Preserving Her Purity


The Swedish photographer David Magnusson captures the emerging American tradition of “purity balls,” which he describes in the introduction to his new book, Purity:

A Purity Ball is a formal event where girls or young women and their fathers participate in a ceremony. The daughters dress up in ball gowns and the evening usually consists of dinner, a keynote speech, ballroom dancing, and a vow by fathers and daughters. The girls make a pledge to ‘remain pure and live pure lives before God,’ to stay sexually abstinent until marriage. Their fathers sign a commitment undertaking to protect their daughter’s purity.

Jessica Valenti praises the pictures but questions the practice:

The images … are beautiful, disturbing and tell a distinctly American story – a story wherein a girl’s virginity is held up as a moral ideal above all else, a story in which the most important characteristic of a young woman is whether or not she is sexually active.

This narrative of good girls and bad girls, pure girls and dirty girls, is one that follows young women throughout their lives. Purity balls simply lay that dichotomy bare. In a clip from a Nightline Prime episode on these disconcerting events, a father tells his braces-clad daughter, “You are married to the Lord, and your father is your boyfriend.”…

I have no doubt that families who participate in purity balls are doing what they think is best for their children – but that doesn’t make them any less wrong. When we teach girls that their virginity makes them special and valuable, we’re sending the simultaneous message that without their virginity they are tainted and damaged.

But Magnusson doesn’t want viewers to take away a particular message:

Though going into the project with one feeling about the balls, Magnusson felt something quite different after photographing many of the father-daughter pairs, whose poses were chosen by themselves and were not explicitly directed by Magnusson. What struck him “…when looking back at a year of photographing in the USA is how loving and responsible the fathers were. And at the same time, it is clear that the girls—in many cases, young women—are independent, strong, and insightful.” Ultimately, writes Magnusson, his “purpose hasn’t been either to belittle or glorify the ceremonies—the interpretation is all up to the eye of the viewer.”

Update from a reader:

I am getting so sick of artists taking this chickenshit out when presenting potentially controversial work: “I want the viewer to decide; I don’t have an opinion.”  This is transparent BS. They only got interested because they knew their audience would gape at this subculture with fascination and/or horror, and while they may have genuine empathy for their subjects, I don’t buy for a minute they aren’t judging their subjects or lack an opinion. Just because their view might be nuanced doesn’t make it likely it is this vapid and vague. They just don’t want to lose access to either their subjects or their audience (which expressing their real and honest opinions would likely lead to). We’re supposed to buy that an artist/journalist spent months working on this and doesn’t have a point of view? So why maintain this pretense?

Another reader:

Isn’t is striking that here’s no equivalent for young sons? Where’s the ritual that has father supporting their young sons promise to remain pure until marriage? After all, if boys were successfully supported in such pledge, girls would have a lot less to worry about.

But of course, a purity ball for fathers and sons is laughable on its face: first, because the force of male libido is not only assumed, but often (if tacitly) encouraged; and – more importantly, I think – purity balls are based on the assumption that male sexuality is inherently corrupting. This is doubtless based on the shame men feel over fighting so hard for (and, so often, winning so little) control over our sexual impulses: still, even though there’s no question that the virginity burden in every society falls more heavily in women than on men, I wonder why we don’t think more about the disgust for male sexuality that underlies the assumption that penetration is pollution.

(Photo by David Magnusson)