Seems in the last year my eyes have been opened to just how many kids either are having sex outside marriage (and outside their parents' awareness), are marrying young so that they can have sex (and in most cases, are skipping college too), or are turning up pregnant to the surprise of everyone. (We had a fifteen year old become pregnant this year in our little corner of the world.)
To stem what feels like a tidal wave of promiscuity, my peer group of evangelicals and homeschooling parents have attempted to wind back the clock to a time when keeping your knees together until marriage was the norm.
This is the era of abstinence (purity) pledges. Dr. Dobson made the whole idea popular years ago when he featured a father on his broadcast who had given his daughter a promise ring - the promise being that she would not have sex until marriage, to safe-guard her virginity. The promise was made to her parents as well as to God and her future, as-yet-unknown husband.
Since that broadcast, my age-mates (particularly homeschooling families) have clung to the purity pledge phenomenon like static cling to laundry. Us too. Johannah has a ring (actually, she has two - she liked two equally well so Jon said one could be from me and one from him). Hmm. As I write this, I can see some smart-ass teen wondering if she could give up the "gift" twice and still be sin-free.
In any event, it was in that spirit that a friend of mine and his wife have co-founded a "purity ball" in Colorado Springs (fittingly located since Focus on the Family put the whole idea of promise rings on the evangelical map). Fathers take their daughters to an elaborate formal dance in a large banquet room of a hotel (similar to a prom). The daughters wear gowns, get their hair done, sport high heels, decorate their young faces in make-up and then sign a parchment that declares to their parents, God and all present that they will not give away the gift of virginity until marriage. The fathers, in turn, pledge to protect the daughter's purity (and invoke military imagery in so doing - they will "war" on behalf of their daughter's virginity).
This purity ball includes girls as young as 7 or 8 (though the target age is a bit older) all the way into their twenties. Some daughters and dads go every year to the ball (it's not necessarily a one-time event in a girl's life). There is, interestingly enough, nothing even remotely comparable for boys, who one would presume are just as in need of purity commitments as daughters...
In any case, Glamour magazine sent one of their reporters to the purity ball and they wrote an article about it.
The article is well-written and worth a read.
Here's an excerpt toward the end:
Following dessert—chocolate cake or fruit coulis for the adults, ice cream sundaes for the girls—couples file into the adjacent ballroom. Seven ballerinas, including Christy Parcha, appear in white gowns with tulle skirts, carrying on their shoulders a large, rustic wooden cross that they lift up and rest on a stand. Lisa Wilson cries as she presents each of their three ceremonial dances, one of which is called “I’ll Always Be Your Baby.” Afterward, Randy Wilson and a fellow pastor, Steve Holt, stand at the cross with heavy rapiers raised and announce that they are prepared to “bear swords and war for the hearts of our daughters.” The blades create an inverted “V” under which girls and fathers kneel and lay white roses that symbolize purity. Soon there is a heap of cream-colored buds wilting beneath the outstretched arms of the cross.
I honestly find the whole phenomenon a little creepy. I'm a fan of "saving it until marriage" and would advocate that to my kids. But adding the layer of dating dad, fathers warring to protect daughters, and the oddly romantic quality of the ball between a father and his daughter leaves me uncomfortable.
And worse, I don't think it works.
Just this week, I found out that a dear friend of my daughter's (one who I have known well and whose mother is a friend) is having sex--a homeschooled girl from an abstinence family. I found out that another dear friend's son and his fiance are, oops, expecting a baby before the wedding. And as I spent some time reflecting, I tallied up ten+ homeschooled kids who have married before turning twenty and several of whom had kids by 21. Some of these lived with boyfriends or girlfriends before marrying.
What's going wrong?
Or perhaps a better way to put is: why do we attempt to coerce commitments from daughters?
I hate the emphasis on protecting the virginity of girls with not a mention of boys (who typically display far more sexual energy and a willingness to over-ride moral commitments when in the throes of hormones than girls of the same ages) and I find the "dating Dad" phenomenon oddly forced. I love the idea of being close to your father, but I don't like the way Dad is suggested as a substitute for developing peer relationships that do include some of that sexual tension.
When Johannah asked for a ring, Jon's concern was that she might box herself into a role and commitment that could change as she aged and made her morals her own. Her response was that she felt right in making the commitment today and that if reevaluation occurred, she'd face it then.
She has a book called "Girlosophy" that has the best teaching on teen and young adult sexuality I've read. The writer gives details of what sex involves (emotional, physical and relational commitment levels) and then says to the girls: you get to decide which of these you want.
So empowering! It seems to me that the only way to truly value purity is to know that you can choose not to be pure. If it is expected of you prematurely and the feeling of love and acceptance in your family is tied to staying a virgin, you really haven't made a commitment about sex at all. Perhaps all you've done is accept the terms and conditions for being a welcome member of the family which has little to do with sexual self-awareness.