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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."