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David Magnusson

Want to know what’s really creepy about Purity Balls? (Hint: It’s not the photos)

PurityMagnusson 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.

How I went from Purity Pledger to Queer Radical Feminist, thanks to two years of 'Cotillion' Classes

Note: This interview first ran on on the blog on June 26, 2013 (as did this image from the 'Purity' photo series). The photos have received a lot of attention lately, and we thought we should repost this fabulous interview as well. The subject of the photos is NOT the subject of the interviews. It's just for illustration purposes.

Olivia seems to have burned all the photos from her Cotillion, so enjoy this father-daughter portrait from photographer David Magnusson's series  Purity  instead.

Olivia seems to have burned all the photos from her Cotillion, so enjoy this father-daughter portrait from photographer David Magnusson's series Purity instead.

 

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!

Just The Tip: Virginity in the News with Broad City's Ilana Glazer, Purity creepiness, virginty auctioner revealed, sex myths, and campus rape stats

I've been asking people about this very thing for so many years now, and I've seen a lot of other people try it with mixed results. It's tough to get strangers to talk honestly about sex on camera, but Ilana is really sweet and funny and some of the stories are really touching. I shouldn't have been surprised given her other work, most lately Broad City, the show she created with Abbi Jacobson. It started as a web series about two young and underemployed women in NYC, and was picked up by Comedy Central, with Amy Poehler Exec Producing! If you haven't sampled it yet, do it now.

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There's a photo series all over the internet right now by Swedish photographer David Magnusson called Purity. Everyone is freaking out about how creepy they are. So, yes, purity ball photos can sometimes look incestuous, but know why they're really creepy? They represent a culture where men own these girls' sexuality, purity balls fund CPCs, and their freak-show quality distracts us from all the sexuality bs happening in the rest of the world. Yes, I'm writing about it, so stay tuned.

PS Judy actually spotted this project last year and loved it so much she used it as part of her story "How I went from Purity Pledger to Queer Radical Feminist, thanks to two years of ‘Cotillion’ Classes." Above is the image we used (our favorite) which for some reason they're not including in the galleries online.

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Juliana at Feministing wrote a lovely piece on our film and we especially loved the fact that she watched it with her little sis! Here are two excerpts that meant a lot to us, because they spoke to our goals for the film:

I have a little sister and, like any good feminist, I spend a lot of time making sure that she knows that her worth extends beyond her beauty, her body, and her sexuality. As she is still a teenager, a big topic in her life and that of her peers lately has been virginity. Personally, I don’t think that my sexuality or “virginity” is an object to lose, or give away, and I don’t want her to think that either. That’s why I was so excited to watch How to Lose Your Virginity with her...

..In spite of the fascinating and telling historical context, the true triumph of How to Lose Your Virginity is in how relatable it is. The first time I had sex, I was surprised at how anti-climactic the whole thing was. Watching this film, it was touching to see my experience mirrored back at me."

I think we need to start a See It With Your Sister campaign, pronto!

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3adb6ae4af129bdcbd30348211f44554Over at Policy Mic, we got another shout-out in a story called 17 Lies We Need to Stop Teaching Girls About Sex, with tackles everything from virginity and hymen myths to period sex to women who watch porn (and illustrated by Ms Ilana Glazer) It warms my mythbusting heart that this exists, so I was pretty shocked at the vehemence with with people were challenging it in the comments.

One of the biggest points of contention was myth #1 "Virginity exists" and hoo boy did people have problems with that one! There were several comments to the effect of 'virginity does too exist and it's real and everyone knows what it is.' Well, everyone does NOT know what it is, and in fact the lack of any concrete definition is what's confused and terrorized women forever (the simple fact that many women don't bleed on penetration has done untold damage)

But for the record, we do think virginity exists, just not in the 'one-magic-moment-when-the-penis-goes-into-the-vagina" way. It exists in many forms, with each new experience and new partner. What doesn't and shouldn't exist is one specific virginity that's used to categorize, judge and police people (mostly women) based on their sexual choices. That's bullshit. And truth be told, that's pretty much what Policy Mic was saying as well, it's just that heading that got people so out of joint.

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Jaclyn Friedman wrote a rather chilling but important article on a new way to select colleges– check the campus rape statistics:

Those precious few who ask at all tend to check a school's reporting numbers, assuming that a low rate of rapes reported on a campus is a good sign. But most of the time the reverse is true: every campus has a rape problem – the ones where students feel comfortable reporting are actually safer campuses.

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Virginity auctioneer Elizabeth Raine, who I wrote about here and here, has decided to show people what she looks like. She was initially concerned about getting kicked out of her med school if people found out who she was, but now says: "I actually didn't like the anonymity. People mistake it for shame." Her top official bid is $550,000 and her auction ends May 7th.You can see more photos and learn more about her at her site.

I really enjoyed deconstructing virginity myths with Liz in our Nerve.com interview, and I hope this whole process doesn't fuck her up. I don't mean because of the sex (although I hope that goes OK as well), but because of the crude attention and News of the Weird nature of virginity auctions.

 

Found some Virginity in the News? Be a Just The Tipster and let us know! Email us, or post to twitter with @virginitymovie in your message.