Monday, July 21, 2008

More Purity Balls

These are not Norwegian meatballs, but those father-daughter dances in which the father promises to guard his daughter's sexual purity until marriage and where the daughter promises to obey him in that. The events are always shrouded in Christianity, including the girls kneeling in front of a sword. Other mythology sometimes includes a locket shaped like a heart and given to the daughter by the father. There's a key to the locket but he keeps it until she gets married. At that time the key is passed to the husband.

Many have written about the things which bother me about these balls: That they have an improper sexual tint, that they are based on fathers owning their daughters sexuality and then passing that ownership to the future husbands of the same daughters, that the focus of these balls is on the daughters and not on the sons (though mother-son balls are also becoming more popular). That last aspect is linked to the old assumption that girls can guard their fortress vaginas against the insistent battering rams of boys, that boys don't have to try to stop battering and that any breaches in the ramparts are her fault, not his.

Now Time magazine has come out with a piece which argues that Purity Balls have many positive aspects, too, such as encouraging teens to delay dangerous sex and creating more caring fathers. gives a summary critique of the article. I want to talk more about those positive aspects.

A quote from the article helps:

If you listen long enough, you wonder whether there is really such a profound disagreement about what parents want for their children. Culture war by its nature pours salt in wounds, finds division where there could be common purpose. Purity is certainly a loaded word--but is there anyone who thinks it's a good idea for 12-year-olds to have sex? Or a bad idea for fathers to be engaged in the lives of their daughters and promise to practice what they preach? Parents won't necessarily say this out loud, but isn't it better to set the bar high and miss than not even try?

Or in other words: Who cares about the means we use to get to the goals we all agree about: less early sex and more father involvement in their daughters lives? That sounds Jesuit to me. But more importantly, it assumes that the goals are correctly reached with Purity Balls, that the daughters will in fact keep their virginity longer, perhaps even until marriage, and that this particular fatherly involvement is what we would like to see in the lives of young girls.

As the article itself notes, evidence does not suggest that Purity Ball vows work, though I doubt that anyone has yet done a proper study of just this particular form of abstinence education. And I'd rather see fathers take their daughters out to age appropriate movies and then dinner where they can discuss the movie and its messages, or out to the backyard to teach them to throw a ball and play games or to the bookstore where they can pick up books they like and share what it is they like about them. And so on.

There is something very sad about fathers who feel that they don't know how to father their daughters, and I can see how something like Purity Balls might give them an opening for closer contact. But do these dances do that? Or are they perhaps the only fathering some of these men give their daughters? And what is the message that would send them? That they are only of interest in the context of their sexuality? That the daughters must dress up in age inappropriate evening gowns (some of them quite revealing) and go out on "a date" with their dads to get their attention? That it is in this odd virginal temptress form that they are lovable?

A long time ago I read a popular psychology book about parenting teenage daughters. About the only advice it had to give to fathers was for them to model the man their daughters would one day marry. Even then I found the advice to be extremely insulting to men and firmly based on the patriarchal tradition that women don't really matter, as they are something passed on to other families through marriage contracts, that fathers don't have to interact with their teenage daughters, except to the extent of modeling male behavior for them. I imagined all the young girls who were wilting in a world where often the most powerful person in the family ignored their lives so very completely. Reading all that made me both angry and sad, but I hoped that the book was exaggerating.

Now I think it might not have been that much of an exaggeration. Certainly the Purity Balls are an attempt to make that kind of very partial fathering, one seeped in male dominance, into something a little bit more. That's how I read the Time article, and that's why I don't agree with its somewhat positive conclusions. Fathers and daughters both deserve a real parent-child relationship.