Comprehensive sex education and religious notions of “purity” are two topics about which I am very passionate. They both have the power to make or break a person’s relationship with sex, and I think we can all agree a healthy, positive relationship is preferred. However, I am entirely dismayed by the way the American Church has distorted teachings on sexuality, so I’m here today to hopefully inform you all about (and hopefully dismantle) why modern practices are so harmful.
Expectations and celebrations of virginity have been an aspect of many cultures for many years. However, a relatively new virginity-related trend has begun to shape the way the American Church approaches sexuality: purity pledges. Purity pledges (AKA virginity pledges, abstinence vows, etc.), in their simplest form, require signing a pledge promising to remain abstinent until marriage. Rituals, certificates, tokens, and family members often accompany them. Pledges may be taken in church, school, or even as a part of extravagant events known as purity balls.
First we saw a push for abstinence teaching in the late 1980s-early 1990s that culminated in the Adolescent Family Life Act, or the “ Chastity Act.” Then, in 1993, an organization called True Love Waits introduced the pledge, followed by the introduction of “purity rings” by The Silver Ring Thing in 1995. The popularity of purity pledges was growing quickly, and by this time, nearly 2.2 million adolescents had signed some form of virginity pledge. Then, in 1996, two events occurred that significantly informed current data and perceptions of the American Christian purity movement. The first of these was the implementation of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which promoted and established abstinence-only sex education in public schools. The second was the founding of Generations of Light, the first organization that used the father-daughter relationship as the key mediator of sexual purity. Since then, abstinence-only sex education programs, which often include purity pledges in the curriculum, have received over 1.3 billion in federal funding. These events marked the point at which abstinence practices spread exponentially in schools and churches, and a growing number of families became ritually involved in purity balls, popularized by Generations of Light. By 2008, nearly 23.8% of adolescents had taken some form of virginity pledge and purity balls reached an annual rate of approximately 4,700.
Unfortunately, pledges have proven an ineffective means of facilitating commitment to abstinent sexual behavior. However, they do have alarming unintended effects on many other aspects of adolescents’ sexuality. The overwhelming ubiquity of purity pledge culture thus requires careful consideration of the implications of these unintended effects. Issues with the practice include health risks, undermined autonomy and intrinsic motivation, perpetuation of patriarchal familial and relational structures, confusing and contradictory messages, and theological inaccuracies, particularly within the practice of father-daughter purity balls. Continue reading “The Plight of the Purity Pledge”