More Purity Ballz

Ken the Lurker recommended this Chicago Sun-Times op-ed: Focusing on virginity also sexualizes girls. What's interesting about it is that it was written by an evangelical Christian who believes in abstinence until marriage and nonetheless objects quite vociferously to the increasingly infamous purity balls at which daughters make a pact with their fathers—she to remain a virgin until marriage and he (overtly) to be a role model and (covertly) to fiercely guard her hymen. The author, Betsy Hart, notes both that she "can't help but wonder if a single-minded focus on virginity is an ironic, and unintended way, of sexualizing youth in a different way," and of course it is. The first time I thought about my own potential as a sexual creature was at church, as I was told long before I even fully understood the basic mechanics of sex that I'd better not have any—at least until I got married. The combination of being prohibited from something, and incomplete knowledge of that something, generated a much more voluminous curiosity about sex than I would have had left to my own devices. And it was not an entirely healthy interest, either: I was keen to find out about sex mainly so I could avoid doing it lest I make God mad.

Hart is also dismayed that "something like a 'purity ball' essentially minimizes a young woman's very humanity," but it's even worse than that. Purity ball dads—like the one who "presented his adolescent daughter with a tiny lock" the key to which "he will give to her husband on her wedding day"—are reducing their daughters' worth as a human to the state of their virginities, and then using protected virginity as a dowry. Purity ball daughters are thus diminished entirely of their humanity, instead merely a trade of goods between two men—a reality that we're meant to ignore because she is ostensibly given "choice" regarding upon whom she will confer status, by offering her father's vigilantly protected and prized possession (her virginity) for his (her suitor's) consumption. And thusly is her trajectory from baby (of one man) to baby-maker (for another) realized.

This transaction immutably and inextricably links a girl's virginity with her character—to the exclusion, Hart worries, of all else. "[T]hese dads and daughters may be falling for the misperception … that some sort of righteousness is inherent in the status of virgin, or any outward appearance of propriety. But what if that same virginal girl has a heart full of bitterness, envy, lust, greed? Would her dad still be proud? Would she? Should they be?" Good questions all. Here's another: Is there not something deeply troubling about a parent who finds it quite impossible to be proud of his daughter, or a daughter who likewise finds it quite impossible to be proud of herself, if she has a heart full of love and kindness and generosity, and is also an unmarried non-virgin? How many girls, knowing their father's love and respect is contingent upon their "purity," will resist telling their fathers if they are molested, or raped? How many of these girls will get abortions they're not sure they want without consulting those closest to them for fear of discovery, or be whisked away to secret abortions by tight-lipped mothers, forced to keep up a pretense of virginity with dear old deluded dad? I am reminded of stories like these:

"I have done several abortions on women who have regularly picketed my clinics, including a 16 year old schoolgirl who came back to picket the day after her abortion, about three years ago. ... Next morning she was with her mother and several school mates in front of the clinic with the usual anti posters and chants. It appears that she got the abortion she needed and still displayed the appropriate anti views expected of her by her parents, teachers, and peers." (Physician, Australia)

"In 1990, in the Boston area, Operation Rescue and other groups were regularly blockading the clinics, and many of us went every Saturday morning for months to help women and staff get in. As a result, we knew many of the 'antis' by face. One morning, a woman who had been a regular 'sidewalk counselor' went into the clinic with a young woman who looked like she was 16-17, and obviously her daughter. ... The following Saturday, she was back, pleading with women entering the clinic not to 'murder their babies.'" (Clinic escort, Massachusetts)
Humans will often go to absurd, sometimes scary, lengths to protect themselves against a loss of love and/or respect—and a lot of young people will do extraordinarily stupid things just to avoid disappointing a parent. I can only imagine the pressure to cover up all trace of "wrongdoing" when not doing that thing is the sole measure of a good character, when you've signed a silly contract as a wee child to promise never to do something your body and environment have not remotely begun to make difficult to avoid, when you know that breach of that contract means you've compromised your father's vision of you—and his vision of himself, his very manhood. How can he be proud of you after that? How can you be proud of yourself?

Hart says that purity balls, that parents treating children like property and minimizing their human agency, "might make it easier for us to watch them grow up"—but I don't see how this arrangement makes the relationship between a parent and child easier. Unconditional love is always less complicated. The only thing it makes easier is a parent's ability to eschew responsibility for the hard bits of being a parent, like when your kid isn't exactly what you'd hoped.

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