The Problem With “Purity”

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Commentary Sexuality

The Problem With “Purity”

Amanda Marcotte

Purity balls aren't as widespread a phenomenon as first assumed, but that doesn't mean the problem with the idea of "purity" isn't an issue. Purity pledges and purity rings still abound in large numbers, and the smuggle ideas that are bad for people's mental and physical health.

Anna Breslaw at Jezebel put up a post last week where she detailed how the practice of “purity balls” isn’t spreading as widely as abstinence-only fanatics were claiming and feminists feared. Breslaw is right, of course, that this is good news. Purity balls weren’t just a shockingly high-pressure strategy to bully young girls into making all sorts of promises their older selves aren’t going to want to keep, but they also revived old school patriarchal notions about how women are property that is transferred from father-owner to husband-owner upon marriage. Breslaw also reported that some women who went to purity balls grew up to abandon the idea that their fathers own their virginities, which doesn’t surprise anyone.

All of this is good news, but I do worry that Breslaw’s post might result in people taking this to mean that we shouldn’t worry generally about the Christian right’s obsession with making sure women’s vaginas are always in possession of a man, be it husband or father, and never owned by women themselves. (After all, they don’t trust us with the immense responsibility that comes with owning a vagina. Women known to believe their vagina belongs to them also do things like believe they have a right to have sex on their own terms and even—gasp!—decline the chance to risk a baby every time we have sex. And, distressingly, some women even use vaginas to have sex with other women.)  Purity balls are just the most extreme version of a widespread cultural obsession with “purity,” the Christian code word for making sure that vaginas always have male owners. Of course they’re not that common; the most extreme end of any trend rarely is. To really understand the purity movement, you have to look at all of it.

While getting dressed up and explicitly promising your virginity to your father isn’t that common, the central feature of the purity ball—pushing young teens and pre-teens into taking a vow of abstinence until marriage—is far more widespread. The market for purity rings, which are rings that teenagers wear to signal commitment to premarital virginity, has gotten to the point where jewelers outside of the Christian kitsch market have set up shop. A quick search for “purity rings” demonstrates that Zales has 21 options for purity rings, ranging from $50 to over $200. Gordon’s carries the same stock. Even the supposedly classy mall jeweler James Avery carries 14 rings labeled explicitly “purity rings.” Just because kids aren’t getting up in white gowns and faux-marrying their fathers doesn’t mean they aren’t being asked before they show interest in sex to make promises about their late teens and adulthood sexual choices.

These pledges are less aesthetically revolting than purity balls, but they are nonetheless a serious problem. Even if you don’t delve into the public health aspects, there’s serious moral problems with pressuring young people who haven’t matured to the point where they really want sex yet to promise not to have it. It’s exploitative to extract promises from people who don’t have full information yet, and young teens and pre-teens really don’t have any idea of what they’re going to feel about sex when they actually have a chance to start dating. For most young people, taking a purity pledge just means going through unnecessary guilt and drama when they go ahead and have sex anyway. It ends up making young people feel like failures for no other purpose than making them feel like failures.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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From a public health perspective, these pledges are a nightmare, because young people who take them approach sex from a shame-and-guilt perspective instead of from a pleasure-and-education perspective. A famous federal study in 2008 demonstrated that the pledges didn’t do anything to prevent young people from having sex, which is no surprise considering the manipulative tactics used to extract the pledges. Unfortunately, the pledgers were less likely to use protection when they did have sex, which is also unsurprising since they were given no resources to do so, and just told instead to just say no.

As I wrote about last week, some evangelical communities are rethinking their opposition to contraception education in response to these failures. But even with education about contraception, the pledges are likely to do harm. People who feel shame and guilt over sex have much more trouble opening up a dialogue about contraception with partners. They’re far more likely to get into situations where sex happens because they “slip up,” which means they haven’t prepared themselves.

Purity pledges were invented and spread like wildfire amongst a Christian community that’s notorious for rejecting facts and scientific evidence that runs counter to their beliefs, which means they’re probably not going away any time soon. (You could say that you can’t unring that bell, in fact.) In fact, coercive strategies to extract promises of celibacy might be growing beyond targeting the tween and young teen set.  The Republican Party in Laurens County in South Carolina experimented with trying to force these promises on grown adults. The party drafted requirements that anyone running for office with their support has to pledge that they will not have and have never had premarital sex. The state party nipped that in the bud, on the grounds that it’s illegal. Still, few bad ideas on the right go away for long, and we can probably expect to see these purity pledges being pushed on people in more and more situations.

Ninety-five percent of Americans have sex without being married first, and there’s no reason to think that number will decline. (It’ll probably rise, in fact.) Even if the purity fetishists are a small minority–and even if most of the people who take pledges eventually renege and toss out the rings–the narrative that holds that anyone who has sex without marriage is “impure” does damage. Even if it doesn’t convince people that all non-marital sex is wrong, it helps prop up the myth that there’s such thing as “too much” sex, and that it’s legitimate to judge a person’s moral worth by how much they like or have sex. The prevalence of purity rings also creates the illusion that abstinence until marriage is more common than it is, giving anti-choicers an opportunity to pretend that contraception is a luxury item instead of a regular part of life for the vast majority of women of reproductive age. It’s a great thing that purity balls aren’t as common as we feared, but that doesn’t mean the “purity” movement doesn’t present real danger.