Daddy's Little Girls

Imagine a couple arriving at a church in a limousine- she's in her finest dress, he's in a tuxedo. In front of their friends and family, they stand before each other and pledge a covenant- she to remain his, and he to protect and care for her. After exchanging rings, they embrace and join each other on the dance floor to commemorate their vows, as the guests eat fancy cake.

Sounds like a wedding, no? Sure would be too, if the couple weren't father and daughter.

While not a wedding, these "Father-Daughter Purity Balls" are designed to be enough like one to really set off my creepiness alarm. Now, it's all well and good for fathers to have strong and loving relationships with their daughters, but this seems to be taking it too far. The vow made by the daughter is strictly sexual- she is essentially ceding sovereignty of her body, and specifically her genitals, to her father. According to recent participant Mike Parcha, this arrangement "is a culmination of the relationship we have with God and with each other."

And he would seem to be right. Most ancient societies were strongly patriarchal, to the extent that daughters were essentially the property of their fathers. The Old Testament reflects this mentality:
Deuteronomy 22: Suppose a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her and makes up charges against her, slandering her by saying, ‘I married this woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her virginity.’ The father of the young woman and her mother shall then submit the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. The father of the young woman shall say to the elders: ‘I gave my daughter in marriage to this man but he dislikes her; now he has made up charges against her, saying, “I did not find evidence of your daughter’s virginity.” But here is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ Then they shall spread out the cloth before the elders of the town. The elders of that town shall take the man and punish him; they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver (which they shall give to the young woman’s father) because he has slandered a virgin of Israel. She shall remain his wife; he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.
In this instance, the virginity (sexual sovereignty) of the woman is considered the property of her husband after marriage. If the new husband suspects that his property is damaged, it naturally falls on the previous owner to provide some evidence that it was in pristine condition when he owned it.
Deuteronomy 22: If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.
Here again, we see the sexual sovereignty of the woman as the property of her father. In this example, rape is viewed as a crime not towards the woman, but to her father- and it is to her father that the fine must be paid. The woman is forced to become the rapist's wife- sort of a "you break it, you bought it" policy.

So it really does seem as if these displays of paternal ownership of their daughters' vaginas really are consistent with the Christian scriptures. But is it a good idea? Ignoring the psychological implications of "marrying" one's own daughter, a common rationale for these Purity Balls is that they preserve virginity in a sexually permissive culture. But is that really true?

In a study conducted by Columbia's Sociology Department Chair Peter Bearman and Yale professor Hannah Bruckman, although abstinence vows significantly delayed first intercourse, 88% of young people who had made vows did have sex before marriage. And not only do these vows not work, but these people were also more likely to have participated in sexual activities that were more likely to expose them to sexually transmitted diseases- males, for example, were four times more likely to engage in anal sex than other males who didn't take abstinence vows. And contraception was used less - 20% less condom use, for example, in males who made vows of abstinence. Thus, the data explain what had been a puzzling fact- why teens who vowed to be sexually abstinent were no less likely to catch an STD than other teens who engaged in sex earlier. Rather than being protected from sex, the teens who made vows were sheltered from sex in a way that promoted risky behavior with many partners once they did have their first intercourse experience. This conclusion is consistent with anecdotal evidence I've reported before.

Now, one thing that Bearman and Bruckman point out in their study is that abstinence vows work initially because they are tied into an identity movement, which can exert considerable sociological force. However, they point out that like other identity movements, it can be fragile- the number of common participants cannot be too many or too few and certain ages are more susceptible than others. An important component of this effect seems to be the non-normative nature of the vow- that is, those who make abstinence vows need to view themselves as is a minority for the vow to have any effect at all on delay of first intercourse. It may be the case that these Purity Balls, which seek to instill in young girls the concept of an abstinence vow as a normal part of life, may be doing more harm than good to their cause. If they are too successful, especially considering that most of the participating girls seem to be home-schooled, where their social experience is extremely limited, the vow itself may carry less social force that they are hoping.

If that is the case, then the only thing left is the crushing impact of religious guilt, and I don't expect that to be terribly psychologically healthy for the average Christian girl, especially one who is "married" to her father.

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