In the 1990s, a “purity industry” emerged out of white evangelical Christian culture. Purity rings, purity pledges, and purity balls came with a dangerous message: girls are potential sexual “stumbling blocks” for boys and men, and any expression of a girl’s sexuality could reflect the corruption of her character. This is the “sex education” Linda Kay Klein grew up with. After she nearly died by ignoring her worsening Crohn’s disease in an attempt to prove she was a woman of the spirit and not of the flesh, she began to question the purity ethic. Ultimately, Klein spent twelve years interviewing women from backgrounds like hers, revealing widespread sexual dysfunction, bizarre coping mechanisms, and PTSD-like symptoms. Here is a sample:
“Jesus has never been more real, present, and personal,” Katie told me, her hand wrapped around a watered-down White Russian at a local dive bar in our hometown. Her voice was steady and sure. She leaned over the small table and added in a near whisper, “I’ve never had a lover so good.”
I cocked my head. I was pretty sure that Katie, who I had known since youth group, had never had a lover of any kind—good or not. But tonight, Katie looked and sounded sexier than I had ever seen her. We’d been friends a long time and I rarely saw Katie in anything but a boxy blue postal service uniform or baggy jeans and an oversized T-shirt. Now her voluptuous body was barely hidden behind a lacy black camisole and tight black jeans. She had curled her long dark hair into ringlets and done her makeup immaculately, tracing her eyes with black liner. It was like seeing Olivia Newton-John in the last scene of Grease, the one where she leaves her poodle skirt at home, walks into the carnival in black spandex and grinds her cigarette out with the toe of her shoe, making John Travolta drop to his knees and sing.
“Why are you smiling like that?” she asked.
“I don’t know, Katie,” I said. “You’re on fire tonight.”
It was the mid-2000s. An era when some single Christian women, having been too long told their life purpose could only be fulfilled in partnership with a man, took to saying: I’ve got a man, thank you. His name is Jesus. These women may have been virginal in the material world, but their dates with Jesus could be hot-hot-hot, and they could be hot too so long as he was around.
Despite the fact that Jesus was himself a thirty-something-year-old single man, prolonged singleness is frowned upon in evangelical purity culture. Author Joshua Harris sums the attitude up in his book Sex Is Not the Problem (Lust Is), writing:
Here’s my advice: Get married. Unless God has removed your desire for sex and has given you a clear vision to serve Him as a single person, then assume that you’re supposed to get married and either make yourself ready or begin pursuing it… . We’re not just called to guard the marriage bed; I think more Christian singles should be running toward it!i
When single evangelicals were asked by Claire Evans at London School of Theologyii, “Do you think Christians view singleness as being equal or inferior to marriage?” 75 percent of the men said Christians view singleness as inferior. That seems like a big number! Until you hear that 98 percent of the women feel this wayiii. Even within this pro-marriage context, men can get away with being single well into their adulthood (some even jokingly calling themselves “Bachelors to the Rapture”) in a way that women rarely feel is permitted.
When researcher Dr. Kristin Aune asked, “What are the main issues facing single Christian women today?” the most common answer single evangelical women in the United Kingdom gave was “the church’s attitude towards single women.”iv The second most common answer was “men, sex, and dating.” Many women supplemented their answers by saying they felt that the church pressured them to get married. Several said they felt that they were viewed as a threat to married people in the subculture. One even said it can be difficult to know how to “function” in the subculture “without the leadership and ‘covering’ of a husband.”v
Generally speaking, married people between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five are more likely to attend church than those who are not married,vi and the gap between the two populations is widening with time.vii Though the same percentage of married people who were attending church between 1972 and 1976 were also attending church between 1998 and 2002, the number of single people dropped significantly.viii There are surely multiple reasons for this, but I don’t think it is a leap to assume the church’s negative attitude toward single people is one of them.
Meanwhile, purity culture does not permit women to solve their singleness by taking matters into their own hands and going out and getting a man (and certainly not going out and getting any other kind of romantic partner). A “pure” woman must wait patiently for God to bring the right man to her. All she can do is prepare herself. Say, work through any sin that might be preventing God from bringing the gift of a relationship to her.
Many purity advocates teach that women aren’t very sexual, and so don’t need a way to vent their repressed sexual energy in their single years. But that’s not what I hear in my interviews. Dating Jesus was just one of many work-arounds I heard about from women who wanted to remain pure but couldn’t deaden their sexual, romantic, and relational impulses.
One woman went on a yearlong “fast” during which she starved herself of romantic and sexual thoughts the way one might starve oneself of food during a traditional fast. Every date was turned down; every desire was shut down; and every insecure “Does this guy like me?” was caught, stopped, and replaced with prayer, meditation, and reading the Bible.
Another woman made celibacy sexy. Every time she wanted to have sex, she went out salsa dancing instead. She came home feeling sweaty, alive, uninhibited, and unafraid of her sexuality in a way that made her feel closer to herself, to the world around her, and to God.
The same year I spoke with Katie about her experience with dating Jesus, Agnieszka Tennant, columnist and former associate editor and editor at large for Christianity Today, wrote about the work-around:
In a popular book, I learn of women who set up date nights with Jesus. Christie enjoys her Friday nights by going to Barnes & Noble “to drink coffee with the Lord and to read whatever book from the Christian living section he guides me to” or by cooking a wonderful meal and setting the table for two, then “talking to God as if he is actually sitting there at my table with me, because I know that he is.” …
My friend’s mother took part in a “tea with the Lord,” during which she and the other women wore their wedding gowns—those, at least, who managed to squeeze into them—and fancied themselves as brides of Christ. An influential Kansas City church teaches thousands of people the so-called Bridal Paradigm, which encourages a quasi-romantic relationship with Christ. And who among us hasn’t detected an eerie resemblance between a contemporary Christian song and a pop diva’s breathy rendition of a sensual love ballad? …
I don’t question the devotion of anyone who says she loves Christ intensely, whatever language she uses to express it. But I have little patience for taking biblical metaphors too far and giving one’s relationship with God an air of irreverent chumminess. Somehow, the scenario in which “his princess” shaves her legs for a date with Jesus seems to leave little room for fear of God.ix
The first time I read Tennant’s article, I laughed with recognition at her reference to the sappy romanticism of modern Christian music, and uh huh’ed her dismissal of dating Jesus. But the more I listened to Katie and others talk, the less I laughed. Because I began to notice—when my friends were dating Jesus, they were awesome: strong, confident, and doing right by themselves in ways that I’d never seen them do before.
I looked across the table at Katie and smiled.
“I’ve never seen you this confident,” I told her.
“Well, the guys I dated before make God look good,” Katie answered, her winking face lit up by the multicolored lights hanging above us in the bar. “Anyway, for me sex is all in my mind. I’m a twenty-six-year-old virgin. I had my first boyfriend, Joe, a few months ago, and he was my first kiss.
“But God is giving me my dreams gift-wrapped with a chocolate on top. Jesus is saying: ‘By the way, I love you. Put on your dress because I’m taking you out and the limo will pick you up at seven. And the flowers are for you. And I put $50 on your dresser. Hugs and kisses.’ I feel like a honeymooning bride oozing love for God. You know how when you love someone, you want everyone to meet him? That’s how I feel.”
“What are the dreams he’s giving you gift-wrapped with a chocolate on top?” I asked, reading her words back to her.
“Science!” Katie exclaimed as though I should have known. “I first started thinking about myself as dating Jesus right after my breakup with Joe. A guy sitting next to me at a coffee shop was filling out applications for college and it made me think about applying to colleges and trying to get scholarships myself. I thought, ‘I’m talented; I’m creative. Why am I working some dead-end job?’ I wasn’t calling out to God. But I just felt like God was there. Now I’m a science major. I was scared out of my mind to do it, but I feel like everything is making sense.”
“So,” I began, trying to connect everything Katie just said, “Your relationship with Jesus gave you the strength to change your life.”
“Right,” Katie answered definitively.
I cocked my head. “He doesn’t sound like a bad boyfriend, actually.”
In some ways, the modern-day evangelical trend of dating Jesus can be compared to the historic Catholic trend in which women joined convents to avoid gender expectations. Dating Jesus allowed Katie to move on with her life within a context that insisted that, after serving God, her top priority ought to be getting married. Another woman told me she often thought back longingly to the year in which she dated Jesus, though she now had a great earthly partner. She told me she was closer to God while dating Jesus than in any other period of her life but that she was also more independent. Women dating Jesus asked themselves what the ideal boyfriend (which Jesus would obviously be) would want for them. And the ideal boyfriend would want them to thrive. So they gave themselves permission to pursue science, $50 to take themselves out for the evening, and whatever else they needed.
Though the dating Jesus trend has waned in popularity, the idea of taking one’s frustrated sexual, romantic, and relational energy and turning it into something more useful—like the pursuit of spiritual endeavors—remains popular. I have personally taken plenty of conscious dating breaks during which my life looked a lot like these women’s: I journaled; I prayed; I meditated; I went on spiritual retreats with God; and I held my sexuality close. I would be the first to say that celibacy served me well in these seasons, and that I came away better emotionally and spiritually as a result of it. But as time passes and one season turns into two, then three, then four, and perhaps a lifetime, its sweetness can begin to sour.
Ten years after Katie told me about dating Jesus at the bar that night, she was still single. I sat down with a just-as-attractive, but much more casually dressed Katie at her kitchen table to talk about it. Now a science researcher, I asked Katie if she remembered telling me about dating Jesus and the role it played in her choice to pursue science in her midtwenties. She said she didn’t. She remembered dating Jesus at other points in her life, but not this one. By then, Katie had tried so many different ways to make her singleness bearable that the experience wasn’t even worth remembering.
The buzzer rang on the oven and Katie stood up.
“Should we check it and see if it’s ready to eat?” she asked as she opened the oven door and pulled out a chicken dish heaped with seasoned cheese and cream of mushroom soup.
“Ready!” she announced to me as she surveyed the dish. “Ready Freddy!”
As we ate, she told me that she had approached several different religious leaders over the years about how to balance her desire to be a good Christian woman with her need for sexual expression.
“They didn’t seem to understand what I was going through or how to help me, and there weren’t books about that,” she said. “There were books about how to dress modestly or, I don’t know, books on ‘okay, once you are getting married, here’s what sex is and how to enjoy it with your husband.’ But I was like, ‘Just give me the man. I know how to enjoy it,’” she laughed.
In fact, enjoying it was Katie’s biggest problem.
No matter how hard she tried, Katie couldn’t stop her sexual feelings, her sexual thoughts, and, most upsetting of all, her sexual expression through masturbation. She set her fork down and looked at me seriously. “I began to feel like, ‘This is probably something terrible in me and I’m just—” she struggled for words. “I must be the only terrible, black-hearted, black-minded person. I must be weird; I’m a freak of nature; I must be a man.’” Katie was tripping over the purity culture stumbling block that tells girls they are to blame for their inability to meet a set of nearly unattainable standards, not the standards themselves. Katie even questioned whether she had been sexually abused or inappropriately exposed to sexual content as a child and had repressed the memory, as she couldn’t think of any other reason why her sexual feelings wouldn’t go away, as the purity movement demanded they must.
“I couldn’t understand why I, as a girl, would desire sex so much when, supposedly, girls don’t struggle with that. You know,” Katie gestured to me, “in the evangelical world, sex is the deepest, darkest sin for a woman. There’s an expectation that sex—or, anything to do with sex, so masturbation included—is only to be enjoyed within the context of marriage.
“But like eating or breathing or needing sleep, masturbation feels more like a need than a want,” Katie said, forgetting her chicken. “There is no sexual outlet for me so I obsess over it. What is my outlet? What is a ‘pure’ outlet? I constantly talk to God about it: ‘God, you made my body this way. What’s up?’
“There are times after I masturbate when I’m like, ‘Oh well. It’s just part of life and it’s that time again and whatever,’” Katie continued. “Then other times I feel bad and I beat myself up. I think, ‘I should be able to choose, but it just feels like I can’t. It must be a slavery to sin that I’m just not holy enough to overcome. It must be a lack of faith in me that I can’t overcome this.’ Guilt is a familiar friend to me. I beat myself up about everything, so that’s just standard. I feel more comfortable with guilt than with pleasure or happiness. It seems like a natural state of being to me.”
“When are you more likely to feel one way or the other?” I asked.
“Well, it can go to a lustful place, or it can kind of be somewhat clinical. Depending on how I approach it, I think I can feel more or less shameful.”
“What’s the difference between clinical and lustful masturbation?” I asked.
“Well, I’ve noticed as I get older how attached it is to certain times of the month, to hormones—”
I made a really? face.
“Oh my gosh yes!” Katie insisted. “It’s just—it just is. I just don’t need it most of the time. Then right before my period or right around ovulation, those are the times when it’s almost like a physical need. My body’s like, ‘Go make peace.’ And I say, ‘Okay, it is now this time of the month. It’s time to masturbate in the shower, where it’s clean and I will not think about any particular man. This is just all physical touching and whatever.’ Trying to keep it separate from that enjoyment you get when you are with somebody and the excitement of being with somebody.” I nodded, remembering interviewees who told me about thinking about their laundry or trying to go into a Zen place of nothingness while masturbating so they wouldn’t feel as much shame about it afterward.
“It’s like, ‘this is a procedure,’” Katie continued. “‘This is a procedure, and we are going to try to separate it from anything dark and horrible.’”
“What do you mean by dark and horrible?” I asked her.
“Fantasizing about somebody that I find attractive or somebody that I’ve been in intimate situations with before, and just recalling those feelings of being with them. Or imagining somebody touching me or saying things to me that I want to hear that make me excited. It’s complicated,” Katie summed it up. “I think masturbation is a comfort thing. The pleasure, the happy endorphins. It’s a way for me—if I’m feeling super tired or super insecure—you get the good feelings and you feel better or relaxed, or whatever.”
“It’s a form of self-care,” I suggested.
“But then there’s the loathing that comes afterward. The fantasy helps you to get excited, and that gives you that physical reaction of happy endorphins, but then comes the self-loathing.”
“When you describe the clinical masturbation, it almost sounds like you are trying to avoid shame by stripping sexuality of pleasure.”
“Yes. Totally, yes,” she agreed. “I think that it’s hard to separate what may truly be …” Katie trailed off. “I do believe in sin,” she began again. “And I do believe in a sin nature. But to what extent is true joy and pleasure robbed of me because I’m calling it sin when maybe … it’s not?” She shrugged, picked her fork back up, and took a bite out of her now cold chicken.
Copyright © 2018 by Linda Kay Klein. From the forthcoming book PURE: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein to be published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission.
- Joshua Harris, Sex Is Not the Problem (Lust Is): Sexual Purity in a Lust-Saturated World (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2003), 111–112.
- Formerly known as London Bible College.
- Kristin Aune, Single Women: Challenge to the Church? (Carlisle; Waynesboro, PA: Paternoster Press, 2002), 19.
- Aune, Single Women, 23.
- Aune, Single Women, 24–25.
- Right now, around 80 percent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine are single, and nearly half of adults under the age of thirty-four have never married. Between people getting married later in life, and the increasing rate of divorce, the connection between marriage and church attendance (and singleness and not attending church) provides an important insight into the rising number of people who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated.
- Rebecca Traister, “The Single American Woman,” New York Magazine, February 2016.
- Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton, NJ; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007), 55.
- When giving me permission to cite this article in late 2017, the author asked that I inform my readers that she has not been a Christian for a decade.