Pledging Virginity ... to Your Father?

By Christine Cupaiuolo — February 14, 2007

Jennifer Baumgardner’s story in the February issue of Glamour magazine explains what’s behind “purity balls,” where men exchange rings and vows — with their daughters. If it sounds a little creepy, well, it is. Just consider the title: “Would you pledge your virginity to your father?”

Welcome to Colorado Springs’ Seventh Annual Father-Daughter Purity Ball, held at the five-star Broadmoor Hotel. The event’s purpose is, in part, to celebrate dad-daughter bonding, but the main agenda is for fathers to vow to protect the girls’ chastity until they marry and for the daughters to promise to stay pure. Pastor Randy Wilson, host of the event and cofounder of the ball, strides to the front of the room, takes the microphone and asks the men, “Are you ready to war for your daughters’ purity?”

Wilson’s voice is jovial, yet his message is serious — and spreading like wildfire. Dozens of these lavish events are held every year, mainly in the South and Midwest, from Tucson to Peoria and New Orleans, sponsored by churches, nonprofit groups and crisis pregnancy centers. The balls are all part of the evangelical Christian movement, and they embody one of its key doctrines: abstinence until marriage. Thousands of girls have taken purity vows at these events over the past nine years. While the abstinence movement itself is fairly mainstream — about 10 percent of teen boys and 16 percent of girls in the United States have signed virginity pledges at churches, rallies or programs sponsored by groups such as True Love Waits — purity balls represent its more extreme edge.

Baumgardner does a good job of describing how protecting girls’ virginity has become “a national, not just familial, concern” and covering the commercial and social culture that has built up around the abstinence only movement. She also discusses the importance of fathers playing a role in their daughters lives and treats everyone she interviews with great respect.

“Encouraging girls to avoid sleeping around is, without a doubt, a good thing,” writes Baumgardner. “The same goes for dad-daughter bonding; research shows that girls who have solid relationships with their fathers are more likely to grow up to be confident, self-respecting, successful women and to make wise choices along the way. Question is, is putting girls’ purity on a pedestal the way to achieve these all-important goals?”

The answer, both from a public policy standpoint as well as from a feminist perspective, is a clear “No.” Teen pregnancy rates are on the decline, and experts credit most of the progress to improved contraceptive use, not virginity pledges. And then there’s that pesky patriarchy to deal with.

“In patriarchy, a father owns a girl’s sexuality,” psychologist and feminist author Carol Gilligan tells Glamour. “And like any other property, he guards it, protects it, even loves it.”

Or, as Eve Ensler puts it: “When you sign a pledge to your father to preserve your virginity, your sexuality is basically being taken away from you until you sign yet another contract, a marital one. It makes you feel like you’re the least important person in the whole equation. It makes you feel invisible.”

Some of the girls interviewed aren’t even clear about what the purity pledge means. But they do enjoy getting all dressed up for a special night.

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