that "dating your dad" thing

purity balls

If you’ve been hanging around here for a little while,  you’ve probably heard me talk about purity culture a time or two. And, if you grew up in evangelical Christianity, you’re also probably a little more than familiar with it. If you’ve read Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye, raise your hand.

What’s interesting to me is how purity culture is becoming a “thing” outside of Christian culture. I recently read The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti, and while she focuses on abstinence-only education in the US, she does more than casually allude to evangelical purity culture. There’s been a number of documentaries come out about it recently, and ABC’s Nightline Prime is doing a special on it tonight (I have it set to record). I’ve seen a few articles show up in newspapers and newsblogs, and I have to admit to some amusement when I see reactions to these pieces.

Yesterday afternoon, Cosmopolitan writer Frank Kobola wrote a very short piece: “Teen Girls are Dating their Dads to Save their Virginity.” It was short on substance and long on incredulity, and I think that reflects an attitude I’d like to address.

Most of the reactions I’ve seen mirror Kobola’s. Disgust. Disbelief. Then, usually, mockery. To many people, it just seems so obvious that this entire “purity ball” concept is pretty dang creepy. The fact that there’s many thousands of people in this country who don’t find it creepy at all just seems a little impossible.

So, when they hear someone say something along the lines of “I’m going to take my daughter out on a date, show her how a man should be treating her,” it’s a little hard for them not to immediately start talking about it in pedophilic terms. And when someone like Ron Johnson says:

You keep this [ring] on your finger and at this point you are married to the Lord and your father is your boyfriend . . .

Kobola says lol wut? and then writes an article about it mocking the entire idea. Predictably, the evangelical response is along the lines of “it’s not like that! You’re twisting it into something it’s not! You just don’t understand what we’re trying to do!

And, I think the evangelicals in this case are probably right. Kobola probably doesn’t understand what it is he’s seeing in the slightest. So it makes it difficult for people like me– people who actually do understand — to talk about purity culture. Because I know better than to mock it.

Something that dangerous shouldn’t be mocked.

Purity balls are not a “prom for your hymen.” They are an incredibly public event about something that should be intimate and private. They force fragile girls into taking a vow– in a room full of old men– of chastity, to keep themselves pure for God. This extremely public event, disguised as a celebration, is a tool used to cajole girls into keeping their virginity. It is an annual reminder that their cultural value is predicated on whether or not they’ve had sex.

And yes, this is the kind of thing that “grown-up daughters discuss in therapy,” but not because their father was a pedophile or molested them, but because they have been ripped apart from the inside out when they were shamed by their entire communities, ostracized by their families, for not being able to keep a promise that the vast majority of people can’t possibly keep.

Sometimes, we end up in therapy because we were raped and we have no idea that’s what happened to us until we’re sobbing in an office when someone for the very first time says what happened to you is not your fault and we can’t believe it because, no, it is our fault. We’re the daughters of Eve. We are the temptress, the seductress, the succubus. We were dressed immodestly. We gave our heart away. We didn’t keep ourselves pure, like we swore to our fathers and before God that we would.

Purity culture needs to be exposed for everything that it is, everything it teaches, and everything that it does to the women and men growing up in it. I understand the you have GOT to be kidding me reaction, but this is not something that can be so easily dismissed.

It’s not a joke. It’s an ideology that destroys lives.

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  • Excellent points here. Sometimes we are quick to ridicule things that are far too serious for that kind of response. This appears to be one of them.

  • I get that sick feeling when I see pictures and written accounts of this and I thought it was because it makes our daughters and little sisters vulnerable to predation but it isn’t just that extreme. What I’m responding to is the notion that these little girls belong to their father and that something private has been made public.

    Another thing about these purity balls is they do not include the mother. Dad is there strutting like a peacock but the mother is generally old before her time and worn out from repeated closely spaced childbearing. She is stuck at home with the babies and toddlers, her time to shine is past.

    Not the type of life I wish upon anyone.

  • I assume that there is no equivalent for boys, making them stand up in front of their mothers and make a public vow of chastity?

    • Not that I’m aware of.

    • sunnyside

      I did a quick search on google, some purity ball organizations invite teen boys “to attend the Ball to watch the way their fathers treat young women.” I remember Soldiers of God/Soldiers of Christ, something like that, and it was a masculinity…thing. I’m not really sure what they did.

      Anything out there is not as wide-spread, certainly, and nothing mirrors father daughter with mother/son as far as I can tell.

  • A good analysis, as usual.

  • I did NOT grow up in this culture, so I’m asking as someone truly ignorant – but why have I never heard of such a thing for BOYS? It is because they’re “supposed” to be more experienced or “unable” to control themselves? Or is it seen as unnecessary for boys to be concerned about their virginity?

    • Let me just add – this all seems creepy and sick…

    • Not very. Boys will be boys and sow their wild oats. Girls are either virgins, temptresses or whores. After all “if you hadn’t________ I wouldn’t have wanted to have sex with you.” Time let the whole rotten mess collapse under it’s own weight. Maybe we can build something good out of the ashes but I doubt it.

    • In my experience there is also teaching aimed at boys. It’s not as public, but seems to set them up just as much for failure. The emphasis is often on them maintaining a pure thought life as well as appropriate behavior. Girls are taught to be modest so that they don’t lead boys to have immoral thoughts. But boys are taught that even being aroused is a sin. I’d actually love to hear some thoughts on what we should be teaching boys about their thought life because I have young sons and I can’t imagine putting that burden on them when they get older.

      • Divizna

        Um, how about: “Whatever you feel, it’s all right. You can’t be held responsible for emotions. What you are fully responsible for are your actions. Whatever you felt at the moment does not absolve you of that responsibility. And by the way, watch out so that you don’t hurt yourself. Try not to dwell on thoughts that make you unhappy – for your own sake.”

        • That’s a good place to start. I’m not totally sure though if sexual responses/attractions fall purely into the realm of emotions. And I’m not sure what to do with Bible passages that talk about the sin of lust. I feel like my husband has a pretty good grasp on being a responsible, decent human being who doesn’t let his sexuality fill him with guilt, so my boys will have a good example. But I think it’s more of a common sense approach he has developed over the years than teaching he got from the church.

    • I would hazard a guess that for the culture, it’s just easier to keep track of girls. Supposedly there’s a way to check.

      My family was on the fringes of purity culture. I left semi-amicably after I graduated from college. I know that while I was in college, my parents bought rings for each of their three children – I had mine, until I gained more weight than I could keep the ring on comfortably, and then it came off. I am unsure if my brother and sister received rings, or some other symbol.

      Personally, I would rather have people choose abstinence before marriage because they want to please God, not because they now have an obligation to other people and the possible consequences that come out of purity culture.

      • Divizna

        Personally, I would rather have people choose abstinence because and only if it’s the right path for themselves at the moment.
        But yeah, wanting to please God is a better reason than fear of ostracisation.

    • I think Jackie has it. Also wanted to add that it’s “understood” that it’s the job of women (as a whole) to be a civilizing influence on men, who are apparently at the mercy of their innate barbarism as a group. As part of that job, women are the gatekeepers to sex, so it’s their job to commit to “purity.” Because if all the women hold the line on sex, then the men have no choice but to marry the women, which is what women REALLY want anyway.

  • The part I find confusing is that the fancy dresses, hair and general emphasis on appearance just seems to accentuate the sexuality of these fairly young girls. It seems like that’s a cultural trend they would want to stay away from. Is it that they are trying to acknowledge that the girls are in fact developing sexually – while still controlling their behavior? Even if that’s the case, it seems to put an unbalanced amount of attention on that part of them.

  • My reaction to this sort of thing is often derisive and snarky because I’m so horrified. For me, it’s that gallows-humor reaction you develop when you know if you don’t laugh about something you’ll start crying and maybe never stop.

    While I didn’t attend a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical church, I spent my childhood/teen years in the 1990’s heavily involved in a Catholic parish that was hardcore conservative about sex, female virginity, birth control, and abortion. In some ways, the purity culture you describe today just seems like an intensified version of what I absorbed during that time: women’s bodies aren’t theirs to control, old men are the best judge of whether you’re pure or a harlot, and you must regularly submit yourself to their judgement of your thoughts and deeds or you’ll end up in Hell.

    Yes, some people outside fundagelical circles laugh about purity culture because they’re taking the “look at the freakshow” approach. However, others may be snarking as a kind of self-defense mechanism because otherwise it’s too horrible to know that millions of Americans see nothing wrong with the basic purity culture philosophy.

    • Jaynie

      I definitely get the gallows humour thing. It’s a well-documented coping mechanism when confronted with something horrific. And I also think that dangerous ideas *should* be mocked mercilessly, because it robs them of their power. However, I think it is important that the people doing the mocking understand the idea in the first place (especially if they are journalists or similar). There is a huge difference between “lol this is vaguely incestuous!”, which is easily dismissed by believers, and biting satire which actually gets at the reasons people buy into this nonsense. This journalist obviously failed in that regard, but others may not.

      • I certainly agree that I’d like to see more understanding from writers who tackle this sort of subject, whether they’re going after it with mockery or from a more objective and intellectual sort of standpoint. On the other hand, this is Cosmo, so I’m not sure how much depth any idea is going to get from the magazine that brought us such fabulous features as “What His Eye Color Reveals About Him” and “Could You Fall for a Guy Wearing Clogs?”. 🙂 I’m not sure if I’d prefer the magazine just leave something this destructive alone or if by doing a short piece on it, the writer at least raises readers’ awareness and may prompt some of them to delve more deeply into purity culture’s disturbing ideology.

        Also, would a member of today’s purity culture faithful read Cosmo?

  • Cathy Hendricks

    this is Eve blaming. what is forgotten is “by one MAN sin entered the world”. Eve ate and when she handed Adam the fruit she did not say “Adam, you’re naked” and shield her eyes. Only after Adam ate were their eyes opened to the fact that they were naked. The sin begins in the heart of man. “what is death and what will happen to Eve?” Adam was not absent when Eve ate, she did not have to look for him.

  • centaurie

    What I find so….bewildering, is that for all the blame that’s put on ‘modern teen culture’ and ‘peer pressure’ that makes ‘good girls & boys’ stray off the righteous path and become broken people , it seems to me that it’s actually the adults (both in this sub-culture, and in larger society, I’ve noticed) who end up pushing young adults out of the way and into the gutter with their morals/beliefs/standards/whatever you want to call that set of convictions.

    (Note: it’s not that I believe there is no such thing as peer pressure & bad friends, but it’s usually not the only or even the biggest thing in a young persons life, that influences their lives)

  • Ginny

    Yeah, this really sounds creepy, and this is not the first time I’ve read about this “purity” practice. I’ve seen pictures of girls dancing with their dads, and doing things like shaving them. I think this is WAY out of line. Women don’t shave their own husbands unless they’re somehow incapacitated, so why should little girls do this? This familiarity, combined with a dress-up occasion, cozy talk about purity, is not a good things. There are better ways to discuss this subject with girls. BTW, it would be far better for dads to spend that time with their sons. There maybe similar events for moms and boys but I’ve never heard of it, and that almost sounds creepier than fathers/daughters.

  • Peter Hockley

    I’m seriously having a problem wrapping my head ’round this whole concept. the whole thing offends on so many levels. As my Mum used to say, “You have to have a license to own a dog, You don’t to have children”. Good grief, It’s wrong on so many levels, AND they don’t do this to their sons. Some people wonder why I’m an atheist. I really thought I had a hard time being educated in an English Church of England (government run) Primary School.
    You never know when life shows you something that The Human Race is always much, much weirder than you can ever imagine.
    It just says so much more about the fathers, than their daughters,
    And you are so right, flippancy should never be the fist response to an abuse of the level of this.

  • Dan Marvin

    Boys are taught that if they even so much as glance at porn, they have a sexual addiction. The threat of this addiction is used as a means of control and coercion.

  • Gram Pol

    Here’s another thing: shouldn’t fathers be teaching their daughters what good men are like, not just once while out on a “date” but rather day in and day out, by example?

    • Newbie

      Why, yes! And perhaps they should show how a man should treat them by the way they act towards the girl’s mother (likely his wife), who seems to be left out of this whole equation, even though she’d be a pretty good source of advice to a teenage girl.

      • You sound like you’re getting dangerously close to a parenting strategy that doesn’t rely on borderline abusive strategies of controlling every thought, emotion and ambition your children have.

        We can’t have that.

      • I’ve struggled with the same frustration you express here. I can think of several times in my life where I’ve looked at something that’s happening within conservative religious circles only to be laughed off by people who don’t understand these circles very well as fringe or freaks or outside of the mainstream. There are times when you want to scream that what you’re talking about is so much worse than this person thinks it is, that it does real damage to real people and it’s doing that damage right now.

        I wish I had an answer for how to overcome that, but sadly I don’t. I definitely understand that frustration, though.

        • Whoops, this should have been a reply to the main post. Silly wordpress.

  • I really liked your comment about the therapy not being about your dad molesting you or something. I have a very odd relationship with my dad and I struggle to explain it to people but I think you managed to write some of what I feel. I don’t hate him. He’s not a bad person. He never physically hurt us, or I think intentionally mentally hurt us but I can’t even stand to talk to him so hurt am I by how his views and beliefs shaped my thoughts of myself.

  • I suspect I understand the “Purity Ball” because it is an off-shoot of the old Southern tradition of the Debutante Ball, something many of us are intimately familiar with. That introduction to society, the meat market mentality. I was the first daughter of my extended family to refuse the ‘privilege’ of debing. I didn’t just refuse, I vehemently mocked the entire thing.

    I find the entire debacle, whether dubbed Purity or Debutante rather disturbing. Girls, young women are placed in a unenviable situation where their bodies are their only value. It is, to me, horrifying.

  • Angela

    I was raised in Mormon purity culture which is a bit different. Mormons girls don’t pledge their virginity to their fathers. They don’t go for purity rings or balls, though they definitely have their own way of making it a public choice. Mormons are expected to marry in a Mormon temple, but that is only allowed for chaste couples. Right before the marriage a bishop will interview the bride and groom separately to confirm that there is no sexual sin in either case. Of course you could just lie (and I’m sure that many do) but this is considered a major sin to Mormons so a lot of couples do fess up. Whenever a Mormon couple is married in a civil ceremony it is basically announcing to all of their friends and family that they have been unchaste and is often a source of gossip for years to come.

    Anyway, I don’t have personal experience with this brand of purity culture but I have read accounts of women who’ve escaped fundamentalism feeling that they were victims of emotional incest. Granted there’s usually more to this than just purity balls but I do think that there is more harm that comes out of this than just sexual shaming. I don’t think that most people actually believe that father/daughter dating is romantic or sexual, but it does seem wildly inappropriate and a bit creepy from my perspective.

  • Angela

    BTW I just wanted to add that I actually do take my sons (aged 2 and 5) out on “special dates” somewhat regularly. My husband does as well. It has nothing to do with preparing them for dating or marriage though and is really just something we do to spend one on one time with them doing an activity of their choice. I don’t think that a father taking his daughter on a date is necessarily any more creepy than going on a lunch date with a friend or co-worker. What IS creepy when the parent/child relationship is used as a substitute for dating/romance, platonic though it may be.

  • Nonmouse

    This whole thing is creepy as hell, with cringe-worthy incestuous undertones- plus all the control and slut-shaming aspects. One of the best things I’ve read about fathers and their daughters’ sex lives (just typing that makes me feel like I need a shower) is this open letter by a father to his daughter:


  • Tamara

    My own dad has taken this idea so far that I almost never hear from him because I am, in his words, taken care of because I’m married. My unmarried sister, on the other hand, is pestered endlessly by him and has had to work really hard to establish herself as an independent adult who doesn’t need to be ‘under his covering.’ It’s a truly horrifying idea and while i’ve had my share of anger at my parents for these beliefs, I have far more anger for the religious leaders who perpetuate these ideas. They are grossly misusing their authority and it needs to stop.

  • Highest place this is happening: The South. Highest abstinence only sex education: The South. Highest teen Mom rate: The South. But I’m sure that’s all coincidence.

  • Patrick Prescott

    There were some studies that showed girls with a father-figure in their lives were less likely to have premarital sex and getting pregnant. I think the Fundies took this a little too much to heart. I have a daughter and from time to time I’ll take her out for lunch or dinner and I’ll let her talk. I don’t do 20 questions I just listen so we’ll be close. I let her know I care about her, love her and won’t judge her, the last part is extremely hard. What the studies proved was that girls need a man who they can trust and feel safe with, not be fake romanced.

    • Ginny

      I like your response and how you’re relating to your daughter. She’s fortunate. I don’t recall even one conversation I ever had with my father.

  • Do boys that take a purity vow get a cock ring?

    Just had to ask 😉

  • I like what Patrick Prescott has to say and I think this way as well. I do not have a daughter, but hoping to in the future. I have a son and will do lunches and dinners and whatever and allow him to express himself without condemnation.

    These Purity Balls as it seems they are being called, I don’t know all the ins and outs of them, so I can’t say yay or nay. But, I know from a Christian standpoint that it should go deeper than just asking your daughters to be pure until they are married. They should also know that if they make a choice and you as the parent do not agree, that yes there may be consequences, but the love doesn’t change or diminish. You are just not happy with their choice to break their oath, but you will not stop being their parent and confidante. I would ask my daughter, if she is willing to do it, to make the right choice and wait. But I will not ask her to make a vow, as the NT asks us not to do so. Because if you make a vow to Heaven, you are swearing on the throne of God. If you swear on something of the earth you are swearing on His Footstool. Jesus says, so do not make a vow. Yet if you do, keep it. For it is better that you do not make a vow, than to make one and break it.

    So yes in that sense I agree. Why ask your daughter to make a vow that she may break. But I do say, ask her to make the right choice, and it is my job as a parent to help her understand right choices and wrong ones. And to see and understand the consequences of those choices right or wrong.

    • Ginny

      Tristan, I like what you said about being careful to make a vow, and to be sure one is doing the right thing–whatever that vow may be. You keep speaking about the daughter you hope to have in the future. What are you saying to your son? You will have lunches and dinners with him and allow him to express himself, but the rest of your post is all about the future daughter. I’m confused. Back to my question…..what are you saying to your son? Or did I misunderstand something?

  • I read the Jessica Valenti book too. She explained so well that when a girl’s “goodness” or “badness” relies on whether she’s had sex (and not spitefulness, kindness, vanity, charity etc) the message she takes away is that sex is all she’s good for.

  • Growing up, we had “Daddy/Daughter dates,” but it was never a purity thing. It was more of a “Fathers, give your daughters some attention, too,” thing. After all, how many men have troubles relating to their kids? And how many more have trouble relating to their daughters, as opposed to their sons? I remember when my parents scheduled “dates” for each of us kids, with one or the other of our parents, so that we could have some lovely 1-on-1 time. It was great.

    I never heard of purity balls until I was an adult. Mind you, I grew up LDS, and we do have the purity culture thing (the infamous licked-cupcake lesson! Aaaah!). But we never had such public declarations as balls and rings. That whole thing strikes me as really bizarre, especially if there is not something for the BOYS to do, as well.

  • J S

    I am finding your blog for the first time tonight and I just wanted to say THANK YOU. Thank you for addressing these issues head on. I was raised in a conservative Christian family, where sex was taboo, dating was discouraged, and I was taught to fear sexuality. I was in a world where everyone was taught to suppress their sexuality in an attempt to not sin. All my friends had purity rings, we held purity on a pedestal. Later in life, this is all coming back to haunt me as I attempt to navigate a physical relationship with my fiancé. I love what you are writing about and I think it is so important to discuss, to think, and to not pretend that this kind of culture is dangerous. Thank you for making me feel like I’m not so alone in these struggles and thoughts. Keep doing what you’re doing.

  • To everyone asking “is there such a thing for boys” – the answer is of course, yes, there is.

    Male sexuality in the US has been criminalized. If a man talks to a child, it’s assumed he’s a pedophile. If he looks at a woman, it’s “male gaze”. If he expresses himself in public, it’s a “cat call”. If he talks to a woman at work, it’s “harassment”. The 10 Hour Walk through New York video made this abundantly clear – in the video, all we heard were men saying things like “Hello” and “God bless you” – and this is touted by Third Wavers (you can see what a Third Waver is here: https://4thwavers.wordpress.com/2014/08/15/what-is-feminism/ ) as being forms of ‘sexist harassment in a patriarchal society’.

    So yes, while girls have pressure to stay pure, boys have pressure simply from existing. They’re accused of thinking of sex every 7 seconds, of having only one thing on their mind, and everything they do makes them a “sexist pig”.

    Equality is better achieved by acknowledging when BOTH sides of the ship are on fire.

    • Which feminists have been doing since pretty much forever if you knew anything about it at all. “Toxic masculinity” is a feminist idea.

  • EJ

    Nice angle. I too have been in the “you have got to be kidding me” group. But your viewpoint is food for thought. Thanks.