Growing up, my brothers got purity rings too. They, too, were expected to stay pure until marriage. I have often taken comfort in the seeming egalitarian application of purity teachings in my own upbringing. Or so I’ve told myself.
But I’m getting frustrated. Because let’s face it, the emphasis is on the girls.
A Swedish photographer attended some purity balls in the United States and took the above picture and others. Within evangelical purity culture, both boys and girls are expected to remain abstinent until marriage. Unfortunately, though, as a result of the highly gendered viewpoint of evangelicals this expectation is not applied to boys in the same way it is to girls.
Generations of Light is a group that puts on some of the most popular father/daughter purity balls out there. Here is what they say when asked about sons:
As we have been given the opportunity to share about the importance of the father daughter relationship through the Father Daughter Purity Ball, we have also been asked how we call our sons to the same standards. Every year we invite the sons to attend the Ball to watch the way their fathers treat young women, and have had many attend with their families because we believe this standard is also important for young men to live out in their lives.
Girls are taught to say “no” and to remain sexually inexperienced until marriage. Boys are taught . . . to treat girls right. The idea, of course, is that boys will naturally push and push and push for sex, so they must be taught to treat girls with “respect,” which means not pushing them for sex until marriage. It is expected that girls, on the other hand, will be pushed to have sex, so they must be taught to say “no” and keep their legs closed. That girls could push boys to have sex is foreign to this system. Actually, now that I think about it, if a girl were to push a boy raised this way to have sex, he would, within this system, deem her the “worldly” woman Proverbs warns of and therefore unworthy of respect.
One thing I was woefully unprepared for growing up was recognizing healthy character traits in a partner and establishing healthy relationship patterns. In fact, the one litmus test I remember being taught was this: If he pushes you to have sex, drop him. And that was it. So when I started my first relationship, I was a bit nervous. My young man, Sean, was not from my background, and I was unsure of how things were going to progress. I was impressed when he completely accepted my physical boundaries and did not push me to change them. I now know, however, that this was not because he had been taught to “respect” women but rather that he had been taught consent and healthy relationship patterns. It wasn’t a gender thing, for him. It was a basic human decency thing.
But I want to get back to what Generations of Light says about boys.
But some specific ways we have also chosen to call our sons into manhood has been through ceremony, wise mentors, and modeling manhood to them.
The Manhood Ceremony
We believe that manhood is passed from the masculine to the masculine, and because the defining line between childhood and manhood is often indistinguishable in our world, we wanted to show our sons a clear line they can cross to enter into manhood. We chose to mark their step into manhood at the age of twelve—the same age Jesus first questioned rabbis and discussed the Scriptures in His Father’s house—with a celebration called Brave Heart of a Warrior. The purpose of this celebration is to mark in time, to raise a monument, that testifies that our sons have crossed a threshold that separates boyhood from manhood.
The Presentation of Symbols
As a part of teaching our sons who they are as men, we selected a few symbols of a warrior to give to them during the manhood celebration. I asked my mentors and friends to be apart of this ceremony and share with our oldest son lessons they had learned and wanted to pass down to him through symbols and story. One of the symbols with our son that his mother and I presented him with was a purity ring. As with our daughters, we want our sons to guard their hearts and walk in purity and call them to live in wholeness and strength in mind, body, and spirit. We call them to protect young women’s hearts by living lives of integrity, purpose, and purity. And this ring is to remind him to honor God at all costs.Another symbol we presented him with was the sword. At that time the immense sword was almost his height. I explained to him that although he could not wage war right now with this imposing sword, he would grow into the weight of the sword just as he would grow into the weight of manhood. We sensed the incredible privilege and responsibility we have to stand courageously as mighty warriors of God calling our sons to “fight the good fight” (1 Tim. 1:18) for the sake of the cross.
Modeling Manhood for Our Boys
What we have done over the years is commit to proactively mentor our sons through starting groups that train boys to become men based on biblical models. And now we see more and more of these things taking place, where sons and dads take time to plan a camping trip together, or put together a sporting event where men can be men. This is important for young men to have, and it is in this kind of environment we have seen that they thrive in, not in a ballroom setting, but a place where men can lead boys.
As a counterpart to the Purity Ball for girls, Generations with Light has created the School of Honor for boys. As I said before, it’s about learning to treat women with “respect” (which solely means not pushing them for sex), but it’s also about teaching them to be “men.” With symbols like swords and talk of “manhood,” boys are taught to be men, to protect women, and to lead. Ballrooms are for girls, wilderness camping trips are for boys.
The Purity Ball urges fathers to preserve their daughters’ sexual inexperience. In fact, fathers take a “pledge” promising to do just that. The School of Honor, or father/son camping trips (common in my family too), or even having boys attend the Purity Ball to watch their fathers pledge—these things focus on making boys “men” and teaching them to treat women with “respect” (aka not pushing them for sex). There is nothing about fathers protecting their sons’ sexual inexperience.
Actually, that may be the big dividing line. Girls’ “purity” must be protected by their fathers. Boys, in contrast, must be taught to be “men” who similarly protect girls’ “purity” by not pushing them to have sex. Men are protectors. Women need protecting. Men are leaders. Women need leading. This is the basic divide underlying evangelicals and fundamentalists’ gender ideology, and surprise surprise, it determines how purity teachings are applied.
There is one last question to be asked here: If boys are taught “manhood,” are girls taught “womanhood”? I would really rather not ask this question, because it makes me cringe. It makes me think of books like Beautiful Girlhood and Fascinating Womanhood and programs like Charm Course. Girls are taught that women are to be nurturers, caregivers, homemakers, mothers. Women are to let the men in their lives protect them, and to glory in their weakness as females. Women are to submit, to follow, to listen, and to make suggestions in a gentle way that will not risk threatening their partner’s manhood. I really need to unpack this in another post, because there is so much.
It is true that both my brothers and I were expected to remain sexually inexperienced until marriage. But the way these teachings are applied—and they way they are expected to play out—differed significantly. It was enough to offer a surface-level suggestion of equality, until you unpack everything underneath.