Learning Purity

Where do young Christian girls learn that they are supposed to be sexually pure?  A photographer recently claimed that it was something girls wanted, something not imposed on them by their families.

As usual, your trusty editor at ILYBYGTH is behind the times.  Apparently, this series of purity-ball photographs by Swedish photographer David Magnusson attracted a good deal of attention several weeks ago.  At these balls, girls dress up in elaborate gowns, dance with their fathers, and finally pledge sexual abstinence.


Not surprisingly, bloggers and journalists reacted with some predictable outrage to this combination of precocious sexuality, gender coercion, and daddy-ism.  For instance, Tom Hawking called the photos “weird” and “terrifying.”  “It’s hard to know where to start with this:” Hawking wrote,

the notion of sex as “impurity,” the fact that it’s all daughters and no sons, the idea of dressing a preteen girl in something that looks awfully like a wedding dress.

The photographer presented himself as an intrigued outsider.  At first, Magnusson said, he thought these purity balls would be nothing more than another American tragedy.  As he remembered, “I imagined American fathers terrified of anything that might hurt their daughters’ or their family’s honor.” But as he learned more about them, he came to a new understanding. The balls represented something initiated often by the daughters themselves. As Magnusson put it,

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 first being invited by their daughters.

As we’ve wrestled with before at ILYBYGTH, purity culture can have educational consequences. Some argue that purity culture encourages a culture of sexual victimization on the campuses of conservative Christian colleges.

PurityBut Magnusson’s claim raises new questions. If, as he asserts, girls don’t learn about purity balls from their families, where do they learn about them? More importantly, where do girls learn that they want to take part in this sort of ceremony? We should be skeptical about Magnusson’s claim that girls themselves chose freely to take part in these ceremonies. That sort of “choice” can involve all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle influence from parents and others. But it seems plausible that some girls embrace these ideas. And it seems plausible that some girls lead their fathers to this event, not vice versa.

If that’s the case, we need to wonder where girls got the idea. Certainly, some schools teach abstinence-only education curricula that promote a “purity” notion of proper femininity. And independent curricular programs such as True Love Waits have had success in reaching young people as parachurch organizations.

As always, these questions demonstrate the infinitely complicated nature of education. It is difficult to imagine a tradition like purity balls succeeding unless young people had been taught to embrace such a thing. Who taught them? And how?


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  1. willbell123

     /  May 25, 2014

    I don’t think liberals for the most part are all that surprised that the girls are a part of the process, I think they’re more concerned about the kind of upbringing that would lead to a purity ball being considered a typical behaviour.

  2. Patrick

     /  May 27, 2014

    I’d not heard of purity balls before, but I could imagine a lot of the high school girls I teach wanting to do this. It’s pretty simple, actually. They really love their dads (who happen to be great people–I’ve met them), and they place a high value on the Christian teaching against sex before marriage.

    Having grown up in a somewhat dysfunctional family and attending public school, and now being a teacher at a conservative Christian school, I’ve been constantly surprised and impressed at the quality of relationships a lot of my students have with their parents. Not creepy, controlling, codependent relationships, but healthy, loving, mature, mutually respectful ones.

    So to answer your question, “who taught them and how?”–I’d say many of these girls were simply raised by parents who happen to be kind and loving people who took them to church and taught them the Bible. That’s it.

  3. Female “circumcision” is initiated by women, too.

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