The Shame of Purity Balls

@SexDayUSA tweeted a link to a 2007 article on about purity balls, which got me thinking. If you’re not familiar with them, a purity ball is an event for fathers to pledge to protect their daughters’ purity and for daughters to “to commit to moral purity and help them understand the beautiful and righteous life God offers them.”

Of course, purity balls are problematic in a lot of ways. They give control of female sexuality to men and turn women into chattel that fathers hand over to husbands. They assume an adversarial relationship between boyfriends/prospective husbands and fathers. They ignore the experiences of lesbian, bisexual, and queer girls by reinforcing heteronormativity. They set people up for sexual disillusionment by requiring ignorance. In addition to all of that, the idea that not being a virgin makes a woman morally impure is deeply rooted in sex-negativity and erotophobia because it’s based on the idea that having sex makes a woman dirty, soiled, etc. This is slut-shaming taken to its logical conclusion.

Although it’s a more extreme version, there’s a fundamental similarity between purity balls and the endless discussions about “how many sexual partners is too many” because they’re both based on the idea that after a certain number (whether it’s 1, 10, or 100), someone is permanently turned into something bad, undesirable, or contaminated. Sure, there’s a difference between pegging that number at 1 versus 100 since different people will be in each category as a result. But no matter what number you might pick, it’s still all about shaming people who have “too many” partners. Given that people tend to be much more interested in how many partners a woman has had than how many a man has had, there’s obviously a sexist bias going on here, too.

Personally, I’m much more curious about how someone feels about their sexual history. Did they enjoy (most of) their experiences? Did they learn and grow from them? Have they developed a sense of their own pleasure as a birthright? Do they make sexual decisions from their authentic selves, rather than an externally-defined set of rules? Can they ask for what they want and hear their partners requests? Do they take care of their health, pleasure, and well-being? Can they be honest about their desires?

These are the sorts of questions that I think are much more important than how many people someone has had sex with. In fact, I don’t think that the actual number of partners is relevant at all. Knowing how many partners someone has had doesn’t tell you anything about them. It doesn’t tell you if they have (or have had ) and STI, it doesn’t tell you if they’re sexually self-aware or knowledgeable, it doesn’t tell you if they’re happy, it doesn’t tell you if they’re any good in bed. All it tells you is how many people they’ve had sex with.

I understand that parents want to keep their kids safe. And I get that there are issues and concerns for parents of girls that are different than for parents of boys. But purity balls and abstinence pledges don’t actually help in the ways that their promoters claim they do. So let’s stop shaming girls and women for having sex and help them (and boys and men) learn how to make authentic choices that serve them.

Well, I can dream, can’t I?

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11 Responses so far.

  1. Well said! I read that article years ago and was shocked…
    I love it when I am asked my “number” which only happens in my personal life…I always tell me, “Enough to know exactly what I like in bed and enough to know exactly what to do to you in bed” then I give them a wink 🙂 Works like a charm!

  2. Rebecca says:

    Excellent post, sweetie.

  3. Niki says:

    I’m down with abstinence if its chosen freely, but purity balls? FUCKING CREEPY AS HELL.

  4. I love how you deconstruct this “Purity Ball” phenom, and show how it breaks down into sexual shame, heteronormity, and girls/women not getting to own their sexuality. Plus the Count, whom we all love while laughing at his ridiculous fervor about numbers. Great blog, Charlie!!!

  5. Blitz says:

    Not a big fan of the name “Purity Balls” but being a father I can understand the honor in teaching your child to take pride in self respect, self confidence and self esteem through love from the parents.

    It seems that this type of event is being done before the child begins making these mature choices on their own. My parent’s taught us the same standard both with my brothers and sisters not as an external defined set of rules but a way of being true to oneself (in regards to building self respect, self confidence and self esteem) before giving our intimacy to others. Granted, there seems to be a special bond a father has with his daughter, much like many a mother has with her son. Going into the teen years, I think a father can actually be a big help empowering his young daughter in knowing she can be strong with herself first. Teen years are tough and finding your identity with sexual partners can definitely confuse the development of who they are becoming because it involves anothers ties over oneself. A father or a mother for that matter fill a very important role in that confidence and development as a source of security for their kids.

    We never were afraid of sex growing up, no phobias, only a solid foundation of who we were becoming and how we chose to share our deepest intimacies with one that could nourish our soul and not just some aching loins! ; )

  6. Aidan says:

    I meant to mention it when you posted, but that is one of the best film titles I’ve seen in ages – I’m thinking Peckinpah revenge western meets Moulin Rouge burlesque meets Orlando androgyny; Hero(ine) Purity Balls must atone for something by righting the wrong committed by someone, thereby coming to terms with, well, whatever the atonement is about in the first place – it needs fleshing out, but….what a title!

  7. Charlie says:

    @Aidan Maybe it’s a result of working where I do, but somehow, it seems like a great title for a porn movie…

  8. Aidan says:

    Mate, do another stocktake – you’ve probably already got it on the shelves.

  9. Alexandra says:

    Womderful analysis of the Purity Ball phenomenon.

    My two cents:

    I think there are several things horribly wrong with purity balls:

    1. Why this fetishization of female virginity as a kind of commodity that can be ‘taken away’? Why do people always treat a girl’s sexuality as something she can “give” and a guy can “take”, when in fact it is something that is shared equally by both partners. It always depicts the women as “losing” something by having sex, and it’s always the men who “gain” experience by having sex. Obviously, nobody thinks of having mother/son purity balls.

    2. Purity Balls simply reinforce the notion that a girl’s value is between her legs rather than (gasp) in her self as an individual, her mind, etc. When I was 10 yrs old, I knew what sex was, but I didn’t think of my virginity as something “special”, the same way you wouldn’t think of the fact that you’ve never gone skydiving as something special. I was too immersed in books at the time to even think about sex.

    3. Purity Balls infantilize women, who continue to be treated like vulnerable girls by their fathers even after they pass puberty, as someone always in danger of becoming ‘impure’, always as passive non-agents of their own destiny. If a woman doesn’t want to have sex, that’s her choice, but whether or not she has sex before marriage should have NO effect on her intrinsic value as a human being.

  10. […] 6) Purity Balls exclusively promote “heteronormativity.” I can’t imagine a bi- or homosexual girl walking in with confidence to one of those things, and that is discrimination. […]

  11. Darlean says:

    I never read something like this and do not think about one scene in the American version of the show “Shameless.” A father took his daughter to one of the purity group meetings, where the girls were forced to talk about the sex they had as a way of cleansing themselves. It was supposed to shame them, basically. The one character, however, a female teenager who had a lot of sex, went into great detail of what she did, how she did it, and showed no sign of shame. She went into such detail that her father lost it and dragged her out, calling her a slut and a whore. It was a fictitious scene, yes, but the message was sadly powerful. Don’t you dare enjoy sex, naughty girl. I am terrified that I will look bad in front of my other male friends, because I cannot control you.

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