Father-daughter portrait from photographer David Magnusson's series, Purity. This is NOT a photo of Olivia and her dad!
Judy P. is an art history student at Brown University who is interested in the intersections of art, politics, race, class, and gender. Check out her other posts here.
Looking at my friend Olivia, with her piercings and pixie cut, you would never guess she was a purity-pledger in her pre-pubescent years. I was surprised when I first found out about her conservative roots and religious background, because now she's a queer, die-hard feminist. It took me a second to realize that I had a similar history as well: Traditional household, religious upbringing, Catholic/ boarding school, and my own purity-pledge ceremony at church as a kid! Here's my conversation with Olivia:
JUDY: So what exactly is a "Cotillion" anyways? I'm imagining dainty French girls in ball gowns descending a grand staircase.
OLIVIA: Cotillion, in my experience anyway, was a weekly class in 5th and 6th grade, where we were taught how to be proper "ladies and gentlemen." We learned how to use silverware and sit properly. We also learned how to dance together, men leading, women following. We occasionally split into gendered groups where only the girls would learn how to be "pure" in the eyes of God. Which, of course, means no sex before marriage, no masturbation, no fantasizing, not having a sexuality until you want to have babies. In the end we girls had a purity ceremony where we pledged our purity in front of our father and pastor. The boys didn't learn about purity, and they had a party with their moms, but no purity ceremony.
What happened during this purity ceremony?
Ironically, they called it a “coming-out” ceremony. It was at the end of 6th grade, which was the end of the weekly classes in a ballroom in town. All of the girls lined up at the top of the stairs with their dads, and you would come down one by one. And you'd be passed from your dad to your pastor. Pretty much everyone was Presbyterian or Catholic, so we all had some kind of religious leader. Then you danced with your father, and there was food and just a little party. And then anyone who wanted to do a performance took the stage. And then you got a little certificate and a ring.
A performance? Like a talent show?
Yeah, kind of like a talent show. A lot of people had dropped out by the end of Cotillion, so I think that final talent portion was their way of bribing us to stay in Cotillion until the end, so you could do your little performance. I was in a tap-dancing class with some other girls in our grade, and we were really excited to do our tap-dancing routine.
You mentioned that it's supposed to be a father-daughter bonding experience, right? How exactly? What do you think it said about father-daughter relationships (or male-female relationships in general)?
It was a tradition that fathers were supposed to guide their daughters to purity or whatever, to oversee the process and make sure we were becoming proper ladies in the eyes of God. But really the only role they played was at the end they had the power to say that you had received sufficient training to not fuck up and be a slut. Honestly, the father-daughter dynamic always felt really sickly romantic to me. It's just these creepy fathers watching these mid-pubescent girls "develop into women" and then make them promise to remain pure for them. It all was kind of gross and sexual in a weird way, and it definitely created a very weird vibe between me and my dad.
How did your dad feel about all this?
Well, it was never really his idea. It was definitely more of my mom's idea. She always wanted our lives to look very fancy and presentable and conservative. And I think my dad went along with it because he wanted religion to be a part of our lives, and this was the only way my mom would allow it to. She was never attached to her Judaism, but she also didn't want Catholicism in our lives either. She saw Cotillion as more of a social statement than a religious one.
My dad was always awkward with me while I was going through puberty, like never really got close to me or hugged me. So I think this whole topic of sex, especially when I was in 6th grade, really freaked him out. He just really wanted to ignore that whole aspect of it and we've never really talked about it since then.
So what happened if someone broke their pledge? Would it all be hush hush or did they make a big deal about it?
There were confessional “ceremonies.” They weren't something I ever had to do but other girls in my class did. Basically if you "break your purity" then you have to confess in front of your pastor and your father in order to "revitalize your purity." So you sit there with these two creepy old men and stand up and say "last night I gave Jesse a blowjob and I apologize to my father and to God." Then the pastor asks you details (i.e how did it happen/ how did it make you feel) to which the girl replies, to her father and pastor, that she got drunk and sucked a dick and felt like a whore. And then you are given your purity back.
So this whole Cotillion thing was highly religious, then? This sounds like the confessionals in Catholic church.
It was offered through my private school and some people connected to their church through it, but it was non-denominational. The pastor was only involved if you were a part of a religious group. It was Connecticut and everyone was Presbyterian so that's why the pastor was there.
Who do you think has the authority here to "give" a girl her purity back?
I don't even know. I guess God and her father. I think they want you to really fight for it and learn from your mistakes. It's about recognizing what you did as wrong and scaring you into never doing it again.
From a 5th-6th grade girl's point-of-view, how did it shape how you perceived yourself at the time?
I definitely started to develop more radical feelings about sex. Even though I wasn't really having sex, I kind of was. That was the time when I started sending out naked pictures to boys in my school and pulling my thong above my skirt during class. My sexuality didn't necessarily derive from being touched as much as it did from being wanted. It makes sense to me now that this began while I was being forced to train myself as a particular kind of sexual agent. I think I had such a strong desire to deviate from this person they were trying to brainwash me to become that I actually felt empowered in a way that now I feel would oppress me.
Looking back at the ceremony, what is it all about to present-day you?
It's all about approval from men. Fuck it's really all about approval from men! They were training us to be submissive and scared and oppressed!
My feminism definitely started to take shape when I became aware of both the power these systems could have over me and how fucked up they were. This was the time when I started questioning patriarchy and being mad and trying so hard to fight it. I liked being sexual because it meant that I wasn't being sucked into this scary-ass viewpoint where people just hate and judge and try to define your identity for you.
I was fighting against this feeling that I was becoming a robot, a domestic, submissive, oppressed robot. And it's so fucking scary because looking back, so many girls turned out that way. You know, in Therese's film I Was A Teenage Feminist she interviews this guy who says, "I think we are all born feminists and we just get talked out of it." I think this is beyond true. I feel so lucky that I was able to escape that world and challenge the system because they'll fucking get you!