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The Lifelong Guilt Trip of Abstinence Pledges and Purity Balls

‘It took both talk therapy and physical therapy to even be able to have sex as an adult. There was still that guilt looming over me. It was very hard to shake. I’m now married, and sex can still sometimes be difficult and painful.’

At first glance, a Purity Ball might appear to be just like any other formal event. There’s a lavish dinner followed by a ballroom-style dance with white roses, white dresses, enormous crosses, and yes, sometimes swords. Professional photographs are taken of the couples who attend. It’s kind of like prom, only your date is your dad, and the theme isn’t “The Great Gatsby” — it’s abstaining from sex. 

During the ceremonial part of the evening, dads pledge to protect their daughter’s purity — mind, body and soul — and daughters promise to remain virgins until marriage. Forty-one-year-old Delaney attended one during the summer of 1995, between her junior and senior year of high school. “It was the fanciest ball I could ever have dreamed of and I went to Cotillion.” But though the event itself seemed fairy-tale-like, the promise she made that day continued to haunt her well into adulthood.

The Purity Ball Delaney attended was through an organization called True Love Waits (TLW), a nonprofit started in 1993 that created the first virginity pledge program. Former members include the Jonas Brothers, who famously wore purity rings when they first hit the charts in 2005, at which point more than 2.5 million other young people had taken the organization’s pledge as well. (South Park mocked all of this in a 2009 episode — and yes, there’s even a song.)

The TLW program was promoted fanatically by the youth pastor at Delaney’s church, and it was pretty much expected that she partook. During the ball itself, Delaney did what every young girl she knew had done. “I signed a contract that I wouldn’t have any form of physical relationship until I was married,” she tells me. “And my dad gave me a diamond and sapphire ring to seal our promise.”

Although the abstinence movement gained significant traction throughout the 1990s — aided by the Christian rock music scene, which widely promoted the cause — in 1998, things went next level when the first Purity Ball was organized by Randy and Lisa Wilson in Colorado. (The abstinence movement more broadly is aimed at boys and girls, but Purity Balls are specifically aimed at daughters and their dads.) The event, which is now held annually at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs (save for this year, when it was canceled due to COVID-19), remains the biggest, most elaborate of the Purity Balls, as it involves a dance performed by the daughters — a kind of celibacy ballet around a giant wooden cross. During it, white roses are laid at the bottom of the cross, a symbol of all that’s pure.

Such purity extends to dating, kissing and even holding the hands of the opposite sex. Again, until they’re ready to be married, there is only one man in their life — Daddy. If you think I’m exaggerating, Pastor Ron Johnson, who has five daughters under a purity vow, said exactly the same thing to ABC News when one of his daughters was asked what she says to people who want to know if she has a boyfriend: “You told them you have a boyfriend. It’s your dad.” 

Johnson scoffs at the criticism that the event is creepy and patriarchal. “It’s not so much that we’re putting unrealistic expectations on our daughters to somehow live up to an unattainable standard,” he’s explained. “I pledge that I’m going to set an example for them of what a godly father and a godly husband looks like.” 

Purity Balls went national in 2006 when the National Abstinence Clearinghouse — a pillar of the no-sex-before-marriage movement — began selling packets instructing groups on how to hold their own events. That year, they sold 750 packets for events in 48 different states; attendance ranged from 200 to 600 guests per ball.

There are also numerous other smaller versions of these ceremonies. Thirty-year-old Marie, who grew up in Oklahoma, had a reception that included sherbet punch and a purity ceremony when she was in seventh grade. She chalks up the lack of a formal dance to her religion. “Southern Baptists are generally against dancing, so we didn’t have the Purity Ball thing, but purity was stressed as being of utmost importance,” she tells me. Like Delaney, Marie didn’t find it odd at the time, as it was what everyone in her community was doing. “I didn’t really understand sex, or what all purity would entail,” she continues. “In seventh grade, I was interested in boys, but kissing still sounded a little gross, so it was easy to say I wouldn’t engage in anything.”

The thing is, that ceremony was just the beginning of Marie’s abstinence-training. To follow, her whole youth group was subjected to numerous sermons and Sunday School lessons on abstinence, an education that even seeped into her everyday school life. My school had a special week called ‘ABC: Abstinence Best Choice,’” she explains. “During it, we had someone come speak to us. She took a piece of flash paper, lit it on fire and said, ‘This is what happens when you have sex.’ I still don’t really know what she was getting at with that demonstration. We also did a thing with tape where you stick it to each person’s arm and then show that it’s not sticky anymore — that was somehow also what happened when you had sex.” 

In 12th grade, Marie attended a weekend retreat all about remaining pure, with sermons, Bible studies and worship services, culminating in another ceremonial purity pledge, where Marie received a ring. Afterward, she signed two purity cards, her father keeping one and her pastor keeping the other.

Both boys and girls participated in the events, but Marie says the pressure was on the girls, since it was understood that boys were “wired” differently. “I dated a guy who was really critical of me for not being completely pure, but also pressured me A LOT sexually, so that was frustrating and confusing,” she says. “It also made me feel like something was wrong with me when I ‘thought impure thoughts,’ since that was apparently something boys felt and not girls.”

Lawrence Siegel, a clinical sexologist and certified sexuality educator, has had many patients who have signed purity pledges and mostly finds them to be a negative in the long-term. “Girls that sign these abstinence pledges have the highest rates of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. They also experience higher rates of relationship violence and exploitation,” he tells me. “They often buy into the patriarchal view and suffer domestic abuse, accepting that their sexuality, or lack of, is the key to any value they hold. They tend to feel extremely insecure and unprepared for sexual and erotic relationships, even when they’re married.”

This was certainly Marie’s experience. “They told us that contraceptives didn’t work that well, which was meant to scare us into not having sex, but it really just meant that we were less likely to use contraception,” she says. “Basically, I made it to 22 without really knowing how sex worked.” 

Once Marie started dating in college, her anxiety about sex increased to the point where she truly thought she would die alone, even going so far as to make a pact with a friend that they would marry each other if they weren’t wed by the age 30. “One of the teachings was that, when you have sex, you give away a part of your heart, and so you can never fully love your future partner as much as you could have,” she explains. 

“It took both talk therapy and physical therapy to even be able to have sex,” she continues. “There was still that guilt looming over me; this thinking had been ingrained in me, and it was very hard to shake, even though I didn’t believe it any more. I’m now married, and sex can still sometimes be difficult and painful.”

Delaney also had no idea how to cope in the real world as she grew older, and she said yes to every man who asked her out, gaining a reputation at her religious college as someone who wasn’t pure. She was eventually kicked out after being blamed for being sexually assaulted. After being raped and attempting suicide at her second religious college, Delaney’s parents finally let her come home back home. By that point, though, she felt completely worthless. In her mind, losing her virginity, even through rape, made her “unpure.” “I hated religion with a passion. I hated men with a passion. I left everything I was raised to believe. I was angry,” she tells me.

Delaney eventually returned to school, another Christian college, and met her husband. Marriage, though, was far from a panacea. “On our wedding night, we attempted sex for the first time and I started crying and he stopped. I ran and locked myself in the bathroom. I was so ashamed he would know I wasn’t virgin.” Delaney then told her husband about the sexual assaults, after which they tried to have sex again. “We sort of accomplished it. But then the guilt hit. I felt dirty. I felt evil. Then I called my dad and apologized for having sex WITH MY HUSBAND ON MY WEDDING NIGHT.”

Like Marie, it took her years to finally become somewhat comfortable in her sexuality, and although she still suffers from the effects of her trauma, with the support of her husband, she finally feels on the right path. She’s even found god again. “I believe if you choose of your own volition to remain a virgin until a certain time, that’s perfect for you,” she explains. “And I believe that if you’ve been sexually active for years in consensual relationships, you’re just as worthy of love.”

“I was taught that I was dirty and that sex outside of marriage in any way was a sin that couldn’t be forgiven; that without my virginity, I was worthless,” she concludes. “All of this conditioning from the purity movement nearly cost me everything.”