on purity (balls)
So have you heard of purity balls?
No, not…whatever you were thinking. They’re family-sponsored religious events that have been around for a few years, and they’ve been capturing some national attention lately in light of the release of a now-famous photojournalism project by Swedish photographer David Magnusson.
Purity balls are Christian-themed public ceremonies (not unlike matrimonies) that occur during female adolescence, in which a father pledges to “take” his daughter’s virginity from her and to “protect it” until such a time that he is then able to “gift” it to her husband’s care. This practice is designed to strengthen the “dominion” that fathers have over their daughters, and to ensure that the daughter in question maintains her “virtue” until her wedding night.
(The number of scare quotes in that last paragraph might be a good indicator of my feeling toward such events.)
Now, I think this is an interesting trend for many reasons, and there are an equal number of things about this movement that are so obviously disturbing.
But first, I should say that I’m not the most qualified candidate to talk about this subject. Although I have indeed lived in purity culture firsthand, the system is also necessarily set up in such a way that it inherently applauds and protects men while it degrades and shames women. So as a limited source of knowledge on the pain this system creates, please do take what I’m saying with a large grain of salt.
On that note, around this time last year there was actually a surge of writing by some evangelical Christian women (and men) who set out to critique unhealthy aspects of the “sexual purity” metaphors that Christian culture often relies on. (My own attempt to write an article on the subject is located here). I have found their breadth of writing on the subject to be a great resource, and I know that Jessica Valenti has also done some work specifically on purity balls.
For further resources, if you are interested in conscientious, careful biblical scholarship that orients the reader around principles of gender equality, please support InterVarsity Press to read conservative scholar William Webb’s “Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis” and consider the organization Christians for Biblical Equality.
All of that said, a few things could be rightly observed about purity balls:
- events like these betray a community’s intense corporate fixation on sex and on female virginity
- this can send all sorts of confusing messages and set impossible standards for young women, who we insist must be pure and motherly yet desirable and sexy (but not slutty!)
- a culture that produces an event like this is a culture comfortable letting men “take charge” of women and their sexuality
- the logic behind purity balls makes the mistake of teaching that when a person loses their “physical virginity” (a phrase, by the way, with no universal medical definition) should affect how we view that person’s spiritual health
- it seems problematic to explicitly associate the entirety of a woman’s “virtue” with whether or not she has experienced sexual penetration
- there is no similar obligation of protecting one’s sexual, virginal pureness placed upon men
And I want to focus on that last point especially.
As a dissenting commenter on this blog once argued: “Christian women are beginning to rail more publicly against ‘purity’ culture, with purity culture simply being the Biblical mandate for a woman to maintain her virginity before marriage…maintaining female virginity until marriage is Biblical.”
Well, that’s the rub of it, isn’t it?
In a culture that creates virginity balls for fathers and their
chattel daughters, the burden is always placed primarily upon women to remain “sexually pure” and “innocent.” Although lip service may be paid to the idea that all Christians, both men and women, should abstain from sex until marriage, this teaching in practice affects men and women very differently.
Men are simply wired to always want sex, and women are not nearly so libidinous. Men are strong, simple creatures, easily prone to the alluring seductions of women, whose very bodies are temptation incarnate. Finally – unlike women – men can’t be blamed if they slip up every now and again and sexually sin, because if they do, it’s not like they’ve lost some status they can never get back.
Some conservative academics have echoed this same message. As Richard Beck, Abilene Christian University Professor and Chair of their Psychology Department, has written:
what happens when we structure parts of our moral experience with the metaphor of purity is that we import the psychology of contamination into our moral and spiritual lives…A loss of purity is understood to be permanent and is unable to be rehabilitated because, well, that’s the way purity works.
Now what is peculiar about all this is that we use the purity metaphor in an uneven manner. Most sins don’t get the purity metaphor…most sins are framed, metaphorically, as mistakes or errors, as performance failures. Another common metaphor here is sin as a form of stumbling or falling. What is important to note about these metaphors–performance failures and stumbling–is that these metaphors aren’t catastrophic in nature. That is, they can be easily rehabilitated. If you make a mistake you try again. If you stumble and fall you get back up…but not so with the purity metaphor. When the sin is framed as a purity violation the damage that is done is total and unable to be rehabilitated. A purity violation creates a state of irreversible ruin.
And the damage is twice as much when it comes to women. When men have premarital sex, it’s treated as this sort of performance failure. For women, it’s a purity issue. Men are allowed to “get back up again” and recover from their “stumbling,” but women are never able to regain the “virtue” they forever lost when their hymen was first broken.
That’s why you can’t imagine seeing a purity ball held for a mother and her sexually blossoming, adolescent son. This culture places fundamentally unequal obligations on women and men.
While it’s easy to call purity balls “creepy” or “silly” and to dismiss them offhand as aberrant manifestations of a small, super-fundamentalist Christian culture, I wanted to write about this topic because these events are not products of some fringe, minority theology. Rather, purity balls directly emerge from the widespread theological movement called complementarianism (also called patriarchy). This movement is based on the belief that men and women must play “separate but equal” roles, with males universally subjugating and holding authority over females in the home and church (and sometimes in the workplace too).
Now, although there is patriarchy (also called oppression of women) found in the Bible, many Christians today recognize the skewed portrayals of some male/female relationships in scripture as indicative of God’s forward, redemptive movement through the particular cultures in which the Bible was written, not as the Lord’s timeless, universal decrees for all of creation.
If this sounds like some shallow, liberal, unfaithful way of reading of the text, it really shouldn’t. Christians have been reading the Bible in this way for hundreds of years, taking what we know about God through Jesus Christ and allowing the Holy Spirit to aid us in figuring out which biblical passages directly apply to our lives today, and which only applied in particular ancient circumstances.
Right? Because although the practice of owning another human being is never explicitly forbidden in scripture, today most Christians have come to revisit those texts that appear to support slavery and to understand them as specific rules for specific cultural situations. That’s not to say the Bible is wrong, just that these specific rules do not apply to our current situation.
Complementarianism, though, in rejecting the claim that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” is forced to rely on shoddy science and proof texting to argue that although women and men are technically of equal value, God places men over women.
Some apologists of this perspective, glossing over the biblical legacies of female apostles and church leaders, go so far as to support women’s subordination to men “in all areas of creation,” meaning that women should not hold authority over men even in the public sphere. This is the logic behind popular theologian John Piper’s bizarre claim that “a woman may design the traffic pattern of a city’s streets and thus exert a kind of influence over all male drivers. But this influence will be non-personal and therefore not necessarily an offense against God’s order. Similarly, the drawings and specifications of a woman architect may guide the behavior of contractors and laborers, but it may be so non-personal that the feminine-masculine dynamic of the relationship is negligible.”
In other words, in this version of Christianity it’s acceptable for a woman to be an architect over a man only if she is influencing and instructing men in the building process in the most “indirect” way possible, drawing up blueprints in an office far away from the construction site. As long as the male construction workers don’t explicitly know their orders are from a woman, so this argument goes, “God’s order” can be maintained.
Complementarianism is why we’re seeing trends like the Head Covering Movement. It’s why American Christian culture is saturated in abusive language that urges men to hound and “pursue” women, and tells women they “cause their brothers to stumble” by “dressing immodestly.” It’s why some Christians seek to prohibit other Christians from using their spiritual gifts to lead, for literally no other reason than the particular ovarian reproductive systems these Christians were born with.
And it’s why purity balls are a thing.
So if virginity pledges and purity balls are “creepy” and “strange,” it’s complementarianism that’s really disturbing.
Purity balls may be the symptom, my friends, but patriarchy is the disease.
Suffice it to say this philosophy is not conducive to the ramifications that flow out from the Christian gospel, which declares that male and female are equally made in the image of God. Our job as believers is to hold fast to our God-breathed convictions despite the uncertain, shifting winds of culture. Imposing a set of Western, post-WWII gender roles upon the timeless words of scripture, and then demanding that Christians conform to the nuclear family instead of to the family of God seems very nearly the opposite of what we are called to do.