Do an internet search for the words 'creepy photos,' and you’ll likely be directed to Purity, Swedish photographer David Magnusson's haunting photo essay of fathers and daughters all dressed up for their Purity Balls. A Purity Ball, if you don't already know, is sort of a father/daughter prom, with the difference being that the girls pledge their virginity to their fathers for safekeeping, so it can be handed over to their husbands on their wedding day. They happen all over the country, although with a bit less frequency than the constant coverage might indicate.
Still, every time news of these events pop up, in photos, or on a recent episode of Nightline on ABC, the non-Purity-Ball-going readership responds with a collective shudder, most often invoking the word 'incestuous' in headlines and comments. Looking at Magnusson's photos, (or my own film) I can see how people may come to that conclusion, but ask one of the dads in the photo and he'll just tell you that you have a really dirty mind and the Balls are beautiful events. Wherever you stand on this issue, getting all weirded out by the images is just a distraction from the truly creepy aspects of events like this (and the culture behind them):
Purity Balls are an invention of the evangelical Christian movement which believes that men should have control over women's bodies and sexual choices. Girls as young as 7 or 8 ritually invoke their father, their future husband and their God during these ceremonies–three male authorities tasked with policing her sex life.
Purity Balls are a throwback to when women were property and unmarried daughters without their virginity were damaged goods no one wanted to buy. The idea of a woman's 'most precious gift' comes from the understanding that she is the gift, valuable as long as she's still wrapped in her original packaging.
Purity Balls focus on female sexuality exclusively. There is no male equivalent of purity balls because young men are sent different messages and held to different standards. Integrity Balls, which are relatively rare, are events for mothers and sons, but the prevailing message for young men is that they shouldn't have sex before marriage because they will ruin a girl's value for her future husband.
Purity Balls assume everyone is heterosexual and interested in marriage. The fact that queer people exist, with their own definition of what constitutes sex or virginity, and their own ideas of who they might want to have sex with or marry, is never discussed or even acknowledged.
Purity Balls are intimately tied to Abstinence-Until-Marriage programs which provide no real sex education, but instead teach that sex before marriage will cause physiological and psychological harm, that contraception doesn't work, and that girls are responsible for controlling boys' sexual urges lest they be branded sluts. To stay a 'virgin,' a young women will often engage in far riskier activities like oral or anal sex, fulfilling the letter–if not the spirit–of their pledge. And since their abstinence classes don’t teach safer sex practices, they’re extremely vulnerable to STDs. These programs been proven ineffective by our own government, despite the fact that they are still being funded by our taxpayer dollars, at over $1.5 billion to date.
Purity Ball culture is enmeshed with political forces that oppose reproductive rights, supporting groups that are fighting to deny women birth control (or at the very least not have insurance cover it) as well as any access to safe and legal abortions. In fact, many Purity Balls are hosted by Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which use deceptive advertising and intake methods to prevent women's access to contraception and abortion. Google recently removed CPC ads that lie about providing abortions because of that deceptive advertising.
Purity Balls have a freak-show quality that distracts us from seeing the very same issues in our own back yards. Policing and controlling women’s bodies is not limited to a bunch of evangelicals, but turn up all over the cultural landscape, from limiting reproductive rights, to telling rape victims they asked for it, to slut-shaming women (but not men) for having too many partners.
Purity Ball reporting often ignores the dilemmas these young women are face. This culture’s core values embody damaging messages about women and sexuality (see above), but there's nothing inherently weird about having a warm relationship with your dad, or looking forward to a dress-up party with your sisters. As photographer Magnusson says:“it is clear that the girls—in many cases, young women—are independent, strong, and insightful,” but when you're in the middle of this environment, it's may be very hard to step out of it and call bullshit, even if you find it confusing or unfair. As one woman recently said to me:
“Some of those girls are too young to even realize what they are doing. I made a vow like this when I was only 12 and it didn't quite go as planned. I was guilt-tripped and got really close to being hit when I broke that vow. Virginity doesn't define your worth and I absolutely hate how many girls buy into the lie that once you've lost it, you're basically used goods. I bought into it and went through some terrible times of anxiety and depression.”
At a recent university screening of my film, another young woman who grew up in this culture shared her story. She’s finally starting to get over feeling dirty and worthless because of sex, and the fact that she was ever made to feel this way is the creepiest thing of all.