“We Must Choose Manhood”: Masculinity, Sex, and Authority in Evangelical Purity Manuals

In 2017, author and former youth pastor Joshua Harris launched a Kickstarter campaign for a documentary with an unusual premise: he would travel across the country listening to people tell him how his book ruined their lives. Twenty years earlier, then-21-year-old Harris wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye (1997), an evangelical missive promoting traditional gender roles, courtship with the intention of marriage, and an intense, almost obsessive devotion to sexual purity. The book became immensely popular, arriving as it did at the height of the True Love Waits movement and the accompanying push for abstinence-only sex education programs in many public-school districts. I Kissed Dating Goodbye—and the scores of other similar books promoting sexual purity and a conservative Christian approach to gender and sexuality that it spawned—shaped an entire generation of evangelical Christian teenagers' and young adults' worldviews. These guidebooks promote patriarchal values in updated, "hip" guises, hoping to reproduce conservative evangelical views of gender and sexuality in the next generation. In Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (2020), historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez argues that white American evangelicals from the 1970s onward should be understood primarily as a group united as much by common cultural touchstones and political affiliations as by shared theology. The election of Donald Trump, she avers, is the culmination of evangelicals' embrace of "militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrined patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad."[1] As cultural touchstones, evangelical purity manuals helped to normalize and justify this combination of Christian faith and patriarchal masculinity. An examination of evangelical purity manuals of the late 1990s and early 2000s reveals how these books combined traditional Christian literary techniques such as testimony and parable with popular culture and dominant patriarchal values to reinforce the kind of hegemonic masculinity that made Trump appealing as an icon of conservative Christianity.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/12050
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It feels like this study is like determining the state of one’s health with a slit lamp. Such a laser focus on a religious group smacks of some kind of personal wrangle.

Sexual roles were set before Eden. Men do the heavy lifting and women nurture children - surprise! Of course, the recent social revolution doesn’t actually change anything. Men are not only stronger than women in the traditional sense, but have now usurped womanhood altogether. Women are now not the only ones able to have babies (if convenient), but men who are not able to exhibit optimum male prowess, can now gather metals in sports, sidelining all female competition by getting the proper injection of hormones. Male dominance still wins (in case you thought this was about equity and equality).

Women are not only relegated to the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, they are also removed from a unique female identity. If "Aunt Jemima Pancakes" was an affront to a whole segment of society, so is the grotesque depiction of womanhood by over-sexualized males to genetically identified women. As a lifelong woman, I make no apologies for it, and take objection to having to play second fiddle, again.


Christianity (and all organized religion for that matter), is fertile ground for self-help gurus, charlatans and snake-oil salesmen. They love to pretend to have all the answers and love telling other people how to live their lives.


Glad to see some responses to an article here. So many go under the radar. The whole point of the “sexual purity “ movement has been to deny persons the satisfaction of having a good variety of sexual partners throughout life. It locks people down in outmoded “family” structures and instills unnecessary guilt for following normal mating behaviors. Added to that is the unnecessary guilt imposed on people who have abortions or use other contraceptives.

There is nothing wrong with a bisexual person having more than one partner so all of their needs are met, and similarly heterosexual persons can see their needs met through various forms of other people who are all open to the orgasmic enjoyment they could achieve. Choosing a sexual partner for the evening should be of no more consequence than deciding which restaurant to go to. White persons, particularly those who identify as male, are far more sexually suppressed and restrictive than others.


What a fascinating a well researched article. Thanks to the author and editors for publishing it.

As a non-American I missed the bombshell of Josh Harris kissing good-bye to kissing good-bye to dating. (I read the book decades ago when it was passed to me by a friend, but it didn’t have a lot of resonance as dating wasn’t a big part of my culture.)

But whether or not Harris has developed important insights about encoding patriarchy as doctrine, or has just found another way to market himself to a new audience, morality still matters. As a child of divorced parents (my father was an SDA pastor and marriage counsellor, hence my cynicism about the Harris re-make), I have had to pick up the pieces when morality becomes less important than a mid-life crisis. Now married with teenage children, I am learning how much hard work is required to maintain marriage, even with a loving, understanding wife.

My morality matters to me, to my wife, my children. If I drop that ball, the family that I have built will come crashing down, transferring pain to at least another generation. The purity movement turned morality into a commodity for selling books and reinforcing culture wars, but that superficial treatment doesn’t make morality obsolete.


Not sure why Spectrum thought this was worthy of republishing or exactly what it’s saying. I would agree that women through history have been seen as the weaker sex. But roles in the family and western culture have changed, and women are not subject to gender roles as in the past. I think of EGW who certainly did not follow the gender role of her time.

This analyzing of evangelical books on sexuality from an obvious secular perspective leaves one wondering if they are against morality and view it as old-fashioned. It addresses books written for a single audience. One good thing is the books make males responsible for promiscuity which is refreshing, since women have generally been the scapegoat for indiscretions and left burdened with the guilt. Males have been given the pass for far too long.

Of course, they had to blame Trump and bring their politics into it. That’s a first–Trump presented as promoting evangelical male purity through people writing books about it!


Thank you very much for this condensed illustration of one big issue - this being the “solution” for every postmodern problem - at least in the SDA environment in my country.

A leading theologian here, when I had confronted him with his idea of male / female relationships and the demands of society and environment here : “We educate the girls according to the goals we want to have them as wives” - -

You know : Pale, shy, bowed heads, lowered eyelids, silent, only whispering, intendet shabby outfit, always ready to be the humble servant - -

(Just look for the illustrations in “Salvation& Service”)

Yes, and the command to the boys : “Be a HE- man !”
Yes, and the line to follow : " Love Can Wait" !

    • And the singele mothers in my church, working for their income , educating their children - with some giving an example for a late, painful growth to self management while the husband / father had gone away, out of his family, out of Church - -

And sometimes the degrading ‘damsels in disress’ stereotype is foisted upon these hard working, capable and resourceful women.

Seems to me that there is little biblical model of one man, one woman, till death do us part in the Hebrew scriptures or the New Testament. Sure, elders were admonished to be married to one spouse (intimating that other models existed in society); and not necessessarily that men were designed to be the heavy lifters in relationships while women were to be the nurturers. After all, which of the trinitarian godhead was to be the heavy lifter? Which the nurturer? Surely these became society’s constructs for us who were created in God’s image - and which look very different in the many cultures around the world! Every person can be capable of both heavy lifting and nuture…hmmm, thinking of Jesus here.


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