Why Are “Purity Balls” So Very Wrong?

Posted by on May 9, 2014 in Featured, Thoughts | 4 comments

WhyPurityBall

 

As children grow, parents probably want to instil confidence, love and creativity in their kids, tell them they are great children, that they can achieve anything if they apply themselves, and set them free to take on the world, as confident, well-rounded and realistic children, once they reach a certain age. Children should be taught the wonders of the universe, the beauty of nature, the frailty of life, and be allowed the ability to experience life for themselves. I’m not a parent, so I’m speaking idealistically here, but I think we’d all agree that this is a good guideline for child rearing, and it’s by no means exhaustive. Parents are responsible for the welfare of their children too, but at what point does responsibility cross the line into possessiveness? How much protection can a parent offer before it infringes on the child’s ability to grow up and be well-rounded?

A growing trend in the USA, along with the equally questionable “No Sex Movement“, is to hold an event called a “Purity Ball“, which involves dressing up a young girl in what looks like wedding attire, a wedding-like dinner and dance, and an exchange of vows between a father and daughter, that she will remain chaste until marriage. In exchange, the father makes an oath to protect the girls, presumably from the advances of young boys, and to ensure that she remains “pure” until she is betrothed to a man of the father’s approval. The girl is sometimes presented with a “purity ring” as a token of this agreement, which can be removed once the girl is married.

On the one hand, it’s nice to see fathers taking a real interest in their daughters’ lives, which in today’s society can be a rare thing indeed. On the other hand, in the case of the Purity Ball, the fathers’ interest in their daughters crosses over into something akin to ownership, where they hope to halt the natural progress of the child’s growing up, becoming sexually mature, and “God-forbid”, becoming sexually active. While the father vows to protect the daughter, which is in itself somewhat an admirable trait, this kind of “protection” means stowing the daughters away from the real rigours of the world, its dangers, and along with it, the joys of self discovery which go along with growing up.

What is more strange is that some fathers take their daughters to these Purity Balls as young as 4 years old, seemingly to get in before they even know what sex is, to further shelter them from the evils of procreation, temptation and sin. If this all strikes a fundamentalist biblical Christianity, you’d be right. Again, like the “No Sex Movement” which promotes chastity and “purity” over having sex, the Purity Ball promotes virginity for the daughters until they are married before God in a church somewhere.

One can only assume that since these girls are sometimes taking these vows at such a young age as to not understand what it is they are even saying, what it means, and how they will feel about it later in life when their hormones kick in, that when they do finally discover sexual urges that they will fall prey to that old tool of religious indoctrination, unworthiness, dirtiness, and failure.

What gets me most about Purity Balls is what they mean symbolically. Taking a vow with your father to remain “true to him”, in a ceremony that is very much like a traditional church marriage ceremony, promising something to a father that he actually has no ownership over whatsoever, is just about as creepy as it gets. It keeps the girl subservient to her father, and reeks of incestuous symbolism. It makes the skin crawl…

Though I have been aware of the concept of a Purity Ball for some time, recently a series of quite striking father/daughter portraits have emerged on the internet. At first they seem like slightly awkward, but real father/daughter moments, but in context they speak of an undercurrent of repression, ownership and judgement. The photos, by Swedish photographer David Magnusson, are featured in a recent article in The Guardian, where author Jessica Valenti discusses America’s obsession with sex, says that the photos:

“… tell a distinctly American story – a story wherein a girl’s virginity is held up as a moral ideal above all else, a story in which the most important characteristic of a young woman is whether or not she is sexually active. This narrative of good girls and bad girls, pure girls and dirty girls, is one that follows young women throughout their lives. Purity balls simply lay that dichotomy bare.”

Valenti goes on to say:

“While it would be easy to dismiss purity balls as fringe – most American fathers don’t require their daughters to pledge their virginity in an elaborate ceremony – the paternalism and fear of female sexuality underlying the events are present throughout American culture.”

Also from the article, as a caption to two of Magnusson’s photos:

Photographs: David Magnusson

‘I realize that my biggest dream is to go to France, and I can’t do that if I get pregnant before marriage,’ says Erin Hope Smallwood, 13, pictured at left with her father, Jay, in Haughton, Louisiana. At right in Tuscon, Arizona, 17-year-old Nicole Roosma and her father, Will. ‘With everything being about sex through the culture and around us,’ she says, ‘it’s especially hard for my generation to keep a promise like this.’

 

As you can see from the girls’ own words, it is a topic which is shrouded in falsehoods and a forbidden fruit, much like that of the apple in the biblical Genesis myth.

But as I’ve said, I’m not a parent, so I thought I’d ask around some of my closer friends in the secular, atheist and agnostic fields what their thoughts are about Purity Balls, what the implications are of them, and what it means for the girls involved moving forward. Below are some of the answers I received. Firstly we hear from the fathers.

Freelance author Dan Arel:

“Purity balls, being a major part of the purity culture in the evangelical Christian movement are incestuous events allowing a father to take ownership of his daughters virginity. Not only is the idea grotesque and inappropriate but it is one that teaches girls that someone other than themselves can control their sex lives, own their bodies and removes autonomy. It is a culture that demeans the value of a girl and ties their self worth to their virginity.”

- Dan Arel, Freelance writer & journalist, danarel.com @danarel

Blogger Mr Oz Atheist:

“As the father of two teenage girls (14 and 16) I can confidently say that the idea of Purity Balls is not something I am in favour of. Firstly, the idea that one of my daughters is ‘impure’ if she was to have sex before marriage has an archaic feel to it that doesn’t gel with a progressive society. I’m also of the opinion that sex before marriage is not a ‘bad’ thing. Entering a long term (life long hopefully) marriage needs to have a lot of considerations and being sexual compatible is one of them. The whole idea of the balls seems to lessen a girl’s worth if she is sexual active before marriage and tries to promote the idea that sex before marriage is a ‘bad’ thing. I don’t agree with either of these sentiments.”

- Mr Oz Atheist, mrozatheist.blogspot.com.au, @MrOzAtheist

Podcaster and author Jake Farr-Wharton:

“As a parent of daughters, I feel that purify balls are a really great way to show your daughter that you own her sexuality, and would be delighted to auction it off, when the time is right. Frankly, I don’t understand why parents would feel the need to sexualise their child and turn sex into a forbidden fruit… Which worked out great in the bible, by the way.

“While I will always be open and honest about the facts of sex and sexuality with my children, I do not own or covet my daughter’s sexuality – which is the premise behind the phenomenon of purity balls. All you can do is teach your kids and prepare them for when they’re ready to take over – chaining them to their virginity for no reason and with no evidence of a benefit is repugnant.”

- Jake Farr-Wharton, Author of ‘Letters to Christian Leaders – Hollow Be Thy Claims‘, podcaster at The Imaginary Friends Show and Secular World Podcast, @JakeFarrWharton

Twitter regular Think B4U You Tweet:

“A father taking such authority over his daughters body and mind at such a critical time in their development is abhorrent. Elevating a girl’s virginity to purity sends a devastating message that they are damaged and impure without it. The fact that it’s daughters and no sons is telling. Reinforcing that sex is bad … if you are a girl and you need to be protected from your own thoughts and decisions.

And finally, it’s just really creepy.”

- Think B4U Tweet, @IRaiseUFacts

Long time atheist commentator Andrew Skegg:

“Being a father of two young daughters I intimately understand the deep instinct to protect them. I spend considerable effort to shield my daughters from a wide variety of threats against their physical and emotional well being. However, when it comes to their virginity, I am not convinced there is actually any harm to protect them from. Sure there are threats from sexual encounters – disease, physical harm, and emotional distress to name just a few, but none of these are exclusive domain of virginity. Non-virgins are equally susceptible to disease during sexual encounters just as much as virgins during their first encounter, and it’s unrealistic to expect hormone filled teenagers to simply abstain.  A more mature and realistic approach is to educate my daughters about sex, sexuality, reproduction, disease, and bodily autonomy so they can intelligently determine who they will have sex with, under what circumstances, and when.

“There is nothing magical regarding virginity that demands it be protected outside the civil and religious ceremonies of marriage either. Purity Balls (where father’s coerce their daughters into promising not to have sex until their married in front of their family, peers, and their god) are an projection of a superstitious belief that woman become ‘unclean’ should they ever have sex without a god’s blessing. Like other ancient myths, this is a sexist and misogynistic view which should be relegated to the pages of history to be looked upon by future generations with shame and regret.”

- Andrew Skegg, @askegg

I also heard from some mothers on the topic.

From Cathie Sloman:

“I have two daughters aged 16 and 10.  I will encourage them to make good choices sexually, but that does not mean that I will discourage them from healthy sexual relationships. My husband and I have no right to insist on having any control whatsoever over their bodies, which is what a Purity Ball effectively sets out to do. If any man thinks that either of my daughters is unworthy of him because she’s had sex before marriage, he is not worthy of my daughter. It also concerns me that my son may be surrounded by other young males who are raised to have such a despicable attitude towards young women.”

-Cathie Sloman, @PurpleMouse

From Candice Bell, podcaster and blogger:

“Purity Balls perpetuate the idea that abstinence works as a method of sex education. I want to protect my girls with education, not ignorance. Additionally, my girls are worth more than their virginity. They are intelligent, curious, adventurous girls and I want them to Value that in themselves. My daughters aren’t being raised to be wives to men. They may not even be heterosexual which is why it is infinitely more important to provide comprehensive sex education instead of simply saying, ‘Don’t have sex.’ Young women need to be loved and taught to value themselves but not in a method that puts their worth in their hymen and pigeonholes them into nothing more than a willing virgin on her wedding night. I don’t want to force my daughter into marriage by guilting her into remaining pure. This is an archaic ceremony.”

- Candice Bell, The Non Prophets Prophetcast, NonProphetess Blog, @nonprophetess

As you can see, I’m not the only one who disagrees with the idea of Purity Balls, and of all the reasons for this, I think the most compelling argument comes from ideas surrounding ownership of women’s sexuality. What are your thoughts?

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4 Comments

  1. Great commentary, my rational friends.

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  2. If people want to hold off on having sex for their own reasons, I’m completely okay with that: STDs can be scary & some of them are incurable, pregnancy (carried to term or not) can permanently change one’s body and mind, not to mention stupid social stigmas of sleeping with what some might call “the wrong person.” I get that, it can be scary sometimes, it was scary as hell for ME as a teenager, too. 
    What I DON’T understand is the necessity for the parents to get involved on that level: It’s grossly inappropriate to treat a fellow human being, especially a family member, as though she were a product to be sold. The thought of your teenage daughter, or son, having sex probably makes a parent’s skin crawl & for understandable reasons, but you don’t OWN your kids. If you did your job as a parent, then nothing they do at that age (as long as no one has been physically abused/assaulted) should reflect on YOU. At some point they have to learn that their actions have consequences, for good or ill. 
    What “Purity Culture” seems to be doing is yanking these girls’ self worth right out from underneath them & letting their “owners” decide their fate for them. If you want to hold off on sex, that’s fine, but that should be the girls’ own conclusion and not at the persuasion of her parents or pastor.

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  3. Very nice article about a very creepy subject…
    I confess that I was utterly surprised with the fact that this still occurs and it’s becoming more and more popular. The idea of ownership by parents, in particular by fathers regarding their daughters, is a concept that should have never have survived this long in any society. 
    I am not a parent, but I do have a (much) younger brother, and the 17 years that separate us allow me to have an insight into his life somewhat closer to that of a parent than a sibling. Honestly I have the contrary idea to these purity balls. I have nothing against the idea of keeping oneself virgin until marriage, if it’s one’s rational decision (and hopefully devoid of religious or societal constraints), but my opinion tends to go on the opposite direction: I believe sexual maturation to be an important part of a healthy relationship, and it might play a pivotal role in the success of failure of a long lasting partnership, as Donovan (MrOZAtheist) mentioned above, sexual compatibility can be of utmost importance. This is another case in which misinformation is preferred to information (quite usual when it comes to sex subjects… the greatest tabu of our time), a way to try and circumvent teaching and informing our kids about their biological role and desires, common to the animals we are, because to assume them and it means to get ourselves further away from the ideological and completely abhorrent concept of “created in god’s image” that some people insist on. 

    Lastly, it’s scary that we are borrowing these archaic ideas of ownership and misogyny from other strongly religious societies, in what I can’t see it as anything else but a regress instead of progress. That seems to be, nevertheless, the typical role of religion regarding competing religious beliefs, the tendency to an equilibrium among them, but to do so by the lowest possible standard. Instead of borrowing the best practices of other religions (if such thing can be asserted), they borrow the worst and most radical ones.
    Sexual education and information most be an important part of secularism, and secularism is most likely the only way to stop our society from regressing any further and put us back on the path of progress.

    Kudos for the article.

    Cheers,

    vhrcabral

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  4. As a European, the whole concept is novel to me. “What the fuck?” is the only reaction I’m capable of.

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