Can there be a perfected purity ball?
In a 2007 Glamour article on the Wilsons, Jennifer Baumgardner suggested that purity balls “represent [the abstinence movement’s] more extreme edge. The young women who sign covenants at these parties tend to be devout, home-schooled, and sheltered from popular culture.” Many fathers involved had similar complaints. “They allow girls as young as 8, 9 years old to attend,” said Devin Kessler, a father who attended a ball for high-school-age girls. “And I don’t think that’s right. Those girls are too young to know what it’s all really about.” Another father called the original ball “cheesy,” something his daughters wouldn’t be interested in. Brown said he thought the name was “terrible,” but that he knew he’d attract more interest with “Purity Ball” than, say, “Sexual Integrity Ball.”
“We didn’t like the name,” Brown said, “but we used it as a way of creating an image, however inaccurate.” He can see why people are disturbed by the Ball’s wedding symbolism, but he thinks they’re too quick to criticize. “There’s evidence that these types of events do help. Some studies show that people who participate in these events have a longer time to first intercourse and a smaller number of partners. People say that’s a failure because they break them, but that’s kind of like saying Donald Trump was a financial failure because he wasn’t a billionaire when he was 14.”
Wilson sees the ball evolving into a more focused call to the men to be fathers. “It’s a time to have fun, to dance, and build relationships,” he said, “but it is a call for men to be fathers, for men to be men, and to step in and stand in that role as a man, because it impacts the community around them. I’d love to see a shift from the focus on the physical.”
But the other fathers I spoke with seemed more interested in reconciling their religious beliefs with their goal to rationally advise and communicate with their daughters about the unnerving topic of sexuality.
“There’s really nothing else out there that I’m aware of that gives dads and daughters a platform to talk about these issues,” Frost said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to give us a really nice evening together, and to talk about something that could be uncomfortable.” Paul Dyer, a 25-year-old father who promotes local Purity Balls on his religious radio station, believes the event gives daughters the message that “we as fathers believe in them, and that we’ll be there to help them if things get tough. The reason that a girl decides to wait sexually is because she knows her value. And this is an opportunity for the father to really hit home how valuable she is.”
“The reason to have an event like this is to establish communication, to keep lines of communication open,” Brown said. “We value our daughters, so we want to do something like this to show them how much we love and care about them.” He sends weekly “suggested discussion topic” emails out to both fathers and daughters in the five weeks prior to the Ball. The emails tackle complicated questions about dating, sex, and relationships. “Our objective is that the Purity Ball should be a culmination of conversations, not a one-time discussion.”
One email lists scenarios in which girls might one day find themselves, such as “You’re a freshman in college, and your non-Believing roommate has a party. You meet a guy there who is nice, gentlemanly, and very attractive. He invites you to leave the party and go out for a cup of coffee. What do you say? If you say yes, and while you’re drinking your latte he invites you to go with him to the game next Saturday, what do you say? Or, if he invites you to go back to his dorm, what do you say?”
Another: “You are 29 years old, and you aren’t married yet. When you committed yourself to purity in high school, you thought you’d be married at least by age 22. Should you still stick with your commitment to purity? Why?”
The email assures fathers and daughters that answers will not be the same for everyone. “You cannot inherit your convictions; you have to build your own,” it reads. “Do you know what you believe? Do you know why you believe it?”
Each father I interviewed said it was more important for his daughter to feel loved and respected so that she could make the right choices about sex, than for her to abstain from sex until marriage. “Ultimately, it is her decision,” said Frost, who added that he would “totally understand” and not be “disappointed in the least” if his daughter “made a mistake.” “You can’t lock your children in the house,” Dyer said. “[Premarital sex] can’t be a relationship ender.” Brown agreed: “It isn’t just about sex or signing a commitment; the objective is to be able to talk about what sex should be and to communicate my values about sexuality in general.”
What does it mean to pledge purity?
Both fathers and daughters sign separate commitments in Brown’s Purity Ball ceremony. The father’s promise includes the pledge to “always be willing to rescue her from difficult situations, saving questions for later,” and to “strive to communicate with her in a gentle and understanding way when she shares her soul with me.” In return, the daughter promises to “respond to my father’s leadership until I am under the leadership of my husband.”
In Brown’s covenant, both pledge to “strive to maintain the highest standards of purity in my own life in thought, word, and deed.” But Brown never specifies what the “highest standard of purity” is, exactly—or what purity means at all. How can one pledge to be pure if the meaning of purity is unclear?
To be fair, it’s a hard term to define, so I asked each father how they’d best explain the concept of purity to their daughters. “Purity means having a good understanding of the value of sexuality and how awesome it is, how special sex is,” Dyer said. “We need to have an understanding of sexuality in our everyday lives. We’re all sexual beings; we bring our sexuality into every situation no matter how old we are.” I asked him more specific questions: was premarital oral sex OK? “Definitely not.” How about masturbation? After a pause: “No.” Kissing? “Maybe.”
Kessler offered this: “Purity is a state of mind; it’s knowing where you stand with God.” But he couldn’t give me a specific definition, and faltered when I pressed him: would he be OK with fondling as opposed to oral sex? Are they equally “impure”?
So if purity is truly a state of mind and a personal choice, why convolute an already complicated issue by asking your daughter to participate in a ritualized public event? That’s not a father-daughter bond, it’s a burden. Or worse, coercion by shame. Reverend Steve Clapp, a Church of the Brethren minister who surveyed almost 6,000 religious teenagers for his book Faith Matters, told me that one common sentiment from teenagers who had taken abstinence pledges was that they felt forced to sign if the pledges were made public.
“It made some of them feel like the act of pledging wasn’t meaningful,” he told me. “If you’ve not made the pledge, the fact that you haven’t really stands out, and that’s an awful lot of pressure, especially if it’s at a ball in front of a bunch of your friends and their fathers. Many teens told us they only made pledges because of what it meant if they didn’t.” Statistics back this up: According to Daddy I Do, one in six girls pledges purity in America, and 90 percent break that vow.
These fathers all agreed that purity balls were a fun way to foster father-daughter relationships, encourage communication about an uncomfortable and confusing issue, and make their daughters feel that they’re worth more than just their bodies. But by conflating father-daughter connection with ownership, undermining the serious implications of the covenant, and linking the word “value” with a nebulous concept of “purity,” don’t fathers risk sending their daughters a message that sexuality—or abstaining from sex—defines them?