A promise I didn't understand
by Eboni Statham
Twelve weeks. I was to spend 12 weeks learning about abstinence and living a life of purity that would culminate in a Purity Ball. I spent hours sitting in extra classes offered through my church, meant to revolutionize my life and bring me closer to God. My mom paid the big fee and I, a clueless ninth grader, was to make myself a promise before God that would stick with me until marriage.
The class had a variety of students. Mostwere younger than me, middle school age. In class, we discussed and later made promises to abstain from: premarital sex, including any kind of premarital fornicating such as masturbation; pornography; sexually explicit music; purchase of vain magazines; use of nicotine, alcohol or drugs; cohabitating before marriage; same sex relationships; sexually explicit movies; use of profanity; and overeating or unhealthy eating. I’ll never forget the day a girl a bit older than me was engulfed in tears during class. Through sobs she explained that she could no longer attend this class because its message and this way of life was something she could not agree with. She left and I never saw her again. Teachers used her as an example of someone who had strayed from the righteous path and would live a life full of regret and sadness.
Finally, it was time for the ceremony that we had all spent weeks preparing for: the big ol’ Purity Ball. Interestingly enough, the first father-daughter Purity Ball was held here in Colorado Springs in 1998. For this wedding-like event, daughters dress up in fancy white gowns and fathers in tuxedos to make the pledge to ensure her purity. Daughters put a white rose at an altar to symbolize this pledge and fathers promise to protect their daughters and be examples ofgood men, to show his child how a man should treat her. The event also includes a keynote speaker, a fancy dinner and a formal father-daughter dance. At the end of the event, each daughter is given a purity ring, which she is to wear until marriage as a physical representation of her commitment.
I remained nervous throughout the entire event. My dress was too big and slightly uncomfortable and, while everyone else had her father, I only had my mother by my side. My class required that students make a video explaining why we wanted to live a life of purity. These videos were then showed to everyone that night. Every now and then, I find the energy to search for my video, which is still available on YouTube. Each time I do, I’m reminded of the girl I used to be and how much I have changed, and I wonder if I truly understood and believed the words spilling from my mouth. In the video, I explain to the camera that the class “had given me the knowledge to navigate marriage and relationships.”
Back at the ball, after small talk and mediocre food, it was time to verbally pledge my abstinence. Then, the parents placed the rings on our fingers—our wedding fingers. The ball seemed to happen so fast, without any thoughts as to whether or not it was harmful. According to the founders of purity balls, “the purpose and vision of this event is for young women to realize how precious they are—that they are very much worth waiting for” and that parents, but mostly fathers, must protect daughters from “unhealthy relationships, and offer them hope, love and security.” Despite their goals, none of these sentiments were offered to me during the Purity Ball, and every day I only felt more desperation, hate and insecurity.
In many ways, these balls are very detrimental to young girls. In my case, I attended the Purity Ball and class against my will and was asked to make a promise that I did not fully comprehend, a promise that I imagine many of the other preteen girls in my class could not understand either. Part of that promise was to engage in a kind of forced heteronormativity that relies on sexist assumptions. The Purity Ball works to construct gender by creating a structure of dominance: females are to remain pure and abstain from sex, and young boys do not have to worry about being damaged from sex and therefore do not go through the process. Society has idealized virginal, and therefore pure, female bodies. Not only that, but in the structure of the ceremony, fathers are the guardians of that virginity, defining female sexuality by male dominance. This dominance leads to the commodification of female sexuality—it becomes something to be controlled and traded from father to husband. Ceremonies like this perpetuate the myth that dictates that female virginity is something to be “lost” through intercourse with a man, and only a man. This leads to the repression of women’s personal expression of sexual identity, making non-heterosexual sex invisible and shameful. As Adrienne Rich writes in her work, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” the experience of forced heterosexuality on woman results in “the denial of their sexuality and the forcedness of sexuality upon them.”
For many years, I believed that any sexual urges or connections I felt were wrong and that I should immediately focus on something else. As a result, masturbation felt especially wrong and when I started to be attracted to other girls, I became even more confused. My class had taught me that I should not give in to such temptations; I was to ignore any sexual urges and continuously pray and repent when tempted. There were even Bible verses used in class to prove that my sexuality goes against what He intended. I was clueless about safe sex and everything that it entailed. Nobody would teach me about healthy sexuality, neither my parents nor my church—from their perspective the only thing I needed to know was that sex was wrong and so was homosexuality. For most of high school, this repression of my sexual desire and expression left me ignorant and anxious.
Not teaching teens about safe-sex places young teenagers in risky situations. According to Rob Stein in his 2008 Washington Post article, “teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence and are significantly less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do.” Eventually, I learned and found my way, but only after making many unfortunate mistakes. I consider myself lucky—I am more educated and more in tune with myself than I was in the past. However, I cannot erase the image of young, naive girls, dressed in beautiful, expensive white dresses, pledging to sign their personal expression and power away only to encourage their daughters to do so in the future, to continue this cycle of sexual censorship. Forever clueless.