Friday, January 26, 2007

Sex and abstinence: Do purity pledges work?

I've been thinking a lot about sex. Not me having it (I'm married, remember) but about the many Christian teens I know who are. Especially: Christian homeschooled teens.

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.


carrie said...

I posted on the forum about the article itself, which I felt was subtly coercive in-an-of itself.

I honestly don't know of any of the homeschooling families in my circle going through unwanted pregnancies or lots of sexual activity. I do know some (mostly guys) going through drug problems (mainly post-high school). I don't know why your experience is different. Hmmm...

Anyway, I don't disagree with you... I've never been a fan of the purity pledge thing. Will was frankly appalled at the thought of taking H out so some dinner or event and talking about her saving herself for marriage! LOL! He (I think rightly) felt that a good relationship with her was the best protection.

I don't think we can control our children's future behavior.. heack, we can'tg get them to brush their teeth regularly! However, I also don't think we need to tell them sex is inevitable and they are too weak to resist, so go for it. There is a happy medium, and one that I think can work.

Everything we want for our children happens in the context of a strong relationship, though. A purity pledge like any other dream a parent may have, if it happens in isloation, is useless or worse.

Dalissa 365 said...

I think Carrie is right about our relationship with our children being most important. I think things like purity balls, rings, signed commitments etc. are almost a drive-thru version of making sure we've done the best job we could as parents in developing a relationship with our children. Meaning, in our culture everyone wants everything right now. Having a signed piece of paper or a false sense of security over this issue because we took our daughter to a ceremonial ball gives parents an easy way to look back and pat themselves on the back that they did everything they could rather than actually put the time into a relationship. It's much easier to buy a ring, sign a paper, or attend a dance.

And, the way the ball is described kind of skeeves me out, too. I don't want my daughter to view my husband as her stand in boyfriend... weird.

I don't know that my Mom did anything specifically to drill into me no sex before marriage. I almost made it, too. Really. Something happened close to my first time that was almost date rape and had it not happened that way, i most likely would've kept my commitment to wait. I don't think my Mom necessarily instilled that value in me, though. I mean, she must've influenced me to a degree but I truly feel the decision to wait was my own. How can you instill a way of thinking into your child? Is there even an answer?

julieunplugged said...

Carrie, I don't know why you don't know more teens in that category either. Perhaps it is just that I hear it through J and also, when a girl becomes pregnant, there is no hiding it! LOL

I like what you said here: Everything we want for our children happens in the context of a strong relationship, though.

Seems to me that we have to have strong relationships just as much for the things we don't want for them... since those sometimes crop up too.

Dalissa, I wanted to have sex before marriage and I ended up not! I had the other values - live with a guy and then marry after you know you're compatible. Then I got saved and that all changed.

But in both cases, I felt like I was making informed decisions.

I hope my kids have enough information to choose for themselves and of course I'll tell them what I think too.

thechurchgeek said...


I love your thinking about this. When it comes to this I'm always concerned about a few things:

1. We always talk about mechanics, while never really helping boys or girls clearly identify what a really good relationship looks like, and helping them think through when the other aspects of the relationship signal that it might be appropriate to choose a certain level of physical intimacy within it.

2. The bar of 'purity' is raised so high that should it be violated (as percentages certainly suggest it inevitably will be) what do we do to help kids through the subsequent guilt that follows? We end up perpetuating a disaster that is just waiting to happen.

And you're right the whole dating dad thing just seems kind of icky. I'm going to have to look into the 'girlosophy' book.

Dave said...

I think it's fair to say that these pledges "work" in that they plant a pretty strong sense of obligation into the conscience of the children who make them. Whether that holds or not over the long haul has a lot to do with what happens in the years following the pledge. For some kids, it's going to stick with them because their lives remain relatively stable... nothing happens that causes them to reconsider their commitment. Others are going to change their minds as new experiences and motivators come into their lives. I suppose all this is pretty obvious...

What I find interesting in all this is the sociological programming that goes on. I also know of many young people, sons and daughters of devoted, morally conscientious parents, who have had unplanned pregnancies outside of marriage. Over the years, I've seen a number of letters issued by prominent leaders in our church, quoting scripture, expressing repentance and a profound sense of apology to their fellow members because they or their children have succumbed to sexual temptations. It honestly feels sad and awkward to me to read such stuff because I think these apologies come more from a sense of shame that their family has been disgraced and that they were supposed to be "better" than that in our estimation.

The ceremonial and patriarchal aspects of this pledge thing are, imo, wack. To me, it just looks like another skirmish in the culture war, quite literally when it comes to the incorporation of military symbolism. I get that the people who put this together are trying to come up with counter-programming that offers an alternative to the promiscuity portrayed as the norm by mainstream pop culture... but that's no way to do it, brandishing swords and perpetuating the "daddy's girl" thing with renewed ferocity. These people would do well to watch Pleasantville and take a clue from there. :o)

In the end I think it comes down to remaining emotionally available to your children and not overplaying the "expectations" angle to the point where kids feel cornered, resentful and desperate to get out of the trap they think they're in. That's when a lot of the drastic bad stuff happens.

Speaking from my own experience, I think I've had it fairly easy, I must admit. My only daughter (of four children altogether) is 21 but never bought into some of the prevailing ideas of what a teenage girl ought to be like, re: "hotness," fashion, boy-crazy, competitive towards other women, etc. Temperamentally, my children are all pretty laid back and don't show much in the way of neurotic behavior. Kids who are more driven by those forces are harder for parents to handle, and maybe a more strident approach is seen as necessary...? I dunno, I'm just happy that it hasn't been my personal cross to bear.

Kansas Bob said...

Not sure that I should comment on this as it is something very close to my heart ... but I will anyway.

Someone very close to me took a purity pledge in junior high .. much to her father's delight. She got pregnant at 17 and it broke her dad's heart. The way he reacted shamed his daughter and drove a wedge in their relationship. They are closer today but not as close as he would like ... though he has changed a lot his presence is still a reminder of shame to his daughter.

It is a lesson to us all - to be careful about the requirements that we put on our children ... a reminder that God has no grandchildren ... we are but coaches that can either gently encourage or discourage these young ones to have a relationship with their heavenly Father - which can lead to purity of a different order.

julieunplugged said...

Bob, wow. What a mouthful you shared there.

**Thank you**

Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,

I am not surprised to hear that so many young people have not been able to keep their committments in this area of their life. I am not against abstinence or "personal" pledges but I don't think they often work with because "repression" as a means to stop desires is a short term stop gap at best and generally doesn't work at all with kids who have a significant amount of turmoil in their lives as Dave's comments suggest...I am not proposing indulgence is the answer, either because of the obvious destructive consequences of giving in to our natural desires...There has to be a third way...The third way, is, imo, the acknowledgment of our sensual/sexual desires....talking about it...getting it out in the open...and looking for creative and imaginative outlets. This doesn't mean we have to practice sex but there our other ways to satisfy our sensual desires in our lives....I also think we and the church needs to tackle the masturbation issue head on. Most young men and I suspect a fair number of young ladies may be practicing it as well but nobody "ever" talks about it. Out of sight and out of mind....Again....repression and indulgence generally don't work for many people which is why we need to pursue other options...imo...

Ampersand said...

I remember the day that I let go of wanting my kids to "wait till marriage."

That day, I realized that what I really I wanted was for them to have happy, healthy, and whole lives -- and sex lives. Up till that point, I thought waiting till marriage would guarantee that.

But, now I see that any road to wholeness, sexual or otherwise, is complicated, largely self-directed, and hardly ever guaranteed. They will have to figure out, with our support, how to navigate that terrain. Waiting for marriage might be a part of that -- I still think there may be some blessing to be had in that course of action.

Now, I talk to my kids not about whether to have sex or not, but rather the unexpected emotions and psychological ramifications that they will need to navigate. And of course, all the risks and cautions.

I also try to be counteract the messages of our current media and culture that say sex will make you happy and that any sex is good sex. I tell them good sex takes commitment, vulnerability, and communication.

Julie, that book sounds terrific, thanks for mentioning it.

Bilbo said...

Ampersand writes:
"But, now I see that any road to wholeness, sexual or otherwise, is complicated, largely self-directed, and hardly ever guaranteed."

I think there now are numerous sociological factors, like people getting married much later, that complicates the whole, what do we do about our sexual desires, in the meantime challenge young people face today...which is why I think we need creative alternatives to simply indulgence and abstinence...but...establishing a good relationship with your children is no doubt the place to start but I think more needs to be done on numerous fronts because exposure to sex has become increasingly pervasive in our culture...and...I think ampersand is onto something when she says she reminds us of "the unexpected emotions and psychological ramifications" It's the powerful "unexpected emotions" associated with sex that is not given enough attention, imo...and...people who have been married a number of years have "sometimes" forgotten how powerful this aspect of the sexual experience can be....Interesting topic and good thoughts by everyone....

SusansPlace said...

I'll ditto what Ampersand said.;-)

I am going to look for the book. Thanks for the review!

The "purity ball" seems contrived and unnatural to me.


Rob A. said...

Great stuff, Julie. I think that the obsession with sex is what drives a lot of religious kids to get married way too early.

It's been said that in today's society you don't really attain a sense of who you are and where you're going until you're 26. But kids marry while in Christian college, so that God can bless their whoopee -- and five years later realize that they have nothing in common with this person that God seemed to have drawn them to.

Steve said...


As per usual, you have shed a refreshing light on a subject most of us would rather not deal with. I am going to ask my wife to read through your thoughts.

I think I know who your "friend" in Colorado Springs is. Do you girls still get along alright....given your less than party-line stance on many issues? That ball/dinner gives me the creeps. A sword? interesting.

I also heartily agree with Rob!

Peace Julie!

Mary Kay said...

How about the day my son walked in with his girlfriend WEARING his purity ring! After he closed my gaping jaw with his hand, he said, "mom, I love her and I'm going to marry her. I've waited my whole life and couldn't wait anymore."
No condemnation from me. I converted to Chritianity in the midst of a hot relationship. No one was making pledges or deals with me...the burning in my heart for a clean mind and pure heart was greater than other burnings...! Honestly, I hold a greater fear than my children having premarital sex: it is the bottled up, emotionless, passionless person whose afraid to make a connection with the opposite sex because it may lead to the sack or maybe those feeling of passion are "not from God". Or worse, she may get her heart broken! I see it everywhere!! If I could walk away in the middle of it, could I not trust my child to do what is right? I just can't be their Holy Spirit, it's too much work. We talk all the time...the benefits of sex in marriage over sex outside..etc.
The ceremony you described sounds toxic. My husband tried the "date the daughter" thing until my 15 year old needed distance and told me she felt disrespected and babied. He backed off and now they just go out!
Love the blog, Julie!
Mary Kay

Emily said...

I just can't help feeling like purity pledges and balls is just swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction! Has anyone done a study on girls who keep their pledges but still have guilt and confusion on their wedding nights because sex has always been "bad?" I didn't need my dad to carry a sword to know what my parents wished for me and why. For heaven's sake, folks, kids need parents and not pledges.

Anonymous said...

Im a 16 year old girl and recently took a purity pledge with my church. My parents did not push me into anything, they have not pressed the issue at all actually. My parents were very proud of me for making the commitment and even more proud that I took it without pressure from them or anyone else. I've always known that sex is for marriage, I just never knew why. Going through the True Love Waits classes at my church helped me to understand what I was doing. Understanding the pledge in my eyes is definantly the biggest part of the whole pledge, whether you are at a ball, or at Church. Abstaining until marriage is very important to me as well as many teens at my High School boys and girls alike. You guys are not giving teens enough credit if you are truly commited and understand the pledge they'll keep it, if its shoved down our throats without anyting being explained, ofcourse they arent.

scary said...

There is a great new song by an artist named Sarah Elizabeth that deals with Purity from a different perspective. The song is called Love Me Now and can be heard by going to her website at and clicking on listen to Sarah's music. The song is about loving your future spouse by not only waiting, but loving them enough to save your purity for them!