Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Purity Balls and magic rings...

This is the third blogpost that I have started in a week, but the difference is that I am 100% confident that this one will actually be published. Why? Because this one is about the utterly ridiculous idea of the "Purity Ball" and the other posts are more serious and researched. Frankly, I feel like a good, old-fashioned, off-the-cuff rant today.

I heard about Purity Balls quite a while ago, and honestly, the whole idea was so very absurd that part of me hoped it was simply a joke so it got shuffled on to the back of my rantisphere. Then this article came out today and I found myself confronted by this absurd and revoltingly sexist concept again. In a nutshell: a couple of church-affiliated blokes back in the 1990s got a little bit concerned about the increasing infection rate of STIs amongst younger people, so came up with an ingenious idea: they were going to have young women pledge their virginity until marriage and additionally get their Dads on board as guardians of their daughter's chastity. The logic with that was of course if you reaffirm a girl's father as the most important man in her life until she gets signed on over via contract to her husband, she's less likely to be engaging in naughty stuff... To make this concept even remotely attractive to the young women, these blokes decided to dress the entire thing up in formal wear, chuck on some Christian rock, and have some weird presentation ritual for the young women in amongst it all. Wikipedia (source of all reliable information) also mentions that at some of these balls, the young women carry in a giant cross, and take their pledge with their father kneeling next to them under a pair of crossed swords (nope, leaving that one alone...). Why didn't they have these events back in my day?

In addition, thanks to my addiction to old and new Degrassi, I found out about "Purity Rings"; a ring someone who has taken a pledge to maintain their virginity until marriage proudly wears. And in more evidence of my addiction issues with teen drama, I found out about Purity groups through Glee. Yep, there is an entire movement out there reinforcing the benefits of "virginity" by leaking them through our airwaves and into the minds of impressionable youth. I have been told that both boys and girls do take these pledges, but until a heap of Purity Balls for young men start where they are swearing their virginity to their mothers, I'm going to interpret this "chastity chic" movement as one that is mainly targeted at young women.

So what exactly is wrong with a young woman choosing to not have sex? Absolutely nothing, in my opinion, provided that the choice is an actual "choice" and isn't about regulating or controlling her body, or portraying her as impure if she does have sex, or as a potentially evil temptress of men, or an STI-spreader, or putting unfair and unequal responsibility on her compared to the men of the world, or reinforcing the institution of marriage as a "must", etc etc. And these pledges reinforce all these things in my opinion. There is nothing here except for vile sexism, pure and simple.

Let's take the concept of "virginity" to begin with. Anyone else find this whole idea rather problematic? On the surface it seems to state that one is considered a virgin until they have sex, but what exactly is sex? Can a girl lose her virginity if she engages in oral sex? What about if she tries anal sex? Solo sex? Does a woman who only ever sleeps with other women ever lose her virginity? What's more, when a virginity is "lost", what is actually lost? I think, in the main, and whilst occasionally it gets redefined to be more inclusive of same-sex experience, it is pretty socially-reinforced that a girl loses her virginity once her vagina (whoops, there's that word again!) is penetrated by a man's penis. So up until the point where you are penetrated you are "pure", then following that moment you are impure. Madonna/Whore here we come! When it's all sold like that, and becomes an action of a woman submitting purity to a man, it frames the action as dirty, frames any other experience that a woman may have engaged in as secondary, and basically promotes the penis as central to a woman's sexuality. Is virginity then really something that we should be pushing on to young women, or are there better lessons about sex and all it entails to teach?

Next in this entire concept of Purity Balls etc is the idea that a father is the guardian of his daughter's purity, until such a time as she marries in which case her husband is allowed to take that purity. So straight away, a young woman undertaking this ritual is taught that her virtue and her respectability, not to mention her worthiness in the eyes of God, is directly tied to the rule of man. She is also being taught that her virginity can be traded from one man to another. This whole idea just makes me ill. For starters, I love and trust my father but at no point in my entire life have I wanted him to know the details of my sex life. Nor has he been so controlling of my alleged bodily integrity that he would wish to know. Additionally, if I wasn't a sworn political spinster who is not fond of limiting labels, I would most certainly not want some bloke thinking he is the saviour of my virtue because he decided to drag me down the aisle in yet another bizarre ceremony. This whole idea reinforces that a woman, her bodily autonomy and her status is secondary to a man's and I question how it is even allowed in allegedly "civilised society".

So what of a young girl's body? Well firstly, it appears that many of these purity balls are held right around the age when a girl starts her period, and let's not even get me back on that rant again... Secondly, as stated, reinforcing female purity was seen, by two blokes, as a way of stopping the spread of STIs so it's reinforced that it's a girl's fault rather than a boy's if a case of the clap does the rounds. Thirdly, her constructed femininity is reinforced as a desirable state because she's clearly not rocking up to the purity ball in cargo jeans and a singlet top; she's only pure if she is in a white dress. So not only are these girls taught that their sexuality and their virtue is directly tied to the men in their lives, but their bodily sub-ordinance is reinforced in as many ways as possible. And people actually want their daughters to go through this?

This whole concept is frightening, quite revolting, and utterly reeks of the patriarchy. I stand by what I said earlier: there is nothing wrong with a woman choosing not to have sex. But this choice needs to be contingent on her deciding what sex actually is, which values are important to her, and her retaining autonomy over her own body. It certainly does not need to be dictated to her by a coterie of men, some holding swords over her head, as a way of controlling her and her body. The sooner these rituals, "celibacy chic" and anything else are eradicated and proper, woman-focussed and controlled education can begin, the better. Yet according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, purity balls are starting to pop up around Australia... 

EDIT: Couldn't resist adding this to the post


  1. I am NOT going to tell you how far I had to read down before I realised that a Purity Ball was not something you put up your whatsits (or as my grandmother used to refer to it: 'down there').

    This post is the best answer I could give when some tosser starts to talk about post-feminist anything! As this shows people are STILL doing this kind of stuff - and with some kind of renewed fervour. Well of course they are, with all of us perverts making the world unsafe for their little petals. The whole thing is revolting and as much about disempowering women as anything I've ever heard.

    Mind you, I do love that stoned purity bear.

  2. Haha, creepy Purity Bear has a whole series of videos! Sometimes I flick through them when I'm at a bit of a loose end. If he came to crash one of my dates, I'd clean knock the stuffing out of him!

  3. Is it wrong to admit that I'm bear-curious? He is kind of hotter than the bloke or the lady, no?
    Don't knock the stuffing out of him... I suspect he'd quite like that.

    I really think I have to find out more about purity bear... and I blame you for my redirected time... look at how directly impacting on Indigenous research outcomes!

  4. I think we're all a little bear-curious nowadays... ;)

    BTW Thanks for writing something, Sandy. I was feeling a little lonely here! My laugh of the day, incidentally: I was going through the site stats and discovered that someone had referred to this blog as "admittedly radical feminist". I had to LOL at that!

  5. I cant believe you have both descended into bear-curiosity before I have even had a chance to join the conversation!

    The double standards around male and female sexuality are ridiculous. Having been brought up in a rather conservative culture, heavily influenced by Christianity, I didn't have sex until marriage. Had I been more savy about sex and a little more self aware, I probably would have realised, this was because, while I loved my then fiance, it was more the type of love that you have for a best friend or a big cuddly bear (if you are non bear- curious). I remember at the tender age of twenty one, my older brother saying hesitantly to me on the announcement of my engagement- "You know you don't have to marry him to sleep with him". I respect and recognise how hard it must have been for him to say that. I recognise that he loved me enough, to not want me to make a mistake, just because we had been brought up with such conservative (and sexist) values. But I was also a bit bemused- he'd "protected" me and been the pretty typical strict Samoan brother, and I thought the advice was too little, too late- you can't expect someone brought up with certain values, to abandone them all of a sudden, you can't believe that they really completely free to make that choice. So I walked down the aisle with my archaic notions intact. Needless to say the marriage didn't actually end up lasting that long. You live and learn, right?

    Choices are shaped by culture... so let's be careful about the things that form part of that! Let's just say no to "purity balls" and other prehistoric patriarchal notions.

  6. Hear hear! It was interesting when I shared this one on Facebook, because one of the sisters (blackfella way) talked about going through rituals pretty much like this via Christianity. It got me thinking how "virginity" has continually been constructed like this in so many cultures, including my own to a certain extent, and how there seems to be little out there worldwide that constructs it in a very female-focussed way (or even as a relative non-event). So I think that anything that adheres to the idea that someone (a girl in particular) is fundamentally changed through engaging in sexual intercourse for the first time needs to be examined for the underlying messages it contains. These purity balls are just an extreme representation along a rather distressing continuum.