ideas. I felt like there was so much more of a negative impact from my book that it was important to kill it.