Purity Balls and Promiscuity

The July 28th issue of Time magazine contains a story about Purity Balls. These are formal dress occasions primarily for fathers and daughters where daughters pledge their purity and fathers pledge their protection. That’s a little simplistic, but it’s close enough. These balls have plenty of critics, mainly those who are against abstinence-only sex education and the message that girls are under a man’s tutelage, but others argue that they bring fathers and daughters closer and give girls a strong sense of their own value.

As in most debates, there is truth on both sides. As a feminist, I recoil against a ritual that positions Dad (and then husband) as the most important male in a woman’s life. Doesn’t that perpetuate patriarchy and further the idea that the female sex is weak and in need of male protection and guidance? And do we really need a ball to strengthen father-daughter ties? (We didn’t in my household.) But there are plenty of studies that suggest that girls with absent or detached fathers tend to suffer from self-esteem issues and to be promiscuous. What’s wrong with a father stepping in to ease his daughter’s transition into womanhood?

I have two objections to the charge that girls become promiscuous when they don’t have good relationships with their fathers. One is, who defines promiscuity? Could it be that–horrors!!–a girl is just practicing sexual self-determination? How many partners constitute promiscuity? Five? Twenty? What ages are the daughters the studies are referring to? Twelve? Eighteen? Thirty-five? Second, I think it’s simplistic to say that a father’s noninvolvement causes promiscuity. There are many reasons that play into an out-of-control sex life. Researchers have even made the same claim for ADHD. Not to mention drug and alcohol use. And what about a girl’s relationship with her mother? Is it possible that a girl’s primary model for her own sexuality has less bearing on her sex life than her relationship with her father?

The problem with purity balls is that they send mixed messages. One is that a girl belongs to herself and has the right to determine her own future, free of the pressures put on her by the boys in her life. But the other is that she belongs to her father and, later to her husband, and that she can’t remain “pure” without their protection.

What a lot of people object to with the purity balls is their religious content. They were thought up in 1998 by Randy Wilson and his wife, Lisa, who are members of the evangelical Christian ministry Generations of Light, and the pledges made by father and daughter both are made not just to each other but to God. In the ball that the Time’s reporter witnessed, the girls lay white roses at the foot of a large wooden cross crowned with thorns while their fathers uttered blessings upon them This may not be part of every purity ball, but it is what the balls were originally based on. (Theoretically, you don’t have to be Christian to have or attend one.)

The feminist writer, Eve Ensler, had this response: “When you sign a pledge to your father to preserve your virginity, your sexuality is basically being taken away from you until you sign another contract, a marital one…It makes you feel like you’re the least important person in the equation. It makes you feel invisible.” (From an in-depth article about purity balls in Glamour.)

Then there is the issue of incest, one not usually discussed. These girls in their make-up and ball gowns look an awful lot like wives. And the balls themselves strongly resemble weddings. Fathers may be pledging to protect, but they’re also pledging to love. What kind of love might some fathers be led to interpret this as? (Obviously sick ones, but they are out there.) Is it really healthy to put so much emphasis on their daughters’ sexuality?

In spite of my concerns, I do see the appeal. I had a rough adolescence, not the least of which was due to a series of bad sexual relationships (including date rape–if you can call that a “relationship”)–that made me feel tremendous guilt well into my adulthood. Would a purity ball–or at the least a purity pledge–kept me from becoming sexually involved? Maybe.

But I can’t help but think that there is much more involved in the development of healthy sexual relationships than promises to remain abstinent. And the other side of the coin is that such promises would probably have exacerbated the guilt I already felt when I did get into those relationships. Maybe a better solution is to teach our daughters to take responsibility for their own actions and then help build the self-esteem and strength they need to do so. Somehow I don’t think going to a purity ball is going to do all that.