LINDA KAY KLEIN: We are the legacy of the purity movement, the people who grew up in it, who grapple with its impacts every day.
NARRATION: As a Christian teenager growing up in the Midwest in the 1990s, Linda Kay Klein got swept up in the emerging purity movement, which advocated strict sexual abstinence until marriage.
LINDA KAY KLEIN: It had, in fact, started right around the time that I joined my youth group as a 7th grader. This movement saturated the lives of Evangelicals, but that was really just the beginning. It entered into public schools, it entered into grass roots organizations.
SPEAKER AT CHURCH: Sex is a great thing within marriage…
LINDA KAY KLEIN: Our country started to shift the way that we talked about sexuality. The purity movement introduced a purity industry, with purity rings and purity pledges and purity balls.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 3-6-07):
NEWS REPORT: A new ritual aimed at encouraging girls and young women to abstain from sex until marriage.
ARCHIVAL (FOX NEWS, 5-2-11):
MILEY CYRUS: I am living my life the way I think it should be lived, and that’s staying pure.
ARCHIVAL (MSN, 3-29-07):
THE JONAS BROTHERS: They’re actually purity rings and they’re promises to ourself and God that we’ll stay pure until marriage.
NARRATION: But before purity made its way into pop culture, evangelical Christian teens like Joshua Harris often found themselves at odds with the world they were living in.
JOSHUA HARRIS: You had the culture pushing the envelope in different ways when it came to, to sex. Like, my generation growing up. Like, MTV for Christians was like, oh my gosh, you know? All these, all these terrible things that are happening in these music videos and so-on. So, there’s a reaction in the, in the Christian culture to that.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 9-29-93):
KATIE COURIC: The campaign is called True Love Waits, and it’s sponsored by the Baptist Sunday School Board.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 5-10-94):
REBECCA CHASE: Thousands of teenagers are vowing to be something that most teens are not – virgins until they are married.
TEENAGER: I make a commitment to God, to those I date…
NARRATION: At the time, fear over the spread of AIDS only bolstered the argument for abstinence, above all else.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 5-10-94):
ANDY (AGE 19): Stacie and I don’t have to worry about STD’s or contracting AIDS or having an unwanted pregnancy.
JOSHUA HARRIS: You kind of have this sense of, I’m going to choose the more difficult path and do the right thing and God is happier with me because of that. It’s, kind of, like the Christian form of veganism or whatever. You know? It’s like I’m special. I’m doing something different than everybody else.
NARRATION: By the time he was a teenager, Harris was becoming a leader among his peers.
JOSHUA HARRIS: I remember going out to Washington, D.C. and there was a huge Christian concert/festival that was taking place. And they placed all of these promise cards on the mall.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 1994):
NEWS REPORT: Teenagers signed cards pledging their virginity and planted 200,000 of the cards creating a field of Abstinence.
GIRLS: Wooh! Wait till you get married!
NARRATION: Rallies promoting purity were held across the us, and Klein, who became enthralled with evangelicalism growing up, still remembers the fervor of one she attended.
LINDA KAY KLEIN: We were all, like, this is the biggest, best concert we’ve ever been to. And then there was a motivational speaker who spoke about purity and how important purity was. And in the midst of that with tears rolling down people’s faces, they handed out these contracts. I promise that I will save my purity for my partner, I will not have sex before marriage. I’m making this commitment today and I will hold to it, you know, for the rest of my life. As a young person I was confused and wanted so badly to be good and wanted so badly to please God and to be acceptable in my community. With my leaders looking over my shoulder and moreover, my peers sitting right next to me signing their contracts. I signed the pledge.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 1994):
SPEAKER AT A RALLY: I want to know, how many virgins do we have out there?
JOSHUA HARRIS: When I embraced my faith I wanted to figure out, what did it mean to be a Christian and relate to the opposite sex, to think about sexuality.
NARRATION: Harris, who had come close to having sex at 17, doubled down on his resolve afterwards.
JOSHUA HARRIS: I ended up becoming, really, a spokesperson for these more radical ideas of saying, we should not only, you know, save sex for marriage but we should do dating differently. We should reject dating because it’s leading us towards compromise.
JOSHUA HARRIS: Do you see the problem with so many of our dating relationships today? Instead of guarding the sacredness of sexual intimacy, we’re stealing from it.
JOSHUA HARRIS: If you’re an alcoholic, don’t go into a bar. You know? It was like, if you don’t want to have sex, then don’t get into these, sort of, short-term romantic relationships where there’s an expectation to become intimate.
NARRATION: Harris’s book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, went on to sell over a million copies. And as he and others pushed for purity, another more insidious message took root.
JOSHUA HARRIS: Well ladies I believe you also have a unique opportunity to protect of your brothers in the Lord. What I think you are probably not aware of, is how difficult it is for a guy to look at a girl with purity in his heart when she is dressed immodestly. You have no idea how difficult it is. You have no idea.
LINDA KAY KLEIN: I remember feeling like I was a threat. And I remember feeling like I was a bad person. My sexuality was dangerous. It was something to be feared. The narrative that we’ve internalized is that pure girls and women protect us all. They ensure by their proper covering up, by their not taking up too much space, whatever it is, that none of us are going to have sexual thoughts and feelings.
NARRATION: Klein had left evangelicalism by the time she was 21, but she continued to struggle for years afterward.
LINDA KAY KLEIN: When I would have any sexual experience with my boyfriend, I would find myself in tears and in a ball in the corner of a bed crying. My eczema coming out, which it does when I’m stressed, and scratching myself until I bled – and having a deep shame reaction. I could actually be this close to doing something that, if they were right, if the purity movement was right, would make me worthless.
NARRATION: Klein began reaching out to friends from home, and then, over the next 15 years, to other people around the country, collecting their stories about growing up in the purity movement. She published a book on the topic in 2018, and up until the pandemic hit, kept hearing new stories all the time from people she met at her book events.
PAMELA (AT A BOOK EVENT): This all feels really new to me like it wasn’t until a few months ago that my therapist brought up the concept of purity culture to me and I didn’t even know what that was. But I realized I was raised in it and that led me to finding your book. And when I read it I kind of cried through the whole thing because it now makes so much sense why I have this trauma that I carry and why it’s not going away.
LINDA KAY KLEIN: They had word for word been taught the same things that we were taught, and were experiencing it in their bodies, in the same ways that we are experiencing it. Once that happened not three times, not four times, but 30 times, 40 times I started to be like okay, this is obviously much bigger than me. This is obviously much bigger than my youth group. This is much bigger than my state.
NARRATION: During Klein’s conversations, one name kept coming up: Joshua Harris. Harris had gone on to become a pastor, but in recent years, was starting to question his leadership role – and quit in 2015 to enroll in graduate school for theology. Soon, he was also beginning to reexamine the messages of his book.
JOSHUA HARRIS: It was something that had given me a sense of success and personal identity and so, to question that felt like I was kind of unraveling myself, honestly. I remember one key moment that, kind of, tipped this into the public sphere was that a woman on Twitter wrote, ‘your book was used against me like a weapon.’ And I responded to her saying I’m so sorry.
LINDA KAY KLEIN: Whoa. That changed everything, right? All of a sudden, people were, like, “What did you say? Did you say you were sorry for something?” So now, we had this huge slew of people who were Tweeting, “I was hurt by this, I was hurt by this, I was hurt by this, I was hurt by this.” You have all these different conversations going on, and they are really about people coming together and healing in a collective experience.
NARRATION: Harris, meanwhile, decided to engage with his critics in person, and made a film about the process.
JOSHUA HARRIS: I’ve looked into the eyes of people who’ve said, “This created fear in me. This created intense shame and guilt for me and your book was, kind of, in my head and shaped, you know, the way that I viewed myself.”
NARRATION: Harris, who pulled his book from publication, faced some criticism that the film didn’t go far enough. He’s since issued more apologies.
In 2019, he announced his separation from his wife, and that he no longer considers himself a Christain.
JOSHUA HARRIS: The process of unpublishing my books is a pretty big statement of regret for me. It doesn’t make up for, or fix the past hurt but I want to try to take responsibility for that.
NARRATION: Klein, has continued coaching others as they work through their own experiences.
MEGHAN (AT BOOK EVENT): I like held hands with a boy when I was 14 and cried like you know I felt really impure.
LINDA KAY KLEIN: The unintended consequences is what we’re really dealing with today.
PAMELA (AT BOOK EVENT): I didn’t know why I was physically shaking, why I would burst into tears, why I would cower in the corner. Why all these things were happening.
LINDA KAY KLEIN: Some things that we put out there don’t work, but they don’t do damage either. This is something that didn’t work and that has caused a tremendous amount of damage.
LINDA KAY KLEIN (AT BOOK EVENT): It’s not about taking big steps it’s about taking these little steps. Teach your brain to function differently by, like, trying to do just enough where you’re not triggering a huge shame response that reiterates that old neuropathway. Is that helpful?
PAMELA (AT BOOK EVENT): It is.
LINDA KAY KLEIN: I think that change is going to happen when we have people on the ground, coming into voice with one another, and telling their truths to one another. We’ll all continue to learn. And that’s the real work.