Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Purity Balls: Why is our virginity anybody's business but our own?

When I was a kid (read: younger than I am now), I was deathly afraid of Chucky from the Child’s Play series. You know him, right? He’s got cute little overalls, tousled red hair . . . and a knack for killing people in a variety of strange and gruesome ways. Well, when I was fairly young I made the mistake of watching the first Child’s Play movie with my parents, and up until the age of thirteen or so I was convinced he used to hobble down our hallway in the dead of night. I can even remember being shaken from a deep sleep on more than one occasion, body drenched with sweat, fearing that you-know-who was in the next room over - or worse, my closet - planning the best way to finish me off.

Thankfully, I’ve since gotten over my fear of croaky-voiced, homicidal dolls, but that doesn’t mean I’m fearless. There are still tons of things that make my blood pressure spike - spiders, clowns, and playing Silent Hill alone in the dark, for instance - but there’s one real-world issue that really makes me want to squirm: Purity Balls.

I’d be surprised if this is your first time hearing about Purity Balls. The issue has been beaten to death - both by Christian conservatives who think they’re the keenest thing since toilet paper, and liberals (like myself) who think they’re a huge infringement on the rights of young girls - but if this truly is your first time hearing the (slightly suggestive) term, let me explain:

Purity Balls are pretty much like weddings. They’re held in big, fancy hotels with elegant finger foods, butlers with bad comb-overs, and the occasional stereotypical violinist in the corner; there’s also dancing, performances, pretty gowns, and a whole lot of pleasantries. But instead of a bride and groom coming together to pronounce their love to the world, the fathers and daughters attending these things make vows of their own. In well-rehearsed, cult-like chanting, the daughters promise to stay “pure” (i.e. abstinent) until marriage, and their fathers promise to help protect said purity, while staying pure themselves (i.e. by refraining from looking at pornography). As an added bonus, sometimes the fathers give their daughters purity rings, or more disturbingly, keys (to their virginity) that can be stashed away until their future husbands come along.
You can’t see me, but I’m really biting my lip on this one. I have a lot of amazing Christian friends who’ve made vows to “stay pure,” and I want them to know that I really, really respect their decisions. In fact, I think wanting to save yourself for marriage is extremely commendable - and smart on some levels - but I just can’t get past how Purity Balls take notions of celibacy to the extreme. Here’s my beef:

1) I don’t like that in the Christian view “sex” is seen as the antithesis of “purity” and "righteousness." That makes it sound like all girls (yes, only girls ) who have pre-marital relations are dirty, unwholesome, and unjust - sinful people who should be punished. Whether parents like to admit it or not, this is a new era and kids are "gettin' jiggy with it" much earlier in life. Do I think that's okay? No. But having a hateful you're-going-to-Hell-if-you-do-this attitude isn't going to help anything. We should teach kids the truth about sex and its consequences, not automatically slap "I'm Abstinent" stickers on their foreheads.

2) It kind of freaks me out that girls as young as ten (and in some cases, way younger) are attending these things. Girls that young haven’t even experienced puberty - or any of the sexual urges that go along with it - so how could they fully understand the concept of abstinence (or sex, for that matter)? Their parents are making decisions for them before they’ve lived long enough to understand their situation.

3) These dads aren't giving their "little darlings" enough credit. If you watch a lot of the videos and documentaries on this subject, you'll see that most of the fathers have very skewed ideas of what it means to be a "little girl." They basically think that all young women are self-conscious until their fathers step in and tell them how beautiful they are - one man was even quoted saying “females were created to feel accepted by men,” and “even though we want to think we’re the same, we are different . . . A woman needs to feel loved and accepted by her father. She was created by God to feel that.” Heck, fathers should compliment their daughters (and sons). But not because we're delicate little things that need constant reassurance, but because that's what family does. (And another thing, what's with all the emphasis on "beauty"? I don't know about you, but I'd rather be praised for my smarts or kick-butt nunchuck skills . . . )

4) Last time I checked, I’m not carrying a club or wearing a leopard-skin loin cloth. So that must mean we’re past the age where “fathers own their daughters until they can be passed onto a husband.” But that’s exactly what’s going on here! These fathers are assuming that their daughters are too "emotional" and "irrational" to make their own decisions, so they have to "take control" until another man comes along to take care of them. Is that a huge insult or what?

Purity Balls exclusively promote "heteronormativity." I can't imagine a bi- or homosexual girl walking in with confidence to one of those things, and that is discrimination.

7) Purity Balls are sexist and promote a ridiculous double-standard. They’re meant for fathers and their daughters - because it’s crucial that we protect girls’ virginities at all costs. But what about young boys? Why aren’t people spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure their sons stay pure until marriage? Well, this is going to blow your mind, but there are balls for sons and their mothers. But instead of promoting purity for themselves, the boys are told to “refrain from soiling girls' virginities."

Here's a barf-bag. You might need it.

I guess I just don’t understand why our virginity has to be anybody’s business but our own, or why (as women) it’s completely tied to our worth as people. It’s a horrible double-standard that’s almost completely irrelevant in this day and age. On a side note, I don’t think I give my own dad enough credit because, now that I think about it, he would never even consider taking me to one of those horrid Purity Balls. He doesn't own a tux.

Hah, but seriously, he knows that I’m smart enough to make my own decisions about what’s right for me and my life, and he trusts me - no questions asked. If you've got a dad (or a mom, or a step-parent, or a crazy Uncle Jimmy) in your life that trusts you like that, run out and give them a hug right now!

The United States is obsessed with virginity -- from the media to schools to government agencies. In The Purity Myth Jessica Valenti argues that the country's intense focus on chastity is damaging to young women. Through in-depth cultural and social analysis, Valenti reveals that powerful messaging on both extremes -- ranging from abstinence curriculum to "Girls Gone Wild" infomercials -- place a young woman's worth entirely on her sexuality. Morals are therefore linked purely to sexual behavior, rather than values like honesty, kindness, and altruism. Valenti sheds light on the value -- and hypocrisy -- around the notion that girls remain virgin until they're married by putting into context the historical question of purity, modern abstinence-only education, pornography, and public punishments for those who dare to have sex. The Purity Myth presents a revolutionary argument that girls and women are overly valued for their sexuality, as well as solutions for a future without a damaging emphasis on virginity.

I also like Purity Balls: Protecting Girls From Making Choices, an article by Tracie Egan Morrissey featured on Jezebel:
"...But ultimately, what's most troubling about purity balls and such pledges is that the parents are always talking about how there are "terrible consequences" to making "certain" (read: sexy choices. And while that can be true, why is the solution then to discourage their daughters from making any choices at all? I admit that I'm approaching the topic with my own biases — about sex and religion and people who parent their children with a "do what I say, not what I've done" philosophy — but it's clear from this clip that this 11-year-old girl has no idea about what dating in the 21st century is like, and it's scary to think that there's a chance she never will."


  1. I've read The Purity Myth, and if you are at all interested in this subject, you need to pick up a copy! It's one of my favorite books!

  2. Great post...and thanks for mentioning my book in there! That tshirt is going to haunt my dreams...

  3. I'm so sick of the double standard. While reading this I was thinking, "Purity balls for GIRLS... what about boys?" But then I read, 'there are balls for sons and their mothers. But instead of promoting purity for themselves, the boys are told to “refrain from soiling girls' virginities."' So I guess the boys are supposed to go for the already "soiled" girls? I was also wondering why the ball was between fathers and daughters-- it just screams sexism. (The whole idea of either a father or husband "owning" a woman.)

    Here's the part that I really can't understand. All girls are self-conscious until their fathers tell them how beautiful they are? Really? My father has never been very supportive, and I really don't recall him ever complimenting my appearance. In fact, he doesn't play too big of a role in my life at all (unfortunately). And yet, I probably have better self-esteem than most of my friends (with supportive fathers).

    The whole idea of purity balls just reinforces the "value" of (a girl's) virginity-- a value I've never understood. Do these people really believe that some ball given at age ten will stop someone from having sex. I seriously doubt it would. Plus, it encourages early marriage. And early marriages often end prematurely.

  4. I agree with this topic a lot. Last few woman I've dated it was always up to the father if I stay in the relationship. I feel like she should be able to be with anyway she wants to be with no just daddy choice.

  5. I agree that these things are messed up - and there's nothing I hate more than adults imposing upon adolescent girls when it comes to sex. I mean, life choices like that should not be made by anyone else, and it's not like they can control it if they want to. A purity ring means nothing if a girl doesn't want it for herself.

    However, I'm Christian and I ASKED my parents (they never even brought it up) to get me an abstinence ring because I thought it was a cool commitment. I also saw, when shopping for one, that they make these rings for guys. I don't know how popular/encouraged they are, but they are out there.

    I never even heard about these Purity Balls until now, though. I don't think my parents would ever hold one for me - they don't even like to get dressed up for church, haha. They sound like a vaguely cultish alternative to a real wedding, though.

  6. Yeah, I just... don't get it. I sort of can understand why someone would decide to remain a virgin until their wedding (though it seems to imply you *have* to get married, a point of view that, as a feminist, I object to).
    But my two major objections are:
    1) I've always felt that when people feel the need to expose their personal choices (things regarding only their own bodies) in public, it means they're insecure and not sure what they're doing is the right thing.
    2) I can't help but see the link between purity balls and the whole "abstinence is the only 100% efficient form of contraception" thing. And I have a problem with that, because, well, it's not true (what about rape?), and not letting girls know about condoms and the pill doesn't seem to me like a very reasonable thing to do.

    Okay, I'm writing this from the other side of the Atlantic, and in my French point of view, purity balls seem like something really regressive and unrealistic (yeah, I know France is being talked about these days as the country who would forbid women from wearing the burqa, but French people aren't really like that, it's just our government). So unrealistic that when I read the title of your post I thought of something, uh, really different...
    Anyway, what I mean is: women in Western cultures have been expected to remain virgins before their wedding almost since the beginning of time, and no society that I know of has ever made such a fuss about it. So why do it now? The only reason I see is, people feel threatened. By... sex, basically. By women finally gaining ownership of their own bodies, and f***ing with whoever they want to, without necessarily being impregnated and thus committed to the man in question. By women behaving just like men have always behaved.
    Now I'm all for choice, and if someone wants to remain a virgin until their wedding, or even forever, fine. My problem is, that's a *private* matter. Keep it that way.

    Also, Danielle, I read most of your blog the other day. I really like it, no restriction whatsoever. Gosh, you're younger than my little sister but you're so much more intelligent! Keep posting. :-)

  7. @Katie - I'll definitely pick up The Purity Myth the next time I get a chance!

    @Jessica Valenti - Is it really you?! O_O I hate to sound like a rabid fangirl, but you're one of my idols. Full Frontal Feminism was the first feminist book I ever read!

    @Roni - I know, the double standard is one of the worst parts about Purity Balls. It really makes me sick. I read a great comment one time that said "let's see how the Christian Right reacts to programs meant solely for maintaining BOYS' purity." Hah. And you also brought up a point I'd never considered - that the "save yourself for marriage" mentality promotes early marriage, and that is NOT what America needs more of. People need to get out and experience life for themselves before they decide to commit to one person...

    @Aaron Lee - Fathers definitely shouldn't dictate who their daughters date. The only situation where that would be even REMOTELY acceptable is if the guy in question was physically (or emotionally!) abusive. I can understand that, as a parent, you want to protect your children... but it's a thin line between "protecting" and "controlling."

    @Dothedevo - I actually heard that 88% of teens who have purity rings have pre-marital sex anyway. Do you think that's true? But you're right, they mean NOTHING unless the person wearing it is actually committed - and parents can't force that kind of commitment!

    @Jade - You make some excellent points! Why do people need to let the world know if they're virgins, or sexually-active, or whatever? It's a personal thing. Nobody NEEDS to know. And I completely agree that abstinence-only education is ridiculous. If people don't know how to protect themselves... well, it's pretty much a no-brainer that bad things can happen! Hah, and I was just waiting for someone to say that they took the term "Purity Balls" the wrong way! It can be very misleading *laughs*

    As for that last part - I really, really appreciate that. I don't plan to stop writing anytime soon :)

  8. The universal value placed on a female's virginity stems from simple economics. That's why it became integral to cultural values; that's why it was written into the bible. There's nothing new there.

    What's worth mentioning, however, is that times have changed and the social dynamics and economic pressures that put purity balls and the like into place are no longer applicable. See, the whole female chastity principle is a vestige of the old world.

    Marriage is a way of contracting a woman into a man's ownership (a family bartering of the woman's body for the man's resources), and premarital celibacy is a way of keeping the goods from spoiling. Therefore, to endorse this value is to sponsor the traditional sexist patriarchy. I suppose it's very tempting to believe that it's best to wait until marriage, but that's not grounded in fact.

  9. It's horrible to think that a woman's virginity - ANYBODY'S virginity - could be treated as a product or commodity. Even though most people nowadays (I'm talking about the conservatives who'd actually attend a purity ball) probably don't THINK in those terms, they're still propagating ridiculous patriarchal dogma - a father and husband having control and ownership of a woman, for example. Makes me sad, and frustrated :/

  10. Yes, I sympathize; I know it's frustrating. That's why it's important to put out into the world a counteractive outlook on gender roles that places greater value on inner quality than sexual status equally for both genders.

    Also, part of having a healthy relationship with sexually is honestly accepting, even embracing, the natural truth that there is a strong biological impetus for discovery and sexual affection that rises with puberty. For a good 200,000 years humans copulated in their early teens; such urges are simply natural--who can say they are "wrong?" Rather than futilely attempting to stamp out hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary psychology, what choice do we have but to instead try to lovingly guide it along a healthier route via education, contraceptives, and open discussion?

  11. I've never heard of this topic before.

    To me, extremities will be met with extremities. The American media has a general attitude of "sex sells." With this mindset, advertisers push to meet sexual fantasies in order to promote a product. Now, when some parents see this- they want to protect their children from this “toxic” environment. That’s fine- children should live in a carefree manner and not be affected by the overt and explicit sexualisation of the media. However, children turn into teenagers with normal sexual urges. To oppress that is to offend evolution. Now, what “Daddy I Do” says is that some parents are going to the extreme and verbally and socially stopping their children from exploring their sexuality, and ultimately who they are. Is this really in the parents’ best intentions?

    I think its brainwash from both sides. What parents need to do is to find a balance, to nurture their children by telling them the consequences of sexual behaviour, how to lessen your chances of experiencing these consequences but also to explain the benefits of healthy sexual exploration is. Parents need to understand that it’s ultimately their children choices and their lives are not for manipulation, but for guidance.

    When you think of it, aren’t Purity Balls on the same basis as Taliban ideologies (albeit more subtle)? It’s ironic when the army is fighting Afghanistan “for the name democracy” yet there is cleverly disguised social oppression in some American circles. In some social groups, girls and young women are treated as delicate creatures unfit for regular human interactions and so they must be hidden or hide parts of themselves.

    I agree with other commenter’s that there is a double standard and that growing boys are not seen in the same light as growing girls. And I suppose if you weren’t heterosexual, none of the problems associated with a growing sexuality would happen to you? I guess homosexuals aren’t talked about because they are seen as a problem, not as “normal” people with problems.

    However, I think a growing concern with parenting in our times is the debate whether children should be shunned from aspects of society because they don’t understand the intricacies of intimacy or exposed to and explained about the growing world around them. Besides, nothing can remain hidden for long. But then again, what if these complicated matters are too much for young minds and the children misinterpret messages?

    All I can hope for is that in our generation, we try to fight for a solution.

    From a fellow teenage blogger (and inner activist!),



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