If you were a conservative Christian in the 1990s and early 2000s, chances are you owned a copy of the bestselling “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” by Joshua Harris. Harris was a celebrity within the homeschool community: a homeschool graduate, son of a prominent homeschool advocate, and the editor of a magazine for homeschoolers.
Harris’s influence expanded thanks to that book, his first. He spoke at conferences, gave radio and television interviews, and proselytized about the problems of dating and the benefits of courtship, cementing his reputation as a relationships expert.
A lot has changed since his meteoric rise. Over the last 20 years, Harris has moved away from home, gotten married, had kids, and, finally, enrolled in a formal school setting. Now he is ready to reassess his advice.
In an interview with NPR this July, Harris explains that a wake of personal testimonies about his books has caused him to reevaluate his argument and its influence. His Twitter feed includes several apologies to those wronged by his teachings. Some men and women have publicly shared their negative experiences with “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Some failed relationships even made The New York Times. Harris has invited other readers to share their stories through his website as he rereads his books and reconsiders his arguments.
Harris articulates his theory of dating and courtship in three resources: the initial article for New Attitude, “Dating Problems, Courtship Solutions,” “I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A New Attitude Toward Relationships and Romance,” and the sequel, “Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship.” Harris insists his books are not a formula for the perfect relationship, but this claim amounts to empty hedging against the charge of legalism. Harris’s writings provides a robust framework for why dating is the problem and courtship the solution.
His analysis and advice, however, has been more harmful than helpful. Harris fails to understand the relationship culture he critiques. His solutions, moreover, affirmed or exacerbated the dysfunction of our romantic culture.
The Harris Framework: Defective Dating, Effective Courtship
Harris’s central critique is against dating. By dating, he seems to refer to both 1) a mutual appointment between a guy and girl (e.g., seeing a movie or getting drinks, coffee, or dinner) which may or may not be part of an exclusive relationship and 2) an exclusive relationship between a boyfriend and girlfriend who spend lots of time together privately. Dating is the “product of our entertainment-driven, disposable-everything American culture,” Harris explains in “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Dating, at its core, promotes the wrong attitude and wrong approach to relationships.
In dating, Harris argues, a man and woman spend exclusive time together. The couple may think time alone allows them to get to know each other, but actually they only gain a false sense of knowledge. In reality, dating is an artificial environment—a break from real life and away from real relationships.
Moreover, dating isolates the couple from life’s most important relationships: family, friends, and church. Couples become emotionally intertwined and, soon thereafter, physically involved. The crux of Harris’s critique: Dating leads to broken hearts, even if the couple never had sex or even kissed: each surrendered a piece of his or her heart that he or she can never get back.
It would be easy to dismiss Harris’s fretting as merely advice that preteens, teenagers, or immature people should avoid dating until they mature. But his writings do not support this interpretation. Harris emphasizes that the problem of dating is not solved by “dating right.” In “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” Harris reiterates that dating itself is “an approach to relationships that wants to go in a different direction than the one God has for us.” Nor can Christians redeem the process: “the boyfriend/girlfriend exclusiveness of the dating system is based on a self-seeking, pleasure-seeking attitude toward relationships,” Harris warns in “Dating Problems.” Far from trying to rescue dating from our human selfishness, Harris advocates courtship as promoting the right attitude and approach to relationships.
In Harris’s view, the arc of a godly romantic relationship progresses from friendship, to courtship, then engagement, and, finally, marriage. He touches briefly on friendship, only because it is the prelude to courtship. The basis of friendship is “mutual interest” and a desire to enjoy those commonalities together. Friends participate in “activities that pull you both into each other’s world of family, friends, and work, as well as areas of services and ministry,” Harris explains in “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Friendship is the avenue to evaluate each other objectively—to gain “an unbiased view of each others’ true nature.”
To be sure, Harris is not channeling Aristotle’s understanding of true friendship: For Aristotle, highest type of friendship moves beyond common interests or shared goals and is based on mutual love for one another as virtuous individuals. For Harris, friendship sublimates strong feelings for one another, for such feelings should be reserved for marriage.
Courtship Versus Friendship
Courtship grows out of friendship. According to Harris’s typology, courtship begins with a clear intention—considering one another for marriage. In contrast to friendship, courting couples spend time together for a “purpose beyond mere recreation.” While there are some one-on-one conversations (such as confessing past sexual sins), the church community and each other’s families guide and oversee the relationship.
A couple left to themselves becomes blinded by feelings. Church and family are the “real life settings” where “we’re much more likely to see who a person really is.” “Though courtship has a serious intent,” Harris writes in “Boy Meets Girl,” “it can be low-pressure and casual when it begins.” (This characterization is unpersuasive considering how involved families and the church community are in the courtship process.)
Fathers in particular have a deep role in courtship in Harris’s framework. Fathers protect their daughters. When a man wants to pursue a woman in courtship, he should first ask her father for permission to court. Indeed, the woman may be the last person to know of a man’s interest.
By seeking her father’s permission to court, a man honors his role and elicits his wisdom. Fathers have the ability to end relationship before it begins. They can also direct their children to break up. In these cases, Harris advises men “don’t undermine his leadership—honor it even if it means waiting longer or doing things differently than you had planned.”
Families also provide oversight thought the courtship. One family wrote guidelines for their daughter’s courtship, and held the couple accountable to them. Another father saw his daughter’s waning interest in a man, and told his daughter’s suitor that he needed to show more affection. Harris praises these actions as models of oversight and guidance in courtship.
Some may be tempted to dismiss Harris as another manifestation of unfettered patriarchy. In “Boy Meets Girl,” Harris denounces abusive and manipulative fathers as “unbiblical.” He genuinely sees fathers as loving, wise, and earnestly wanting the best for their children. Think about it charitably: if one would ask dad for help with homework, selecting colleges, or getting a job, then why wouldn’t one seek advice in romantic relationships?
The community also plays an important role, according to Harris, functioning as a surrogate parent. If a woman lacks a good Christian father or lives away from home, mentors from the church community screen interested suitors and extend permission to prospective gentlemen. Most importantly, the community assists the family in ensuring the couple remains pure.
Purity as Both Sexual and Emotional
For Harris, purity is sexual and emotional, and he has broad understandings of both. Sexual impurity includes, but is not limited to: sexual thoughts, kissing, touching, caressing, and intercourse prior to marriage. All physical affection is interrelated and inherently sexual: “once you start kissing, you want to move on” and “when a man and woman’s lips meet, and their tongues penetrate each other’s mouths, the process of becoming one has begun.”
Emotional impurity is likewise broad: for instance, having a crush, having romantic thoughts about a particular person, longing for a person, falling in love, or saying, “I love you” to someone who does not become your spouse. Emotional purity is as important as sexual purity, because if a courtship does not end in marriage, the couple will be able to part ways without hurt feelings or lingering attachment. Failures in either sexual or emotional purity are equivalent to giving away a piece of one’s heart.
The community enforces sexual and emotional purity through regular check-ins. Harris encourages couples to create guidelines of permitted and impermissible physical affection and have community members hold them to it. Harris and his future wife created a list of rules and asked his parents, their pastor, several close friends, and roommates to enforce them. Emotional purity involves channeling emotions away from one another. Instead of starting a relationship on the flutter of first love, one consults the pastor and church mentors. If a relationship is moving too fast, a friend will call for a chat.
Courtships last long enough to assess each other’s character for marriage. Harris suggests that most of the time the couple weds. But, in some cases, the couple part ways with hearts fully intact.
Harris’s framework for relationships fails, not simply because it is patriarchal or prudish, but because it does not address actual relationship mores. Our modern sexual landscape is riddled with problems. College campuses have a toxic sexual climate. Getting married feels like playing divorce roulette. Young men and women are petrified of marriage, and have difficulty navigating their way to the altar.
Harris sought to change the relationship culture by exposing the problems of dating and offering a new approach to relationships. Harris’s myopic criticism of dating causes him to miss one of the defining features of the modern sexual ethic: hooking up.
Missing Out on Hooking Up
Hookup culture has increasingly become the dominant sexual landscape for young men and women. Hookups are brief sexual encounters between people who lack significant emotional or long-term connection. Not simply premarital sex, hookups are non-marital and even non-relational. The participants are not in a relationship together, nor have any commitment beyond the encounter.
Writing contemporaneous to Harris, Wendy Shalit identified the hookup culture as the hallmark of postmodern sexual ethic. While not every young person hooks up, the hookup culture permeates the sexual practices of teenagers and beyond. Men and women alike accept the hookup culture—even those who dislike it.
Advocates of hooking up praise its sexual freedom. They recognize hooking up as an alternative to dating or to serious relationships. Hanna Rosin defends hooking up in her article “Boys on the Side” and later in her book “The End of Men” as integral to feminist progress. Women find hooking up empowering, she says: shame-free, sexual adventure without losing focus on grades, school, and career. As Rosin summarizes, “Today’s college girl likens a serious suitor to an unintended pregnancy the nineteenth century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it thwart a promising future.”
Critics, like Donna Freitas, lament the emotional distance necessary for hooking up. “Emotional entanglement,” Freitas writes in “The End of Sex,” is “verboten, against the very nature of a hookup.” A successful hookup therefore involves “shutting down any communication or connection that might lead to emotional attachment.” Hooking up requires guarding your heart so as to leave every encounter “emotionally unscathed.”
The emotional distance of hooking up has left students ill-equipped to date, Freitas explains. They have no framework for how to ask anyone out, how to have a deep interpersonal conversation, or even how to spend time with the opposite sex without copious amounts of alcohol to relieve the tension. Hooking up has altered relationship formation. “When you encounter college couples today,” Freitas writes, “chances are that they got into their committed relationship through a serial hook up.” Therefore, they had sex “before they ever went on a date or had a serious conversation with about their feelings with each other.”
Harris, however, doesn’t understand the hookup culture, its advocates, critics, or implications for relationships. In “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Harris equates dating with hooking up because neither is explicitly oriented toward the commitment of marriage. Hooking up is sexual intimacy without commitment; dating, emotional intimacy without commitment. Accordingly, for Harris, dating is a sanitized hookup.
Yet his analysis fails to understand that there’s nothing intimate (other than the sex) about hooking up. Emotional detachment is the defining feature of hooking up: encounters are brief to maximize sexual pleasure and minimize interpersonal interaction. Dating isn’t a sanitized form of hooking up; it is the antithesis. Instead of exploring the significance of hooking up, Harris twists the phenomenon to further denigrate dating.
The Odd Commonalities Between Hooking Up and Courting
If Harris explored hooking up more, however, he may not have become such an ardent defender of courtship. Courtship and hooking up share common premises about sex, relationships, and how young people should spend their single years.
Suggesting a similarity between hooking up and courtship will likely offend advocates of both, who like to view themselves as opposing teams, mostly because one side restricts sex to marriage. Yet hooking up and courtship agree on three key elements: they define sex as chiefly an avenue for pleasure, prize emotional detachment, and see relationships as hampering individual self-actualization.
Defenders of hooking up praise it as fun, satisfying, adventuresome, and above all pleasurable. The pursuit of pleasure makes all physical acts equally laudable. Kissing, oral sex, intercourse—whatever brings you and your partner pleasure—is praiseworthy. Hooking up is usually not a way of life. Rather, it’s a part of “sexual career,” a way to build up one’s sexual repertoire and find out what one does and doesn’t enjoy.
Harris agrees with a fundamental premise here: that pleasure ties all physical activity together into a single sexual package. Christian couples who claim to save sex for marriage artificially draw a line at intercourse: they “dissect the sex act into stages …[to] justify enjoying more and more of lovemaking outside of marriage.” To “maximize the joy and pleasure of sex within marriage” Harris therefore recommends reserving physical affection—from cuddling to kissing and beyond—for marriage.
In a Washington Post article on Harris’s influence, Liz Lenz argued that purity culture taught her that her worth is in providing her husband with sex and babies. While other resources in purity culture may encourage sexual availability for the sake of large families, Harris’s article and books make little reference to children within marriage. He discusses parenthood as a series of crappy tasks—changing diapers, preparing meals, and cleaning—rather than a miracle of the marriage bed. Mostly, his writings treat children as the punishment of illicit sex.
It should be further noted that Harris’s teaching on sex is not simply a regurgitation of orthodox Christianity. Traditional Christianity prizes sexual union within marriage not because sex is merely a pleasurable physical activity, but because it is a potentially creative act. Two bodies become one in the act of conception—not simply kissing or cuddling.
In “Humane Vitae,” the famous Catholic encyclical on the nature of marriage, Pope Paul VI describes marital love as unitive and procreative: for instance, “love is fecund. It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being.”
Courtship and Hooking Up Spurn Feelings
Beyond their commonalities about the role of sex, courtship and hooking up recognize a common enemy: feelings. To hook up or court successfully, men and women must guard their hearts from feelings. (Rosin entitles her book chapter on hooking up “Hearts of Steel.”) In hooking up, couples have a physical encounter without emotional attachment. In courtship, couples engage in a non-physical relationship directed towards marriage but channel their emotions through third parties—parents, pastors, or friends in the community.
Courting couples are supposed to keep their emotions in check lest those emotions lead to sex and therefore a deeper relationship. In hooking up, emotions complicate sex and likewise risk a deep relationship. A successful hookup and a successful courtship are ones in which both parties can walk away without hurt feelings or any deep bond with one another.
Finally, defenders of hooking up and courting agree that relationships distract from our individual self-actualization. Harris contends that courtship allows one to stop pining for the opposite sex, and focus on school, work, and church. Harris sees giving up dating as empowering.
In “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Harris praises singleness as an opportunity to develop oneself. Until one is ready to marry immediately, romantic relationships are a waste of time. Hookup advocates agree (save for the church part). Hooking up allows men and women to develop their sexual resumes while remaining focused on pursuing professional and personal success.
God’s Helicopter Parents and Merciless Communities
Apart from the commonalities of hooking up and courtship, even Harris’s decent advice exacerbates dysfunctional elements in modern culture. There is wisdom to involving family and community in one’s romantic relationship. Men and women want their families and friends to like their significant others; and vice versa. Meeting the parents is cultural marker whereby sons and daughters communicate that they are in a serious relationship. Even the strongest marriages need a supportive community to thrive.
Harris’s framework, however, goes beyond healthy interactions between couples and their families and communities. Harris places barriers to entering a relationship so high that men and women can’t get cup of coffee without someone speculating about marriage. Harris contends that spending time with each other’s family and friends offers a true window into their character. One-on-one interactions are “artificial” environments whereby both parties hide their true nature.
Yet calling her father or meeting his buddies doesn’t mean that you have been privy to one another’s deepest thoughts, interests, and dreams. Each of us has a rich interior life separate from our friends and families. Rather than exploring our emotions and thoughts, Harris recommends fleeing them—turning them over to God at the first inkling of desire and certainly not acting on them.
Additionally, Harris empowers the worst kind of helicopter parent: God’s helicopter parent. Helicopter parents are distinct from abusive parents. Loving and attentive, helicopter parents want the best for their children. By hovering over their children, directing their decisions, preventing them from getting hurt, and rescuing them from danger, however, these parents stunt their children’s growth and maturity. Helicoptered kids have difficulty making decisions, committing to those decisions, and are paralyzed by fear of failure. These kids depend on their parents because they are unable to be self-reliant.
By inviting parents to exercise direct oversight, influence, and protection throughout the entire arc of a relationship, Harris gives helicopter parenting a new divine blessing. Harris insists the couple alone decides ultimately whether to marry. But if children have been trained from the beginning to acquiesce to parental judgments on relationships—like most helicoptered kids—these young men and women may struggle to make a decision and follow through. By trying to protect children from heartbreak and failure, God’s helicopter parents may end up damaging their children.
Harris fails to see how community involvement can harm individuals and their relationships. In “Boy Meets Girl,” Harris relates the story of an engaged couple who became pregnant before the wedding. Rather than admit their failing to the church community, the woman aborted the child. Despite marrying her fiancé and having more children, she grieved the loss of her first child. According to Harris, the woman’s pride led to the abortion and caused her years of pain. Her story is an example of personal sin.
Harris neglects to explore the deeper issue of how community enforcement of virtue can itself be a vice. A community can become an arbiter of virtue at the expense of mercy and restoration. It’s easy to empower a community to inquire about your sex life. It’s risky to rely on their charity and forgiveness when you fail to comply with community standards.
How many good Christian boys have talked their girlfriends into abortions rather than publicly admit paternity? Likewise, how many nice girls made an appointment rather than disappoint their parents or church? How many communities are so focused on enforcing particular norms that they become blind to individuals’ deep suffering?
Moreover, Harris ignores the relationship between individual sin and the community. What is a church but a collection of individual sinners? Harris emphasizes that our individual sins nailed Christ to the cross but glosses over the collective voice of the community demanding his crucifixion.
Joshua Harris: Influence without Analysis
Joshua Harris kissed dating goodbye, greeted courtship hello, and encouraged a generation of young men and women to do the same. He’s ready to reassess the arguments of his youth. This is good. Even the best thinkers revisit their teachings. Augustine of Hippo was a committed Manichean before converting to Christianity and becoming a celebrated church father. Later in life, Augustine published reconsiderations of his Christian teachings in “Retractions.”
It would be tempting for Harris to blame readers for misunderstanding or abusing his true teachings. Harris has come close to doing so, suggesting that his real purpose in writing “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” for instance, was to discourage selfishness or encourage friendship. Harris may reference these points, but his central argument is against dating and in favor of courtship. Readers understandably interpreted “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” as a kind of conservative Christian fatwa against dating.
The problem isn’t that readers misunderstood or misapplied his arguments, but that Harris’s framework lacks analytical rigor. Harris tries to diagnose the problems of our modern sexual ethics without investigating how men and women actually conduct their romantic relationships. He is oblivious to hooking up and ignores that many stable, loving, godly marriages (including those of our parents and grandparents) began with dinner and a movie.
Dating is his straw man. He heralds courtship as delightfully chivalrous and old-fashioned. Yet he neglects to investigate why romantic relationships of ye olden days included parental and communal involvement. (Hint: marriage was about the union of property, not persons. h/t Tocqueville).
When Harris should defend his use of the term courtship, Harris shrugs off the implied criticism saying the terms we use are “meaningless” and “the way [we] lived is what really matters.” But words matter a great deal, especially for an author writing a book. A twenty-something Harris declined to consider these challenges. In return, he enjoyed celebrity status without the burden of analytical rigor.
As the Apostle Paul reminds us, when we were children we spoke, thought, and reasoned as children. Now that we are grown, we should put away childish things. Intellectual laziness birthed “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Let’s hope some intellectual honesty will help Harris correct his childish ways.