Let’s talk about sex, or rather the absence thereof, which is the focus of the sexual “purity” trend that’s taken hold in many areas—especially in the conservative South—over the last two decades. First, an explanation of this phenomenon.
Popular in conservative Christian communities, purity pledges are essentially promises made by pre-teen and teen girls to their fathers that they will wait until they’re married to have sex. These virginity pacts are often sealed with “purity rings” given to daughters by their dads as a reminder of the covenant and are celebrated at “purity balls,” daddy-daughter dances at which fathers promise to protect their daughters’ “purity of mind, body, and soul.” Advocates for this trend say it promotes physical, mental, and spiritual integrity in girls and young women. What they mean by “integrity” is certainly debatable.
If you think that this seemingly quaint custom must surely be eroding in the age of digital dating and social media, you’re wrong. Recently, an Instagram post in which a young woman presented her father with a certificate attesting to her virginity on her wedding day went viral. In fact, the movement is effectively using new technology to gain steam—just run a hashtag check for #makejesusfamous or #purityonapedestal.
Creeped out by all of this non-sex talk? You should be. The purity phenomenon is disturbing on multiple levels.
First, it upholds fathers as the guardians of their daughters’ sexuality. That is, of course, until a girl gets married, at which point such guardianship is transferred from her father to her husband. If this doesn’t scream “patriarchy,” I don’t know what does. The implication that whether and with whom a young woman has sexual relations is a decision made not by her, but by her father, harkens back to the days when women were seen as chattel. Girls, your dad doesn’t own your sexuality—you do. That doesn’t change when you get married, either; your partner shares your sexuality with your consent. Promoting the notion that women and girls do not have the right to sexual self-determination is wrong. Freedom of choice in this most intimate area of our lives is essential to the view that women and men are free and equal beings—that is physical, mental, and spiritual integrity.
Secondly, this troubling preoccupation with physical chastity objectifies young women. Instead of concentrating on building up the minds and spirits of their daughters, the promoters of the purity movement are hyper-focused on girls as sexual beings. Such a focus can actually have the unintended consequence of sexualizing girls long before they’re interested in such things.
Finally, despite all the pomp and circumstance surrounding purity pledges, researchers have shown that they are largely ineffective. Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health shows that teens making virginity pacts, including those promulgated through purity balls, usually do not adhere to the required standard of chastity. Furthermore, because these young people are often denied access to accurate reproductive health information by their parents who are certain they’ll remain chaste, they are less likely to use safe sex practices and more likely to contract sexually transmitted infections according to the journal Pediatrics and the American Journal of Public Health. Thus, not only does this purity trend ignore the reality of teen sexuality, it actually puts young people at increased risk for dangerous diseases.
Parents should certainly talk to their children—girls and boys—about sex, and abstinence until marriage is ever an option. It is not, however, the only option, and it is not the one most teens and young adults choose. Instead of attempting to change that with bizarre and harmful purity rituals that don’t usually work, why not have an open and honest conversation with girls and boys about their bodies and how best to protect and respect themselves and others?