Some Christian communities say father-daughter purity balls are about much more than abstinence pledges—they’re an opportunity to talk openly about sex. Is that really the case?
Mainstream media tends to portray the Purity Ball movement as creepy, hopelessly archaic, even incestuous. Bill Maher once compared the phenomenon to the Taliban: “What era are we living in where the man passes the daughter from Dad to the husband?”
But the Ball’s originators and new facilitators say that’s not true: the event is just a way to turn the sex talk—an awkward but crucial moment for every father and daughter—into a celebration. It’s an opportunity for men to consider what it means to be a father, and for girls to think about the choices they’ll make in the future.
As the idea of the purity ball evolves, fathers are trying to retain the event’s positive aspects and replace the outmoded. But is this even possible? One thing is clear: the event helps fathers feel better about being fathers. Less clear is if the purity ball can ever really be a step toward honest, open communication—especially since signing an abstinence pledge is often an empty gesture— and whether the event actually gets in the way of the father’s desire to protect his daughter.
A few vital basics are the same at every ball. The event takes place at a swanky venue, often a five-star hotel. The daughters dress up, dance with their fathers, smile for photographs, and eat a sit-down dinner. At some point in the midst of all the festivities, both fathers and daughters participate in a ceremony honoring “purity.” The terms of the covenants signed or promises proclaimed are vague, focused more on a girl’s “state of mind” than state of hymen, but the message is clear: the father will do his best to make sure that his daughter will not have sex before marriage.
“We don’t consider purity balls a rite of passage,” explained Randy Wilson, originator of the Purity Ball movement. “This is just a way to celebrate the importance of the relationship between the father and the daughter.” Wendy Harris, mother of two Ball-goers, said she initially thought the idea was “a little odd” but that she wanted her daughters “to understand how much their father cared about them, and they both loved the idea of getting dressed up for a night on the town with their dad.” As an added bonus, she said, “my husband got the chance to discuss what we all know is a really uncomfortable issue for most fathers and daughters. Everyone has fun and feels more at ease. What’s the problem?”
Every parent I interviewed said their daughters were more than willing to attend. “The girls view it as a chance to invite their friends to come, get new dresses, and spend time with their dads,” said Steven Brown, a doctor and Purity Ball organizer from Texas. “If you make a girl do this it doesn’t mean anything. It has to be her decision.” A purity pledge on its own, he said, is a waste of time: “Any pledge to maintain sexual integrity should be in the context of open, honest communication about sexual issues.” Alison, his daughter and one-time Purity Ball date, agrees. “I didn’t put a lot of emphasis on signing a piece of paper,” she told me. “The Purity Ball was fun, but it wasn’t a new concept.”
So maybe it’s unsurprising that none of the girls I spoke with could remember exactly what their pledge entailed. Even most fathers said the act of signing a covenant doesn’t really mean anything on its own. Greg Frost, a father who attended one of Brown’s events, said he doesn’t think the covenant makes a difference. If his daughters had premarital sex, “they’d be disappointed in themselves anyway.”
In a way, the event reminded me of Greek life in college—how sorority girls I knew would routinely dismiss the organization’s weird initiation rites and secret handshakes in the name of new friends and access to exclusive parties. With purity balls, however, there’s way more than Frat Row at stake. Why would fathers throw a party in the name of “purity”—an issue that, however nebulously defined, is clearly a crucial concern for these fathers and their families—but then downplay the importance of the event? What kind of message does that send their daughters?
The man behind the Ball
Wilson, a Colorado-based pastor and father of seven, co-founded the Purity Ball movement with his wife, Lisa, to “find a way to help our children understand life and relationships.”
“We’re dealing with a lost generation of daughters,” he said. “They’re waiting to be loved, valued, and rescued from a culture that’s devouring them as physical objects.”
Only fathers are asked to sign a pledge in Wilson’s ceremony, which reads as such:
I, (daughter’s name)’s father, choose before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity. I will be pure in my own life as a man, husband, and father. I will be a man of integrity and accountability as I lead, guide, and pray over my daughter and my family as the high priest in my home. This covering will be used by God to influence generations to come.
If the ceremony is meant to help daughters, why does it focus on the fathers’ actions? Wilson maintains that it’s to prevent daughters from feeling guilty about future or even past sexual transgressions. “In some Purity Balls,” he explained, “it’s more about the woman’s physical aspects than the emotional. We’ve always held that this is a fatherhood event. … We don’t want to make girls feel guilty, we would never talk about abstinence, we never talk about the physical purity of the girl.”
Instead of signing a covenant, the daughters symbolically and silently “commit to live pure lives” by laying down white roses in front of a cross. But exactly what are they committing? Wilson said the event—which girls sometimes call a “Cinderella Night”—isn’t “about abstinence at all.” Instead, it’s about “extravagant beauty,” a phrase Wilson used multiple times to refer not only to the event itself but women in general, Israeli temples, the Garden of Eden, and the glamorous hotel they host their ball in.
But to say the night “isn’t about abstinence” is more than hard to believe; it’s confusingly contradictory. Almost or at least equally unsettling is Wilson’s tendency to use “beauty” as a stand-in for other, more difficult to define concepts. Most fathers would agree with Wilson’s belief that dads should have good relationships with their daughters so that they don’t seek validation elsewhere, but the way Wilson explains it is, once again, bewildering: “The female is desperate to have an answer to her question, Is she valuable? Is she beautiful? And those are both the same.”
But value and beauty are not the same, and one would expect Wilson—the founder of an event that aims to foster girls’ self esteem to discourage their seeking validation via sexual activity—not to throw those words around so casually. What message does the Purity Ball send young women when they are no longer twirling with their daddies in fancy dresses, when they are confronted with hard choices that require speaking, not symbolism? What happens when their fathers aren’t there to protect them anymore?
Wilson’s heart may be in the right place, but his ceremony doesn’t seem to help daughters as much as help fathers feel better about being fathers. And for any father to truly help protect his daughter as per Wilson’s pledge—regardless of how strongly he supports or opposes the abstinence movement—he must work with her to decide what purity and integrity truly entail.