The last image a young woman wants to have when losing her virginity is a vision of her father. But for the hundreds of young girls who participate in purity balls each year, decisions about sexuality are heavily influenced by the protective presence of their fathers.
Recently, the popular National Geographic Channel show Taboo featured a segment on the episode “Teen Sex” about the practice of purity balls. A purity ball is a formal dance or ceremony attended by fathers and their daughters where the young women pledge their virginity to the protection of their fathers until they are married. The fathers then pledge to safe keep what they see as their young daughters’ “purity of mind, body and soul.” The practice is closely associated with evangelical Christian churches and originated by Randy Wilson in Colorado Springs in 1998. A field director for the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization, Wilson promotes purity balls across the country and his website boasts that they have been held in 48 states.
Before I get into how purity balls can easily take a left turn down a double-standard dead end, in their defense, purity balls send a lot of positive messages. I could never imagine being able to come to my father and have an honest, un-awkward conversation about sexuality and relationships. In fact, for most young American girls, their father’s reaction to them being sexually active is one of two extremes: Your crazy daddy chasing boys out your bedroom window with his sawed off Smith and Wesson not far off; or what is an even worse reality for many girls: Daddy not being there at all to care. The purity balls on this episode featured fathers taking a very active involvement in their daughter’s honor and well-being and treating them as the treasures that every little girl should feel like she is to the first man in her life that defines to her what a man should be for a woman. As one of the fathers on the episode stated, “The man sets the moral compass for the entire family.” Wilson goes even further emphasizing that purity balls are more about the fathers than they are the daughters. “The idea was to model what the relationship can be as a daughter grows from a child to an adult. You come in closer, become available to answer whatever questions she has,” Wilson offers to fathers struggling to find a place in the lives of their maturing daughters.
But even with the best intentions in the world, the whole purity ball ceremony is honestly kind of creepy when played out. The girls march to an altar in a procession of mini child brides alongside their fathers dressed in somber suits. The dads then descend on bended knee placing purity rings on their daughter’s left hands. The compliant girls adoringly gaze down in white dresses promising to remain abstinent until marriage. What was also slightly unnerving for me is how young the girls appeared to be. The youngest girls appeared to be all of 9 or 10 years old and I’m still not convinced that they are 100 percent sure of what they are actually signing up for. As they slow-dragged their feet in tune with their fathers, their expressions were vacant and apathetic, not passionate and empowered like young women convinced of their moral path. Some guidelines state that girls can be as young as four years old and as old as college age, but the majority of young girls who participate do so once they’ve entered puberty. At an age where young girls are debating the decision of tampon or pad, making a semi-permanent pledge about virginity could be seen as an unnecessary amount of pressure.