Who really benefits from purity balls?
Wilson told me about a woman who once quipped, “When my husband went to a ball with my daughter, it saved our marriage.” He laughed, but believed it was true: “The ball calls the father to a higher place and standard of living.” Brown wrote to me in an email: “There is a saying among fathers of daughters: ‘Daughters are God’s way of punishing fathers for being men.’ The implication of this is that because we have treated women as sexual objects, being more interested in our own desires than in their welfare; now we have to worry about others treating our daughters the same way. If I am guilty of treating other women that way, I need to get my own attitude straightened out before I can be a good influence on my daughter. Our children can spot hypocrisy in us faster than anyone else.”
I don’t believe that most of these fathers take their daughters to purity balls for selfish reasons—I just wonder if the overwhelmingly positive feelings they experience through participating make it harder for them to evaluate whether the event is truly the best way to communicate with their daughters about sex. The purity ball is a quick fix, especially for fathers who, understandably, feel queasy discussing their daughters’ sexuality. The issue is broached, a satisfying and comforting agreement is pledged, and the daughter is gleeful because she’s dancing in a new dress with Daddy.
But consider the daughter who attends a purity ball before she’s even kissed a boy, and feels comfortable making a public pledge that she cannot yet fully understand. “The ball might seem like fun and games to girls who haven’t had sexual experiences, and I would hate for things to happen in their lives they’re going to feel ashamed of,” said Ann Hanson, Minister for Sexuality Education and Justice at the United Church of Christ. “I think it sets them up for sadness. I really see where their fathers are coming from, but I just think there are different ways to do it.”
Or, even more frightening, consider the girl whose parents or school doesn’t teach her about birth control and STDs, who believes what the covenant tells her: that her father’s protection is enough. There is no one conclusive study on abstinence pledges. Some studies claim virginity pledges do delay intercourse; others claim formal pledges do not have the same impact on teens who are already very involved in congregational life; others claim they don’t matter at all. But one study no one can successfully refute claims that teens who make and then break abstinence pledges are less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control.
Brown, who admitted he “has it easier” when it comes to talking about sex because he’s a doctor, educates his daughters about safe sex, just in case. But what about the masses of fathers who don’t? Faith Matters found that less than one in five religious teens think the scriptures of their faith clearly prohibit oral sex before marriage, and that 55 percent of the teens surveyed think they cannot contract HIV or another sexually transmitted disease from oral sex. And 29 percent of males and 26 percent of females in the 11th and 12th grades say they have had oral sex. Statistics and STD facts aren’t as fun as sparkly ball gowns, but they’re more important—facts like these render vague definitions of purity “as a state of mind” incredibly harmful.
What about the daughter who is sexually assaulted? Faith Matters found that “involvement in a faith-based institution does not protect teens against unwanted sexual experiences … 90 percent of the female teenagers in the national study would [prefer] programs from their faith-based institutions that would help them develop healthy assertiveness and avoid rape, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse.” It’s safe to assume that at least a few of these girls could be Purity Ball attendees. In the event of rape, would they feel like they let their fathers down?
Fathers should weigh the benefits of purity balls against the costs and think about other ways to talk to their daughters about making the right sexual choices. For example, there are programs like the UCC’s “Our Whole Lives” (OWL), which helps young adults make “informed and responsible decisions about their relationships, health, and behavior in the context of their faith” by providing “not only facts about anatomy and human development, but help [for] participants to clarify their values, build interpersonal skills, and understand the social, emotional, and spiritual aspects of sexuality.”
OWL’s age-appropriate classes include take-home guides for parents which address concerns about discussing sexuality in the context of religion. Greg Johnson, OWL Coordinator and dad to a 16-year-old girl, understands where fathers are coming from: “My natural reaction is that I don’t want to think about my kid doing sexual stuff. But that’s the OWL perspective: give her the tools so she can make the choices, rather than say to her, ‘This is a bad idea, don’t do it.’ I think that creates a stronger position for them to make good choices, rather than me simply mandating it.”
If religion is, as Brown noted, “the crux of the issue,” and you’re not OK with the idea of your daughter considering premarital sex, think about holding other types of father-daughter bonding events that celebrate open discourse but don’t mandate a public pledge that, as analysts like Clapp have determined, “there’s an awful lot of evidence most of them aren’t going to be able to keep.” Ditch the “Purity” moniker, unless you’re prepared to tackle its definition directly.
“I saved myself a lot of heartache, a lot of physical discomfort, and a lot of emotional discomfort because of my dad,” said Jennifer, Paul Dyer’s wife. “I go back to all the five-hour car rides we spent driving to dance recitals together. Yeah, I didn’t ‘make it’ to being a virgin on my wedding night, but I made it to college with my husband-to-be, and I think that’s really great. [My dad] let me know I was loved, and what I was worth.” Jennifer is an abstinence-education director, but by the end of our discussion she had changed her mind about purity balls. “The more we talk about them,” she said, “the more unnecessary I think they are. I just want my kids to know their father loves them.”
It was the road trips, not a purity pledge, that made Jennifer want to abstain from sex until she was ready.
So go ahead and dance with your daughter—but don’t dance with her because she promised to be pure.
More by Katie Baker: