Rethinking I Kissed Dating Goodbye
Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse and Violence are discussed in this post
When I first began working with teens, both in the library and in the church, Josh Harris wrote a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye. At the time, he was 21 years old and was deeply wrapped up in what is referred to as purity culture. Purity culture is a church movement that suggests that physical intimacy, when taken to the extreme even hand holding and kissing, should be avoided until marriage. It goes so far as to suggest that teens and young adults who engage in physical intimacy become soiled, used goods.
One of the more popular metaphors of this time involved young girls and chewed up gum. A virgin, you see, is like a shiny new stick of gum which you desire. But once she engages in physical intimacy, she is now a chewed up piece of gum, spit out in disgust and left on the ground. No one wants that piece of chewed up gum picked up off of the sidewalk. And yes, this metaphor was used primarily against girls. Men, as you may recall, are hardwired to desire sex and we can’t blame them or hold them accountable for their urges. I hope you read that sentence as dripping with the sarcasm in which it is intended.
In the midst of the #MeToo movement, it’s worth noting that childhood sexual abuse and sexual abuse in general occurs at alarmingly high rates in the evangelical church, and many feel that purity culture are factors in this abuse. The hashtag #ChurchToo was adopted by survivors of sexual abuse in the church to discuss this specific issue. Purity culture, you see, stems in part not just from Christian views of chastity, but from complementarian views on the roles of men and women in the church. When women are viewed as less than and needing to be submissive to men, as the complementarian view holds, it’s easier to justify and look away as they are abused. Though complementarianism is certainly not the only issue involved here because people of all genders and all sexual orientations are abused at alarmingly high rates in churches all over the world. Authoritarianism, power structures and an unwillingness to talk openly and frankly about sex, sexual education and sexual violence are also contributors to this issue.
“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.” Source: https://relevantmagazine.com/god/faith/josh-harris-is-kissing-i-kissed-dating-goodbye-goodbye/
Over the years, Josh Harris has begun to rethink his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In fact, he has recently asked his publisher to stop publishing new copies of the book and has worked with some others to produce a documentary on his book and how he came to understand that it was harmful. You can read his current statement on I Kissed Dating Goodbye here.
Today as I was driving into work, I listened to a story on NPR about this book. At the time of this book’s release, I was uncomfortable with the book’s message. I began working in public libraries at the age of 20 and as a survivor of sexual abuse and a recent teen myself, I found the book to be unrealistic. I began hearing people speak out in earnest against this book perhaps three or four years ago, with many of those speaking out against it talking about how the message had destroyed their self-esteem, had made them vulnerable to sexual abuse, and how it had caused them so much guilt and confusion about their own feelings at a formative time that it affected the ways they bonded and formed intimate relationships.
It’s been roughly 21 years since I Kissed Dating Goodbye was first published and we have a generation of people sharing with us now how much this book hurt them in their formative years. It’s a stark reminder of the power of books, both for good and for ill, to shape and influence our teens and young adults. The truth is, now just as we did then, if this book came out today we (YA librarians) would probably buy and add this book to our collection as long as there were not reviews stating that it was harmful or medically inaccurate. The other truth is that books about religious belief and teachings often get a pass that scientific writings do not. I say this as a Christian with a degree in youth ministry as well as a librarian, but a lot of people hide behind religion to espouse harmful beliefs and it is hard to question or challenge them because freedom of religion and that which we hold sacred and all of that. Faith and spirituality is a complicated realm and looking at the journey of the history of this book highlights the many complicated issues that we traverse as we try and provide access, respect beliefs, nurture our adolescents, and analyze quality, authority and bias in religious publications. It is not an easy issue for librarians to grapple with.
As I have followed this story over the last couple of years, I have thought often of the times a teen came in and asked for this book and I handed it to them. Was I complicit in their harm? What are the roles and limitations of librarianship as we come to learn that a book like this has been actively implicated in doing harm to the very people we are working so hard to serve? I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about this book and libraries, not a lot of reflections or reactions to this call to cease publication of it, perhaps in part because it’s old enough that most libraries no longer have it on their shelves. Though that may be the case, I think that the life cycle of I Kissed Dating Goodbye is a good case study for us to look at and consider. The journey of this book and the push back against it reminds us that putting a book in the hands of a teen can have lifelong implications, and they aren’t always positive.
Whatever we can learn from this story, please re-consider holding this book in your library collections. If the author no longer stands by this book, should we?
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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