Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
In the 1990s and 2000s, American evangelical church culture experienced a shift in its sex education methodology. Known as the purity movement, or purity culture, teachings about sex and dating became inextricably linked to fear and shame. Emerging from this movement in 1997 was a 21-year-old named Joshua Harris. According to Harris, it was not enough to declare a life of abstinence if true holiness were to be achieved. As he declared in his purity manifesto I Kissed Dating Goodbye, one needed to completely renounce dating altogether. The book outlines what a pure life looks like for Christian youth with its many rules and accompanying hypothetical scenarios illustrating these rules as though they were parables of the New Testament. Rather than reiterating the message of his contemporaries that dating was to be done carefully, Harris declares that dating itself is the problem and goes so far as to present relationships as irremovable stains on the individual’s heart. In 2004, Brian Dannelly’s film Saved! portrays the same extreme culture surrounding sexuality and faith through archetypal characters and their varied experiences. Some of the teenagers are on the receiving end of shame, others are participating in cultivating a shame culture.
The film and Harris’s book share a common thread in that both tell stories about the ethics of purity culture by incorporating its power to generate great shame. Sara Ahmed defines shame as a failure to adhere to the ideal behavior in the presence of a witness that is either a real or imaginary other. Within a Christian context, this shame is easy to generate; God is always watching, therefore the imagined (as in, not physically present) other is the most important other, the other that supposedly determined the ideal in the first place. My project aims to answer the following: How did teenagers become so easy to mobilize as warriors in the purity movement? What brought Joshua Harris to write such an extremist text at the young age of 21? How does Saved! offer a different way to participate in the conversation around sexuality, particularly within a movement that eliminates LGBTQ+ people? What role does American identity play in purity culture, from the national sex education curriculum to the inseparable identities of “American” and “Christian”? How does the intensified responsibility placed on young women as opposed to young men enable a violent, patriarchal culture? Finally, has this movement ended, or has it simply found a new method of performance?
Gillis, Kelley M., "Guard Your Heart, “by Force, if Necessary”: Faith, Virginity, and Shame in the Evangelical Purity Movement" (2020). All Theses. 3359.