I was introduced to the concept of purity balls, like so many of us, through David Magnusson’s Purity photo series that made waves across the Internet in May 2014. As a father of a very young girl, learning about this phenomenon left me uneasy. Months passed and the Magnusson’s haunting photos kept popping into my head. The more I thought about them the more they bothered me. The photos themselves are striking; some, myself included, would say the series is creepy. Still, it isn’t the creep factor of the photos that’s gnawing at me. It is the idea of a purity ball and the pledge that comes with it.
My daughter is a baby so I have a long time yet before my household has any of “the talks” about sex and sexuality. I know one thing for sure. When the time comes to have “the talk,” the words “virtue,” “purity,” and “treasure” are not factoring into the conversation. In the context of sexuality, these words are in the same class as “slut” and “whore.” These words place my daughter’s sexuality at the center of her value as a person.
Purity balls are perhaps the most visible manifestation of virginity as currency. For fathers, it creates a strange ownership dynamic over a daughter’s sexuality. For daughters, it suggests a direct connection between a daughter’s virginity and a father’s love. Clearly, the power in this dynamic rests with the father. I suspect that men who take part in these pledges are unlikely to feel the same guilt over failing to protect a daughter’s so-called “purity” as a daughter who puts at risk the love of a parent for failing to hold up her end of the pledge.
Where these pledges are concerned, shame is currency.
Who owns what now?
I don’t own my daughter’s sexuality. Her virginity is not mine to protect. Her virginity just is or isn’t. Of course it is my hope that she waits for the right time to enter the stage in her life where she becomes sexually active but the right time for her and the right time for me may not be the same. No matter how you slice it, her choice to have sex or not is her choice and there is nothing I can do as a father to change that. The best thing I can do is to create an environment where she knows, no matter what choice she makes, that I will love her all the same.
As with most major life choices, my daughter may (although I hope she does not) regret her decision to become sexually active. All the more reason to ensure that she doesn’t compound that regret with the fear of disappointing her father or expecting I will think less of her. If it is a difficult time for her then she will need supportive parents. A father sidelined by guilt over a failure to protect something that was not his to control is likely a liability, not a comfort, in a time of need. Worse, a father who casts blame on a daughter for his perceived failure is throwing gasoline on a fire.
By accepting and acknowledging that my daughter owns her sexuality I am seeking to arm her with good decision making skills where sex is concerned, so that when the time is right for her she can try to approach sex with some clarity of purpose and with someone who shares her intention. I’m not expecting her to marry her first partner but I hope he respects her and she him throughout whatever time they share together.
The Price of Sex
Marriage. Marriage is the only way for young women who undertake purity pledges to buy back control of their sexuality at the expense of immediately connecting it to another man.
Where my own daughter is concerned, this is too high a price to expect her to pay in order to become sexually active. Yes, there are risks associated with sex. There are also risks associated with marriage. Neither should be taken lightly. Neither should function as the mandatory gateway to the other.
Marrying in order to achieve guilt-free sex is missing the point of marriage. Marriage is as much a bond of love – really commitment to another person even when you may not like him or her so much one day to the next but you love and support each other all the same – as a legal bond. Sex, at least in a good marriages, is just one of many things that married people do to affirm their loving bond. To that end, sex doesn’t last forever. When sex is the purpose of marriage it takes on outsized importance and makes for a shaky foundation to a supposedly lifelong commitment. See how well sex gets you through joint filing of taxes.
Still, the urge to gain license for guilt-free sex could push young women to seek marriage before they are ready. The divorce rate for couples marrying between the ages of 15 to 22 is considerably higher than those marrying between the ages of 23 to 28.
I don’t want my daughter to enter into a marriage at a young age in order to have sex only to end up divorced shortly after nuptials. The last thing I want is for her to end up in a bad or abusive marriage that she feels compelled to stay in to guard against somehow sullying a purity pledge. This is yet another off ramp on the purity road that leads straight to fears of fatherly disappointment and guilt.
Sex Happens. Deal with it Like a Man.
If you have one, your daughter is going to have sex eventually. Placing conditions on her sexuality through a purity pledge to guard your emotions is selfishness at its most insidious.
The debate on what makes a man rages on. I submit the following criteria: men don’t saddle daughters (or women in general) with shame for being female.
In the process of creating Purity, Magnusson notes that many of these girls chose the purity pledge without their father’s prior knowledge:
It was also often the girls themselves that had taken the initiative to attend the balls. They had made their decisions out of their own conviction and faith, in many cases with fathers who didn’t know what a Purity Ball was before being invited by their daughters.
This ignores a simple truth. These are children. Children often do the things they think will make their parents happy without fully mapping out the consequences.
No young woman free of conditions that create shame about one’s sexuality would choose a purity pledge. That is not to say that women are incapable of choosing not to have sex. A woman may hold no guilt about her sexuality and choose not to have sex before marriage but that woman is not holding her sexuality as a currency that defines her as pure, virtuous, or good.
If a man allows his daughter to define her own moral value by her status as virgin, he failed long before she chooses to take a purity pledge.
As I mentioned above, my daughter is very young so to those thinking, “easy for you to say now” I offer the following. I’ve seen what sexual guilt can do to women – the truth is we all have. It is a cycle of guilt that needs to end. It can end if fathers and mothers accept that one day their daughter will have sex and that single act does not define her. With that realization and acceptance we free our daughters to define their moral character by their actions and how they treat those around them rather the status of their hymens.
Cover photo: “i’m losing myself” by Asher Lilley
Note: I am well aware that this piece looks at sexuality through the lens of heteronormativity. I think both women and men should have the freedom to explore their sexuality. For the purposes of this piece, the heteronormative frame is essential in exploring the idea of purity – as a state of women defined by men – put forth by those taking part in purity pledges.