Balls to the Wall

Waltzing for purity

by Sarah Wool, editor; illustration by Madeline Frost, guest artist

It’s easy to ridicule the name—it can conjure visions of the white marble testicles on Michelangelo’s David, or two scoops of vanilla ice cream—but for the fathers and daughters who attend them, “Purity Balls” are serious. They began as Evangelical Christian fare, but in little over a decade they have taken place in forty-eight states and garnered interest in at least seventeen countries. Their objective is to promote a close, protective relationship between father and daughter. They center on a solemn commitment ceremony in which a father reads and signs a pledge to actively guard his daughter’s virginity, and his daughter makes a silent promise to herself and to God to stay chaste until marriage. And they began in Colorado Springs.

In the early nineties, Purity Balls were mere embryos in the imaginations of Randy and Lisa Wilson, a husband and wife livinging Colorado Springs. In 1998, the couple penned a formal pledge for fathers to recite with their daughters as witnesses—a covenant in which a father verbally “choose[s] before God” to be watchdog over his daughter’s virginity, to act as “her authority and protection in the area of purity,” and to “lead, guide and pray over [her] […] as the high priest in [his] home.” All the Wilsons needed was an event where the pledge could be stated and celebrated.

Enter the Purity Ball, where for eighty-five dollars per person plus the cost of formalwear, an attendee and her father get a night of dinner and dancing followed by a pledge and a procession of immaculate young daughters. During the procession, two fathers stand on either side of a large cross, each holding up a shining sword. The daughters, sometimes as young as four, demonstrate their commitment to abstinence by kneeling in front of the cross and underneath the blades, a symbolic vertex of purity and promise.

The Wilsons’ first Purity Ball was a modest production at a Marriott Hotel with about a hundred guests, including the Wilsons’ parents and their seven children. Over the years, their Balls have attracted more and more families, not to mention camera crews and reporters. The most recent Purity Ball was held on March 6 at the lavish Broadmoor Hotel’s Lake Terrace Ballroom.

The popularity of Purity Balls ballooned in 2006 when the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, a stronghold of the movement against premarital sex, began selling hundreds of informational packets about hosting Purity Balls. The events quickly spread outward across the United States. As the Wilsons’ website explains, Purity Balls are easy to organize with just a little elbow grease and a modicum of financial support for sponsorship. A father and daughter can attend as many Balls as they wish, and some father-daughter pairs frequent the Purity scene, flitting from Ball to Ball in a glittering show of their devotion to all things chaste. Likewise, some take the pledge more seriously than others. For the hard-liners, a Purity Pledge postpones a girl’s first kiss until her wedding day. She and her husband meet through adult-chaperoned group dates and get married only if her parents approve the match.

At face value, Purity Balls might look similar to Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation ceremonies, but more careful examination suggests that they belong in a different league entirely. For one, they are off-limits to an entire half of the unmarried population: boys. The Wilsons address this arrant boy-exclusion in a section of their website titled “What About Boys?” The page begins with a quotation from Preston Gillham, a “life and leadership consultant” who proclaims, “Manhood is a ritual passed from generation to generation with precious few spoken instructions.” Unlike the daughters of the Purity Ball crowd, who get a pledge devoted to protecting their purity, sons ostensibly do not need verbal instructions or babying. The Purity Ball presents girls as passive objects needy of male protection, but encourages boys to actively discover power and masculinity through man-to-man interactions. They are invited to attend Purity Balls but not to take a pledge of virginity. According to the Wilsons’ website, if they attend a Ball, it is to “watch the way their fathers treat young women.”

For Ball-goers, the discussion of boys is swathed in patriarchal vernacular. The Wilsons “believe that manhood is passed from the masculine to the masculine,” from men to men. They do not adhere to the idea that gender is a social construct—that “masculinity” is not innate, but learned in these man-to-man interactions. And the Wilsons’ concepts of “masculine” and “feminine” puts girls under great social and familial pressure to be abstinent. Contrarily, boys are left alone to be men, with whatever exploration that entails. Wilson celebrated his own son’s transition into manhood by presenting him with a ring to represent integrity and a sword to represent power. There was no obligation to make a vow of purity, even a silent one.

The Wilsons have set an age—twelve—when a boy can formally transition into adulthood during a “Manhood Ceremony.” For girls, however, there is no age specified as appropriate for attending Purity Balls. The majority of the girls who attend are somewhere between eleven and eighteen, but the lack of age specification means that many girls end up making abstinence pledges before they leave elementary school. Nobody is forcing them to adhere to these pledges or locking them into chastity belts until their wedding days, but critics point out that failure to uphold a promise of abstinence may lead girls to feel guilty about their sexual actions.

Even Randy Wilson knows that the pledge can only go so far. For this reason, Wilson views the Purity Ball as being more about the father-daughter relationship than the Purity Pledge. “This is all about fatherhood,” he said in an interview with Matt Lauer. “Any opportunity we can have to build time and invest in relationships with our daughters helps them succeed in life.” Some observers, however, think the brand of fatherhood touted at Purity Balls can come off as a perverse obsession with young girls’ sexuality. In response, Wilson insisted that there is no obsession or control involved: “It’s not that I’m controlling my daughter or wanting to; I want to help walk her through life and all the aspects of it and talk her through situations that she’s wrestling with.” It sounds like a good plan, but it often leaves girls afraid to talk to their parents about anything having to do with sex. Shelby Knox, who made a purity pledge at fifteen, has said that she knew “nothing” about sex when she vowed to be abstinent. “A lot of times,” she explained, “these young women are too young to even understand what sex is, what purity is. They don’t really have all the information yet. I feel like a lot of these young women take these pledges because it’s what their adoring father wants.” And when that happens, Purity Balls put girls at risk to make irresponsible choices.

In the last decade, a blitzkrieg of data has demonstrated the apparent ineffectiveness of abstinence. A Columbia University study of 12,000 adolescents showed that 88 percent of kids who made abstinence pledges ended up having sex before marriage. Longitudinal studies of adolescents have also found that those who make abstinence pledges are just as likely to engage in premarital sex as those who make no such pledge. The problem is bigger than broken promises, though, because the teenagers who make pledges are actually less likely to use condoms or other contraception for premarital sex than those who do not make pledges. Why plan ahead for an act they vowed not to commit? To prepare for sex would be to acknowledge failure. Hence, they are at high risk to become pregnant or contract STDs.

So why make a pledge in the first place? Often, kids make the pledge not because of an overwhelming inclination to be pure, but because they feel pressure from parents, priests, teachers, or peers. Group mentality is a powerful player. After all, nobody wants to be left out of the Purity Ball! And to an eleven-year-old who doesn’t need a bra yet, abstinence can seem like an easy and admirable choice. Easy, that is, until puberty strikes, and that same kid begins to consider that people have sex for reasons other than procreation.

Nonetheless, when it’s put into practice, abstinence offers a security that mere “safe sex” can’t touch. Condoms can break and birth control can fail, but abstinence is the only surefire method of avoiding pregnancy and STDs. Remaining abstinent is certainly possible, and it has recently gained attention from the popular press. In May 2009, teenage mother Bristol Palin made a public decision not to have sex (again) until marriage when she began a run as Abstinence Ambassador for the Candies Foundation. Then, a February 2010 study published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that abstinence-based programs for sixth- and seventh-graders may help to delay their sexual activity as compared to their peers, who are given comprehensive sexual education. Of course, “delay” is an important word here, since the subjects of the study were only tracked for two years. According to self-reporting from the subjects (a method that already calls the accuracy of the results into question), one third of the abstinence-trained subjects became sexually active compared to one half of the comprehensively educated subjects—a significant portion in both groups. Abstinence might keep kids from sex for a little while, but it can only pin their thrashing hormones down for so long. And without a secure understanding of contraception, consent, or the emotional risks raised by a physical relationship, the subjects who received abstinence-only education may struggle to handle the responsibilities of sex.

Purity Balls are a delicately layered red velvet cake—pure white cheesy innocence spread thin to cover lustful, crimson decadence. They are exaltations of virginity, performance art with the most obvious symbolism. Yet no pedestal can protect them from the sullying touches of criticism, and social scientists and journalists continue to pick them apart. It is up to abstinence proponents and their daughters to faithfully gather the shreds and piece them back together. The Balls will go on. ∼

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