The ballroom is filled with young girls dressed like princesses, or ballerinas, or brides — or a hybrid of all three. Their fresh faces exude innocence, but also hint that the era of Boy Crazy is near. It’s that age of first crushes and kisses, of doodling hearts and names in notebooks, and of secretly scanning the pages of Cosmopolitan at sleepovers.
At least that’s how I identify with the 14-year-old girl. But these girls? These girls are having a very different experience.
And that “different” experience might best be understood through the Purity Ball, where these Christian-faith girls perform a dance routine around an oversized wooden cross, and then sign pledges to not kiss or have sex until marriage. Their fathers take a pledge as well, promising to protect them by fulling the male role in their life, acting as their “boyfriends.” (Their words, not mine.)
It was all documented in a recent ABC Nightline episode, which you can watch online.
I went into the episode with preconceived opinions, of course — having been a young girl, once, and intimately knowing this changing time biologically, emotionally. I have my own knee-gut reactions to strict patriarchal family structures — which is fully practiced in the 60 families who attended the Father-Daughter Purity Ball. I don’t identify with a specific religious ideology. But I’m fascinated by sub-cultures and so I watched the episode with an open mind.
And I realized, quite quickly, how little I could judge. These girls all seemed safe and happy (a bit naive and sheltered, for sure), and the fathers all seemed to exude love for their little girls. It was specifically the fathers who surprised me the most — how involved and invested these dads are in their families. In a mainstream society where dads are often absent or second-seat to the moms, these fathers are all in. They snuggle and love and protect. And what’s so wrong with that?
“We will pour into the hearts of our daughters. We will be the standard for their lives and all their future men.” said 60 fathers in unison, while squeezing their daughter’s shoulder or stroking her hair.
Beyond that, everyone looked so darn happy. Was it for the cameras? Hard to tell. But HAPPY was the most consistent emotion throughout the program.
Then why do Purity Balls make us so uncomfortable?
For me, there’s something about perpetuating the Life Is a Fairytale, Wait For Your Prince, Happily Ever After narrative that’s deeply unsettling. Fiction is one thing, but in real life? Is it smart to set these girls up to have such sky-high expectations of marriage and kissing and sex? To have such taboo wrapped around these natural and sacred experiences?
Here’s the truth: Life would be pretty boring with a true Happily Ever After storyline. Young men and women need to be prepared for the realities of life — of living and mating with another flawed human being, of having natural biological urges that require proper education, of being allowed to make mistakes without the scarlet letters. (Also, what’s up with the boys not having to sign agreements to keep their pants on?)
Then there’s the contractual document. From my perspective, she might as well be signing up for shame and guilt.
If she develops feelings for a boy, she’s betraying her father (who is already her “boyfriend”).
If she falls victim to a Heat of the Moment misstep — perhaps exasperated by the danger and rebellion — then she’s tainted, down to her very soul. She’s also in breech of contract.
If she — God forbid — has feelings for a girl then who the heck knows, considering their entire system centers around the fact that young girls need the physical affection of a man, and that they’ll one day go on to marry someone of the opposite sex.
But, in an effort to be fair, who knows what happens behind closed doors.
I can only hope that they hold up their vow to protect and love their daughters no matter the circumstance, including the inevitable stumble. That they continue stroking their little girl’s hair through disappointment. That they keep their hearts open beyond the structure and standards of their sub-culture, and truly be the kind of admirable men that they promised to be.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating purity, strength, and love. I just hope these girls know that no matter what happens down the road, their worth isn’t held in their vaginas. That men don’t get to control their sexuality — whether that’s a father or a husband.
And that kissing isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.