Commentary, Sex Education

Not RuPaul’s Drag Race: On The Patriarchal Pageantry of Purity Balls

purity ball
A purity ball in action. (Via.)
By Tim Marshall, Millennial Advisory Councilmember

By now, most have us have seen the myriad of shocking videos bouncing around the web capturing the recent phenomenon known as “purity balls.” These daddy-daughter religious performances of pseudo-romance leave a strange taste in my mouth, and though (thankfully) your average purity ball doesn’t end with a passionate kiss, it does include an ardent plea that the daughter place her virginity in her father’s hands. But as strange as purity balls may seem, they are a symptom of a greater, systemic issue: within the pro-virginity movement, young girls are valued only for their sexuality, or rather, the act of saving it.

Founded in 1998, these cotillion-style ceremonies have been federally-funded and attended by thousands of young girls and their fathers, with the seemingly admirable goal of protection. Protection is a natural, heartfelt impulse for a parent, but does the kind of protection celebrated at purity balls aim to fight for a daughter’s freedom of education, choice, or physical safety?

Nope, not really.

The intent here is to protect a woman’s “purity” until that special day that one’s father can transfer ownership to the husband. This last statement may seem overly dramatic, but many purity balls literally end with a father gifting a charm necklace to their daughter, and keeping the key, until it can be held by another man. Maybe the ridiculousness of this – especially the infuriating implication that the girl doesn’t get to have her own key – is lost on folks who organize purity balls. But as a feminist, it makes me want to go all Mariam and Rasheed* on them. And it gets weirder. Sometimes when the daughters pledge their virginity to their father (still weird, no matter how much I type it), they do so by presenting their fathers with little pink boxes. THIS IS NOT RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE in which the drag queens, all very tongue-in-cheek, reach into a ‘big furry pink box’ to find each other’s secrets. This is not meant to be kitschy, and even if the organizers didn’t catch its creepy undertones, surely someone would stand up and remark, “Wow, maybe a TINY PINK BOX shouldn’t be given from a daughter to father. Period.” Just saying.

In The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti takes on the damaging message purity balls send to young women.
In The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti takes on the damaging message purity balls send to young women.

Besides the unusual, questionable elements, what makes me even more perplexed is that there is an option for young boys and their mothers called “integrity balls.”  This sounds great, right? Look at the evangelical crowd, finally striking down anachronistic double standards. Wrong. This event is played up similarly; however, it involves young boys promising not to sully any girl’s purity until marriage…and their own purity never comes into question.  The fact that an integrity ball even exists is a greater symptom of the problem, because it’s another way for society at large to dictate what happens where, when, and how with a woman’s body.

I can sum up more rage-inducing examples of how purity balls and integrity balls hurt women, but I’ll conclude with this: their influence extends beyond the cotillions themselves.  Celebrities like Jessica Simpson, with her sanctimonious statement of pre-marital “purity,” combined with the hypersexualization of women and girls teaches girls that their sexuality is the only damn thing that matters.  And this polarization, between hypersexualization and so-called purity, dilutes any real kind of relationship with one’s own sexuality. The virgin/whore dichotomy is a tale as old as time, and unfortunately it is only reinforced when women are told they can never be strong, self-fulfilled adults, but children with their virginities hanging around daddy’s neck.

*Of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. Read it if you can stand a good cry.

Interested in discussing purity balls and the virginity movement further?Join us for a discussion of Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth, hosted by our Millennial Advisory Council’s feminist book club on June 25!

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