Keeping your baby off the pole

poleLike everyone else in the world, I love me some Chris Rock. Of his many memorable lines, this one from his “Never Scared” routine — as recounted by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer — is one of my favorites:

“Sometimes I am walking with my daughter, I’m talking to my daughter, I’m looking at her, I’m pushing her in the stroller. And sometimes I pick her up and I just stare at her and I realize my only job in life is to keep her off the pole.

“Keep my baby off the pole!

“I mean they don’t grade fathers but if your daughter is a stripper you f*&$#@ up.”

Sorry for the [symbolically] rough language, but you get the point. (For more on how Chris Rock’s thoughts on fatherhood are vindicated by Nobel laureate economists, read here.) I thought of the Rock routine while reading Nancy Gibbs’ piece about purity balls in this week’s Time. Ever since Neela Banerjee covered the phenomenon in the New York Times, purity events have had a raised profile. Here’s how the Time piece begins:

There are some mothers and some uncles among the 150 people in the ballroom of the Broadmoor hotel, but the night belongs to fathers and daughters. The girls generally range in age from college down to the tiny 4-year-old dressed all in purple who has climbed up into her father’s arms to be carried. Some are in their first high heels–you can tell by the way they walk, like uncertain baby giraffes. Randy Wilson, co-inventor of the Father-Daughter Purity Ball, offers a blessing: he calls on the men to be good and loving listeners, tender, gracious and truthful. And he prays that the girls might “step into the world with strength and passion, to lead this generation.”

The actual article itself describes the movement as dealing with both male and female teenager virtue. To that end, the slightly creepy headline — “The Pursuit of Teen Girl Purity” — is also incorrect. If this movement has been going on for a decade and programs aimed at boys are now growing even faster, as the article reports, perhaps it would be good to frame the issue a bit more broadly than “teen girl purity.” Either way, the article quickly presents many strongly worded objections to the events. It also permits the defenders to respond briefly.

There are some problems — such as the brief, unsourced statement that abstinence-only education doesn’t work. I’m not arguing that it definitively does work but reporters should be careful here.

There really aren’t good studies on the topic. I think there is only one federal study on the matter and it was very limited in scope. It showed the results for four counties and wasn’t controlled for anything from socio-economic data to what other sex messages students received in the larger culture. It showed that students who had received “abstinence-only” education had sex beginning at the same age and with the same level of safety as the general population. I haven’t reviewed the various studies about sex education (other than this weak and discredited one from the CDC that was spun as anti-abstinence education) but I believe many observers say the most effective programs (of those that have been analyzed) heavily emphasize abstinence but also provide information about how to protect against sexually-transmitted diseases or use birth control if you do engage in sex. Of course, what constitutes “effective” is itself up for debate.

Either way, there isn’t just one “abstinence-only” curriculum or “abstinence-emphasis” curriculum or “abstinence-mention” curriculum. It stands to reason that there would be variation within each subset. More relevant to this topic are the studies that show that girls with strong relationships with their fathers tend to delay sexual activity.

But the story, while fully engaging the conflicting views over how best to transmit values to younger generations, is respectful of all parties. It doesn’t have that anthropological feel that you sometimes get in stories about those wacky evangelicals. After quoting Wilson speaking positively about some aspects of arranged marriage, the story continues:
chris rock

This, of course, is the kind of conversation that makes critics howl. What about a young woman’s right to date whomever she pleases, make her own mistakes, learn from the experience, find out who she is and what matters to her? To which the Wilsons and their allies reply: If you still think this is just about sex, you are missing the whole point. The message, they say, is about integrity, being whole people, heart and soul and body. Wilson himself has said virginity pledges have a downside: “It heaps guilt upon them. If they fail, you’ve made it worse for them,” he said. “Who is perfect in this world? One mistake doesn’t mean it’s all over.” Everyone here has a story, and very few are in black and white. One man is dancing with his younger daughter, wishing his older girl had come as well. She used to wear a purity ring, he says, until a boy she knew assaulted her; she took it off–felt too dirty. Her parents gave her a new one, a bigger one; it took many months and much therapy, her father goes on, before she was able to put a ring on again. “That was part of a healing process,” he says, “with the message that you’re valuable no matter what someone did to you.”

One family profiled in the story is what you might call non-traditional: one dad and nine children by seven mothers. The father, who is dying, knows he won’t make it to his daughters’ weddings. He has much to regret about how he lived his life. An older daughter who came to the event flat out says he was a horrible role-model. She’s jealous that he’s a better father to her younger siblings.

The article ends with some very opinionated commentary from the reporter. But it actually seems to add value and provide a way of understanding what — and how — she has written up to that point. She argues that mixed messages about sex aren’t just inevitable but valuable. She defends multiple approaches to parenting, including the purity approach:

If you listen long enough, you wonder whether there is really such a profound disagreement about what parents want for their children. Culture war by its nature pours salt in wounds, finds division where there could be common purpose. Purity is certainly a loaded word–but is there anyone who thinks it’s a good idea for 12-year-olds to have sex? Or a bad idea for fathers to be engaged in the lives of their daughters and promise to practice what they preach? Parents won’t necessarily say this out loud, but isn’t it better to set the bar high and miss than not even try?

I completely get the visceral reaction some people have had to these events. To be completely honest, I share it. Which is why I really appreciated this article. By helping competing sides in this particular culture war understand where the other is coming from, Gibbs provides a valuable service to everyone and provides more light than heat.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    The article ends with some commentary from the reporter.

    The fact that an increasing number of reporters feel compelled to interject commentaries into their “news” articles is contributing to the decline of the MSM. Interviewing a few people does not make you an expert on a subject. You are a reporter. Report, and save your opinions for others in the newsroom. Editorializing mars an article, and editorializing at the end usually ruins it.

  • Alexa

    Purity is certainly a loaded word—but is there anyone who thinks it’s a good idea for 12-year-olds to have sex? Or a bad idea for fathers to be engaged in the lives of their daughters and promise to practice what they preach?

    See, this is the problem here. That quote completely misses the point.

    The problem with these “purity balls” is that it reinforces the fact that the girl and her hymen belong to the father, and, by extension, when she gets married she and her hymen become the property of her husband. Women, girls, are not “property” and no one owns us or any part of us.

    NO ONE is advocating that 12 year olds have sex. but we do advocate that young girls be provided with legitimate, accurate information that they can use to make rational, informed decisions for themselves. Then they become better able to make decisions for themselves and can act as their own agents, rather than defining their worth by the status of their vagina as to whether it has been penetrated or not.

    And, seriously, 4 year olds going to purity balls? Please. They have absolutely NO IDEA what is going on there.

    The whole “father taking his daughter to a purity ball” thing reeks of misogyny to begin with. I do agree that a strong father-daughter bond is critical to her developing appropriately as she grows into maturity. The same is true for a mother-daughter bond as well. But taking your little girl to an event that reinforces that her entire worth to her father and a future husband is based on the status of her hymen on her wedding night is just way beyond the bounds of appropriate bonding modes. You’ll notice there are no “purity balls” for young boys, are there? Why not? Double standard, much?

    I also take issue with this writer’s assertion that “only one study” has been done on the ineffectiveness of abstinence only sex ed. There have been several studies undertaken by a myriad of groups (including psychologists, sociologists, medical groups, etc.), and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM have shown that abstinence only sex ed is wholly ineffective for its stated purposes. Every single professional organization in the country who deals with adolescent health (not affiliated with an ideology-based group) supports age-appropriate comprehensive sex education, including the AMA, APA, ASHA, ACOG, etc.

  • Julia

    the girl and her hymen belong to the father, and, by extension, when she gets married she and her hymen become the property of her husband

    defining their worth by the status of their vagina as to whether it has been penetrated or not

    the status of her hymen

    This is an incredibly technical and erroneous view of what’s going on here. The emphasis is like Chris Rock’s – fathers have a responsibility to protect and positively influence their daughter’s self-worth. These girls are minors – the first job of a parent is to protect their children and prepare them for the world when they go out on their own. Nobody is saying that parents own their children’s body parts. I wish they’d drop the “purity” bit, though – that’s what is creepy.

    BTW With girls being so athletic in our day and with the almost universal use of Tampax, many, many girls are no longer “intact” even though they have never had sexual relations. And in previous times, there were accidents and just plain physical anomalies that made and continue to make the hymen checking business a faulty way of proving technical virginity or “purity”.

    My opinion of Chris Rock really shot up after reading about his remarks on “keeping baby off the pole”. That’s what the fathers in the story seem intend on doing. Not for the father’s sake, but for the daughter’s sake. The article was very good at presenting their intentions, whether the reader agrees with the father’s methods or not.

  • cheryl

    When I was in (Catholic) high school in the 1970s, the school sponsored a lovely annual father-daughter dance.

    It was simply known as a “father-daughter dance.” It wasn’t called a “purity ball.” There was no mention of hymen ownership (as Alexa quite hysterically infers) nor any reference to sexual standards at all, as most of us would rather have run screaming into the night than talk about this very personal topic with our dads.

    This perfectly innocent event did, however, serve to reinforce the strong relationship that I have with my father. And that’s a good thing.

    By the way, Alexa, my Dad also walked me down the aisle at my wedding, and we danced together at the reception.

    Had I only known how much I was being oppressed!

  • Dave

    I am with Alexa where she disagrees with Julia and cheryl. The whole business reeks of classic patriarchy, which is why it strikes many as creepy.

    Had I only known how much I was being oppressed!

    Save that line. I’ve heard serious feminists say exactly that about their upbringing…

  • Jay

    Mollie,

    As a father I agree with Chris Rock — although I hope his actual minimum standards for his kids are higher than “not a stripper.”

    However, I would strongly disagree with your comment about “everyone else in the world.” At least with regards to his standup routine, I’d guess at least 30-40% of the country would say “no thanks.”

    Since George Carlin (or Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor), American standup comics have felt that they need to drop the F-bomb (or other comparable profanities) every other sentence. Maybe it had shock value in the 1960s, but today it’s just tedious, unimaginative and contributing to the pollution of public discourse.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    My wife and I were watching some Chris Rock last week and we loved his thing about how he would run into women in clubs at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and find out 30 minutes later that they have minor children for which they are responsible. He went onto rant that those mothers have no business at a club at 2 a.m. on a school night.

    Of course, you have to wonder why Chris Rock, who is married with two kids, is out at the clubs at 2 a.m. and you could easily say he is just being sexist and wants to confine women to the traditional role in the home. Alternatively, you could just note that encouraging people to be there for their kids is not encouraging a sexist role for a parent, rather it is just being a good parent and citizen.

  • Stephen A.

    “Teenage virtue”? Does that exist anymore? How quaint.

    As for the “ownership” of one’s daughter’s private parts, I would have to point out that if the woman is an adult, then yes, Alexa’s “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar” routine certainly is correct: a husband does not “own” his wife’s hymen. But I prefer to see a marriage as a 100% compromise, and if that’s true, neither party is entirely a free agent any longer, and no, neither one fully “owns” themselves and they have a say in that other person’s life and body as well. This view is widely shared amongst conservatives, and any one of them will gladly sit for an interview on the subject.

    But a 12-year-old? A 12-year-old, or for that matter, a 17-year-old who is ten minutes from turning 18, is NOT a free agent, and may NOT do as she pleases. That includes choosing when to ‘bust’ her hymen with sexual relations as well as what clothing she may or may not wear. Dances that reinforce this are controversial.. why, exactly?

    The law requires parents to be responsible for their children’s behavior, and holds them legally responsible for it. So in a sense, minor children do not fully “own” their own bodies. Period. Fact. End of story.

    I also find the entire “ownership” angle to be a bit militant, and almost Marxist in its historical upsidedown-ness. Up to a point, it’s a fact that your body is your own. To run around screaming it at the top of one’s lungs, well, that’s just insane. 12- to 17-year-olds have no right to be so militant, and as children, they have no business obsessing about their hymens anyway. (Yes, I’m hopelessly old fashioned here. And I’m not even a father.)

    As for the crude comedians, if I’m in the mood I can let the F-Bomb’s slide, but for the most part, no, although Rock did have a humorous/serious point here. And I think [expletive] in brackets works better than “F$%#*@” but that’s just a style point.

    As for “purity balls” for boys, I think the entire event would be ruined by the name. Preteens and teens would be laughing so much about the name of the thing, they wouldn’t have time to dance. Other than that, WHY NOT have them? Great idea.

  • Stephen A.

    Daniel, when any comedian says “I was in a club last night at 2 a.m.” or “I was in a crackhouse” either they are drawing on well-known personal experiences or, more likely, fibbing a bit to illustrate a point or inflate their on-stage persona.

  • Darel

    More to the point of media coverage of the issues at hand . . .

    Dave (#5) has an important observation; “purity balls” do contain an element of patriarchy — notably that fathers have a special (i.e. uniquely male) moral responsibility toward shaping the sexual practices of their daughters in the direction of modesty. In that virtually all reporters in the mainstream media are feminists, this point will either [1] be misunderstood or [2] be considered “creepy” (see Dave again). However, there is an important gender struggle going on in America today of which “purity balls” and Chris Rock are a part, as is the debate over same-sex marriage: what does it mean in gender-neutral America to be a “father”?

    It would be great to have reporters think in these big terms when covering such issues, as well as in the small immediate terms of which they are accustomed.

  • Karen H

    What would have been nice to include would have been some studies on fathers as models to girls. What’s the likelihood that a girl will end up in an abusive relationship if her father serves as a good male role model? What is the influence if the father is either absent or is a negative model? What is the effect on a girl’s self-esteem when her father values her accomplishments? Have any studies been done on these things at all?

    On a purely personal and anecdotal level, the women I knew in college whose fathers were proud of and supportive of them and their accomplishments achieved a great deal. Both of my college roommates had loving and supportive fathers: one woman is an engineering professor at Stanford University, the other is a professor of Urban Geography at the University of Colorado.

    In addition, I know because I had a good father, and have good brothers, I could look at potential boyfriends and have a reliable measure against which to evaluate whether a guy I met would be safe or not. Naivete and ignorance goes a long way toward messing up a young woman’s emotional and physical well-being. If a young woman is raised with bad example of men, she’s not going to know what’s safe and what’s not when she looks for a relationship. Gender neutral or not, that’s reality.

    I remember being frustrated nigh unto tearing my hair out when some of my less fortunately-raised friends would turn down a nice guy because he was “too nice” (is polite, knows how to cook, doesn’t mess around with other women when dating) and then come weeping on my shoulder when they ended up with a jerk. There’s no such thing as “too nice” in a guy! They’d been raised with bad fathers who neither cared for their family, nor valued their daughters in any way.

    And they wondered why I ended up with a great husband. Duh! I had a good father who loved and cherished my mother, one who I knew would defend his family to the death if necessary.

    I figure you can talk patriarchy all you want, but facts are facts. My gut feeling is that supportive, loving fathers end up having daughters who achieve more than those who don’t have such fathers. I’d like to see whether there are any stats to affirm or contradict that impression. Surely it isn’t that difficult to research?

    And if it’s true that supportive fathers end up with achieving daughters, especially as a feminist, I’d like to see more men step up to the plate and BE good fathers.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Does anyone care to discuss the article in Time?

    By the way, Mollie, Gibbs doesn’t wait until the end of her article to start interjecting her commentary.

  • Kirk

    The thing that bothers me about the particular purity ball described in this article (and the NYT) is that I perceive this to be an elitist event. According to press reports, we have people flying in from all over the country to attend this particular event at a ritzy five-star resort hotel. I would like to know how one merits an invitation to this event. There is no way that the other 4,000 purity events referred to could be as posh. How much does it cost to attend? Who organizes the balls? Is the “Purity Ball Phenomenon” a for-profit venture? Or is it purely (no pun intended) a ministry?

    If the purity ball is such a wonderful vehicle to achieve the stated goals, then the event should be available for girls of all socio-economic backgrounds, and not just for the nouveau-riche evangelical elite.

  • Dave

    I agree with Karen H about the value of good fathers and the subversive effect of bad fathers. I would add that good fathers are valuable for the development of sons, too. I just find father-daughter purity balls to be a bridge too far.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Personally, I like “F$%#*@” more than [expletive]. It reminds me of wen I used to read Mad Magazine when I was a child. I asked my mom what “F$%#*@” meant, and she said “It means the person is too angry or stupid to say real words.”

    Does anyone else think “purity balls” sounds like something you drop into the washer to your clothes extra clean?

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