by Stella Ramsaroop
(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 25 March 2007)
There is a new phenomenon in the US that is very disturbing. In fact, this new development even has the Arabic news station Al Jazeera scratching its head since the US is suppose to be a leader in gender equality. I am talking about the latest trend called Purity Balls.
A Purity Ball has all the ingredients of any nicely prepared formal ball. There are flowing gowns and black tuxes, practiced dancing to lively music and white candles sparkling throughout the ballroom. This is all very lovely.
Those attending a Purity Ball are young women with their fathers as their dates, and as they swirl about on the dance floor, it is no doubt a sight that would warm even the coldest of hearts. At first glance, it would appear that this event is simply an opportunity for dads to have some quality time with their little girls and perhaps get to know them a little better.
However, it is what happens toward the end of the event that causes me to lose that warm fuzzy feeling. At a predetermined time, each one of the girls reads to her father from a printed card that was placed on the table in front of her seat, at which time she promises her father that she will remain pure by abstaining from sex until she is married. The ages of these girls range from as young as 11 all the way into their twenties.
I have no problem with teaching abstinence to our children as a way to avert them from the pressures and dangers of a sexually active life until they are ready to assume the responsibilities that accompany such a weighty decision.
However, practically speaking, we all know that young men and women will explore those feelings and urges developing at an alarming rate during puberty. It is a natural and biologically driven desire that pushes teens to want to see what their quickly developing bodies can do.
Case in point, 88 percent of those who pledge abstinence at these Purity Balls wind up breaking their pledge and having sex before marriage, according to a study by Peter Bearman, the Chair of Columbia University's Department of Sociology, and Hannah Bruckner of Yale.
I too have quite a few issues with these Purity Balls. Firstly, why are there no such balls for the boys? It is so hypocritical and highly unrealistic to expect the young women to remain chaste if the young men are not expected to do the same. This is a perfect example of the double standard set by society for women.
Secondly, this pledge of purity further perpetuates an unhealthy relationship between parents and children concerning sex. When a young woman takes this oath of purity, but changes her mind and decides to have sex, she will feel completely reticent about speaking to her parents about her decision.
Thirdly, while young men are seldom taught sexual restraint during their formative years, young women are taught to feel guilty for their sexual explorations. A broken promise to their father adds additional guilt to a natural experience. Meanwhile, neither the girls nor the guys are being taught how to act responsibly with their sexuality.
Lastly, it seems to me that these Purity Balls, where the girl pledges her purity to her father until she is married and belongs to another man, are simply a contemporary nod to the old patriarchal system that encourages the ideology that men are somehow the ones who decide what is best for a woman.
This sends the wrong message to our daughters when we are trying to teach them to be independent, freethinkers who thrive in today’s world and who can get along fine with or without a man by her side. Every woman should be the master of her own body and the decision about whether to have sex or not should be hers alone – hopefully after her parents have educated her on the weight of such a decision and responsible sexual conduct.
Let’s talk about reality for a minute and leave aside our archaic notions of pre-marital sexual activity. In reality, every single day thousands of teenage girls (and boys) are having sex in Guyana, the US and every other country in the world. To expect an oath of abstinence until marriage from a young woman is as unreasonable as expecting it from a young man.
However, it is not the sexually active young man who gets tagged with unflattering labels. This is another social double standard. With whom do right-thinking parents think these young men are having sex? They are having sex with the young women, of course. The sooner we realise that our teens are having sex, and lots of it, the soon we can start acting like conscientious parents.
As such, would it not be more practical to teach these youngsters about responsible sexual conduct instead of placing unreasonable expectations on them that create feelings of failure and guilt about an action that is biologically natural?
Would it not be socially proper to create an atmosphere at home that is open for teens to talk to their parents about their sexuality instead of leaving their children to explore such an important part of their life as a trial and error experience?
We can be such prudes sometimes with our own sexuality that we shy away from the important task of educating our teens about sex. In the meantime, they are learning about it on the street – the worst place ever. The street does not teach our girls about sexually contracted diseases, what steps to take to prevent pregnancy or how to fend off an unwanted sexual advance.
We do not need a new trend that unrealistically insists on purity until marriage, we need to live in reality and teach our daughters – and our sons – about responsible sexual conduct. If we keep our heads in the clouds and believe teens will remain pure until they are married, we do them and society a terrible injustice.