Nightline Prime and Purity Balls

Nightline Prime and Purity Balls March 25, 2014

by Samantha Field cross posted from her blog Defeating The Dragons

I’ve seen a few documentaries about “Purity Balls” (which, every time I say that, my partner sniggers and I glare at him), and some are better than others. ABC’s Nightline Prime 20-minute documentary of the Wilson’s “14th Annual Father-Daughter Purity Ball” is not one of the better ones. The interviewer seemed to be either amused or baffled, and the only questions featured during the program seem to indicate a lack of awareness of what the underlying culture is– although she seemed to be catching on toward the end.

Because the program is so brief, it’s difficult to get a real grasp on what was actually said– the editing focused on a few ideas or phrases, so I’m left feeling that I don’t really understand Caroline Johnson or her father, Ron. However, I am familiar with the Wilsons, since they’ve shown up in a lot of the documentaries about Purity Balls, and the family, at this point, is obviously comfortable with the cameras and the questions posed by the interviewer.

The program drew attention to a few ideas presented by the Johnsons and the Wilsons– gender hierarchy, male strength and covering, and that women exist to be beautiful. The phrases they tended to concentrate on, however, were the ones designed to repulse the viewer. I don’t know how many times Johnson said something along the lines of “I’m my daughter’s boyfriend,” but it was more than just uncomfortable, and our discomfort was something that Johnson obviously found hilarious.

It was clear that both Johnson and Wilson are more than aware that what they are doing and saying is downright odd and creepy to most people in America, but it is also clear that they are proud of that. Considering that evangelical culture tends to over-emphasize concepts like the culture war, that Christianity is somehow “counter-cultural,” and that Christians are “Jesus Freaks,” this is unsurprising.

One of the interesting things to me about this documentary, however, was that it showed how these families view adolescence. When the interviewer asked Johnson about how the teenage years are supposed to be about separating from parents (a concept known as individuation), Johnson completely dismissed the entire question and its premise.

In this culture, men are encouraged to become independent adults, although only along gendered lines; boys can grow into strong, protective, warrior-like men. However, women are not given the same opportunities. They are to remain under the protective covering of their fathers– and later, their husbands. This concept appears in the language of almost every girl or woman interviewed in this program. Women are to be “on the arm of our men,” to be supporters, helpers, completers. Women are not to have their own independent identities separate from other people– our identities are centered on men.

This also shows up in how Johnson describes his role in his relationship with his daughter when it comes to her purity. He frames it in terms of “The Princess and the Frog,” and states that fathers are good at separating princes and frogs (which ignores that the frog is the prince in the original story, but ok). This is an idea that I am more than familiar with.

When I went away to graduate school, my parents were living in the mid-west and I moved to Virginia. One of the concerns I had about moving away from my family had to do with my dating life– how in the world would I be able to date someone, since I was nowhere near my parents and it would be next to impossible to get their approval? Over the two years I was away, however, I slowly came to understand that I didn’t actually need my parents to approve of the men I dated. I did date some “frogs,” that’s for sure, but it also wasn’t the horrific, disastrous train-wreck I’d always been taught it would be.

So by the time I met Handsome, I felt independent and individualized enough to start dating him without consulting my parents. I called and told my mother, of course, and she was happy and excited for me. However, when it became clear that our relationship was serious and I was falling in love with him, I told my father, and his reaction was . . . well, it was based on this idea that fathers are the ones who separate the princes from the frogs. During that conversation he told me that I was not capable of making this decision on my own.

To be clear: my father, like myself, still has a few left-over ideas from fundamentalism that crops up in interesting and usually surprising ways, and we don’t always know how they’re going to show up, or what ideas are simmering under the surface before something happens to expose them. This was one of those times.

But, it speaks to just how deeply women are viewed as incapable in this culture. Men are strong; women are weak. Men are the decision-makers; women are followers. Men are active; women are passive. Without our fathers and the “covering” they offer, we would inevitably fall away, be ripped apart by American culture, and make disastrous decisions that ruin our lives. The message is: women need men just to survive.

That idea is also reflected in how everyone in this program talks about men– the young men are taught that they need to be the “noble protectors” of women, that they are the “high priests” of their homes, that they are warriors and kings (no, really. The male version of the purity ring has four symbols on it, one of them a crown to symbolize how “men are the king”).

How men and women are viewed in this culture is extremely narrow and limited. Men and women have the God-ordained, biblically-based roles they are supposed to play, and stepping outside of those roles, they are taught, will result in unmitigated disaster. As a result, men and women who exist outside of these boundaries are severely punished by their culture– the harsh gender binary is one of the reasons why Christians can be intensely homophobic.

This culture damages both men and women, but it does so in different ways. Men are to shoulder the impossible responsibility of being the leader, protector, provider, and king of another human being– a human being they are supposedly quite capable of ruining in a single moment. Women, on the other hand, are not allowed to become a complete, independent, actualized person. We are trapped inside our supposed fragility and constantly controlled by our fear.

When men and women are constrained by these roles, these essentialist definitions of who we are allowed to be, nobody wins.

Don’t miss Samantha’s piece on the whole Purity Culture – That “Dating Your Dad” Thing

Comments open below

Read everything by Samantha!

Samantha grew up in the homeschool, patriarchy, quiverfull, and fundamentalist movements, and experienced first-hand the terror and manipulation of spiritual abuse. She is now married to an amazing, gentle man who doesn’t really get what happened to her but loves her anyway. With him by her side and the strength of God’s promises, she is slowly healing.

Samantha blogs at Defeating The Dragons and is a member of The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jewel

    Creepy, just creepy – the whole “Purity Ball” thing.

    Lest anyone think it is just a fundamentalist problem, I have seen in the paper the last few years that there is just such an annual ball in my city for girls who are in the white, upper-middle class, privileged bracket. These are not people who otherwise would be considered “fundamentalist”. Maybe the upper-middle class version of the debutante ball, except the dresses are considerably more modest. The photos of these daughters with their dads are truly creepy. The dads looking at teenage girls like they are in love with them. The way they should be looking at their wives. It makes my skin crawl.

  • Jenny Islander

    On one level, skeeve skeeve ick ick, but on another level it’s yet another manifestation of the “separated” mindset, I think. Look around for something “worldly” culture dumped a long time ago (in this case, women having the legal status of children or people with severe mental retardation); pick it up and rework it in ways that the original practitioners never seem to have contemplated*; proclaim the grotesque result to be wholesome, old-fashioned Christianity.

    *I read a lot of 19th-century American popular literature, and I can’t remember a single instance of a noble and protective father proclaiming that because his dear (silly and female) little daughter (chattel) is so innocent (stupid and liable to do something unacceptable), she shall dance only with him henceforth. Can anybody else?

  • Independent Thinker

    “This also shows up in how Johnson describes his role in his relationship with his daughter when it comes to her purity. He frames it in terms of “The Princess and the Frog,” and states that fathers are good at separating princes and frogs (which ignores that the frog is the prince in the original story, but ok). This is an idea that I am more than familiar with.” The story Johnson is referring to is not the same story you are familiar with. He is referring to The Princess and the Kiss: A Story of God’s Gift of Purity by Jennie Bishop. The book is widely circulated in the homeschooling community. The book basically refers to the kiss as the hymen and tells girls your husband will one day own your privates. Sadly this book is targeted at girls around five years old.

  • Independent Thinker

    I feel the exact same way there is something completely creepy about dating your own dad. It seems more appropriate to go to lunch or an afternoon at the park with your dad than to hang out together in a candlelit ballroom until the wee hours of the morning.

  • Nea

    Not even in Mansfield Park, whose heroine was as timid and dependent as the patriarchy could wish. (And we know about the *rest* of Austen’s heroines!)

  • Em

    The mothers are always mysteriously absent from the picture. If mothers wee there being mentors as well it would be less gross.

  • Allison the Great

    I’m so glad my dad is a feminist who doesn’t view me and my sister as silly or stupid and his property. I’m glad he didn’t make me swear my virginity to him and that he knows that the choices that I make as an adult are mine and that he can’t interfere.

  • texcee

    There is just this weird incestuous overtone to this whole thing.

  • attackfish

    I’m skeeved out by the blatant emotional incest, but I don’t think that it’s nessisarily wrong to hold a father daughter dance. I went to father daughter square dances and mother daughter sock hops for girl scouts the whole time I was growing up, and without the romantic overtones and creepy talk about my dad owning my hymen, they were just fun ways to spend an evening with my parents and my friends. Course, they ended at eight, and there were no candles.

  • attackfish

    You can always tell how purity culture has saturated mainstream society when you realize that a lot of non-evangelicals are totally okay with the idea that these guys are holding a whole party dedicated to the state of a bunch of children’s sex lives.

  • The website “A Mighty girl” has a picture of the frog in the girl’s hand, telling the princess: “If you kiss me, I will turn into a prince.” And she say: “I don’t want a prince. But a talking frog, cool!”
    Anyway, it is strange if fundies reference frogs and princes. In the story everyone knows, she actually kisses the frog – and that is showed as a good thing that transforms the unpleasant guy. If girls know the book you talk of and superimpose that on the story we all know, they may hear they should give their hymen away to turn a bad guy into a good one? I disagree, and I believe your average “fundie” would too.

  • Nicole Maendel

    There is an excellent book out there entitled: “The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women.” I highly recommend it!