This past Saturday evening, I watched Nightline Prime’s special about Purity Balls. The subject matter was not new to me, having read plenty about Purity Balls. Jessica Valenti has focused on the Purity Myth and how potentially damaging it is to girls and women in both the short- and long-term. Hanne Blank wrote a spectacular book about the myth of virginity throughout history, how religious people (and scientists of a much older era) sought to find justification for gender-based rules and normatives. For many of us in the current era, this history straps itself onto the notion of a vaginal hymen in female infants and young girls who are sexually uninitiated…without a complete explanation of what, exactly, a hymen is in the first place…and why when the word “hymen” is uttered, our thoughts shift automatically to the vagina. This wrong-headed idea, while justified in the idea of being guardians of “female purity,” has resulted in tragic outcomes like the murder of young girls and women believed to be unchaste.
Pull up any dictionary -or even Wikipedia– and look for the word “hymen,” and you will likely find a reference to the vagina and the traditional association with the hymen and female virginity. However, a hymen is simply a membrane, or a “piece of thin skin.” The word itself derives its roots from Greek – associated with the god Hymen – etymologically speaking, translated to mean “the joiner” or “the one who sews.” Its original meaning referred to any membrane that connected pieces together, such as the back of the ears to the side of the skull during development (as one example). It came to mean -more specifically- a vaginal membrane during the search for scientific/medical justification for separating girls from boys with respect to the nonexistent idea of virginity…or “the membrane par excellence.”
In different cultures around the world, the idea of a girl who is not a virgin (no matter how she was sexually initiated – to include rape) has resulted in spectacularly horrific amounts of shaming. The type of shaming, and the actions taken as a result of such shaming, varies from culture to culture…some more barbaric than others. But the origins are all the same. A thin piece of skin that can (and often does) dissolve or break on its own without any external interference. Some girls are even born without a vaginal hymen. In extremely rare – and I mean astronomically rare – cases, a woman’s integumentary system can go on overload and rebuild a vaginal hymen (even following childbirth). However, the infinitesimally small number of those cases make them statistically insignificant. Once torn or dissolved, a vaginal hymen never grows back. Further, from a strictly biological standpoint, a genital hymen in female mammals is not limited to humans…yet we are the only species that seems to give the matter any thought whatsoever.
Really, though, in human social customs, the value placed on a woman’s vagina (whether or not it has been penetrated) is distinctly religiously rooted, often with detrimental effects, both physical and psychological. The idea of “being a virgin” is, in the American culture, so heavily steeped into our thinking, that most of us think nothing of the slut-shaming connected with it, whether or not the female in question has ever sexually initiated. This cultural tendency predates my life, of course, and I remember being victim to it as an adolescent. Prior to my own first sexual experience, I was called a “slut” because I wore tight floral pants and lace-overlay tops (a la Madonna) — hey, don’t judge me, it was the 80s. I remember thinking how odd it was to be called a slut for my clothing, especially since I’d never done anything sexual at that point.
That tendency continues today, also, and I’ve had conversations with my older kids about this topic. Particularly with my daughter, who is quite conservative in her clothing choices (she’s a jeans & concert t-shirt kind of girl), and has had moments of being judgmental about some girls in her peer group who dress more provocatively than she believes is appropriate. I’ve asked her (and my older son) if she believes that a woman deserves to be raped because of what she wears, to which the answer (from both) was “no.” I asked how judging a young woman by her clothing was any different. Neither of them could really answer that question without stumbling over it. I reminded them about personal preferences with respect to not only clothing, but to anything any of us chooses to do, and that our own “yardsticks” in this life are for measuring ourselves solely. Have these conversations changed their perceptions about whether a girl or woman who dresses provocatively is a “slut”? Hard to say, honestly. I haven’t tried to teach my kids what to think…merely how to think. Fighting against harmful cultural normatives is akin to swimming against high tide. Do I understand the mode of thinking, though? Yes, I do. Of course I do. Which brings me back to Purity Balls.
If you’re unfamiliar with Purity Balls, they are formal events hosted by certain denominations of Protestant Christianity…where a girl (as young as 12 years) takes a vow to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. Yes, this is connected directly with “virginity vows” and “chastity pledges” that have been handed out in public school sex ed classrooms at the middle school level. My daughter came home with one such paper (that she refused to sign) when she was in the 8th grade. Of course, because public schools have to strip any religious language out of what they present, the language is subtle and nuanced…but yes, these really exist:
I no longer have an example of what my daughter brought home from school, and it wasn’t a certificate like the above image — it was more of a contract type form — but the idea was essentially the same.
Thing is, no matter how much the language is stripped to “sound secular” — the history of the topic is impossible to ignore once you know it. Jeremiah Denton (along with Orrin Hatch) sponsored what was initially known as the “Chastity Act” — later, the Adolescent Family Life Act — which had originally been laughed out of Congress with contempt for its blatantly obvious religious overtones. Denton’s brainchild came from what he believed to be the “twin moral scourges” – teen sex and abortion. His solution? Boiled down, the idea was a sex-negative, fear-based propaganda campaign akin to “Just Say No” — and this idea was reworked until it became known as Abstinence-Only Until Marriage (AOUM) sex education. The idea was, initially, to divert funding away from Title X (the portion of the Social Security Act that funds organizations like Planned Parenthood) to Title V. This was signed into law by former President Clinton, and expanded upon drastically by former President George W. Bush. When AOUM sex education (including abstinence-plus type programs) were shown to be disastrously ineffective (with opposite outcomes of its stated aims), the definition of “success” was actually changed to mean “change of attitudes” (by teens about sex) under the GWBush administration.
However, facts are pesky little things for people who really (and understandably) want their children…particularly their daughters…to remain virgins until marriage. So, for particularly religious families (especially of certain evangelical varieties), the facts about outcomes are especially troubling. Rather than look at the facts squarely for what they are, and provide necessary information for their teens that could help them make better informed choices, those parents took a different route…one that involves public pledging before an entire group of people, including friends and family members…pledging that their Daddy will be their only boyfriend until Daddy gives away his “Little Girl” in a white wedding dress. To make the symbolism even more gruesome, there is full-on jewelry involved. Sometimes this jewelry is a type of promise ring (like a junior wedding band – as in Married To Daddy), or in the form of a heart-shaped locket and key…the locket worn by the girl, the key held by Daddy — to be given to the groom on the wedding day. And…this is specifically focused on young girls. As for boys, the claim is that they’re taught to be guardians…protectors. If that is not a perversion of the natural protectiveness boys tend to have of younger sisters, I’m not sure what is. As though, if Daddy isn’t around to protect his “Little Girl’s” virginity, that responsibility somehow falls to Big Brother…? And what about Big Brother’s virginity? They never really discuss that…because it really isn’t about that. It is, quite distinctly, organized by gender…with young girls who are essentially disallowed from ever really becoming women. And, it undermines the entire premise of bodily integrity and autonomy by suggesting that somehow women have no right to personal bodily ownership — her body, and more specifically, her vagina, is not her own. It is first owned by her father (and by proxy, her brothers), who later sells it to a husband. And if you believe that the notion of selling is exaggerated, what do you actually think a wedding reception is…? Traditionally paid for by the bride’s family…a symbolic dowry.
All the while, none of the above is actually remotely effective in delaying (statistically) sexual initiation. The average age of sexual initiation – male or female, regardless of race, regardless of religion, 100 years ago and today – is 16.7 years. Human sexuality is a biological imperative – as a species like many others, sex is why and how we’re here, and how we continue to exist. Everything is not sex, of course, and I’m not suggesting otherwise, but religious interference with a biological imperative doesn’t change that it happens. Scientifically inaccurate and incomplete information regarding sex (such as scare tactics involving failure rates of condoms) with the hopes of fear-mongering adolescents into not having sex doesn’t actually stop them from having sex. What it does is stop them from using protection. Resulting in an increase in unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
Do I get that the desire to protect our kids from harm comes from a place of love? Sure, I do. I’m a parent as well as an educator. However, the desire to protect our kids must be rooted in fact and not wishes. Whether we’re talking about our sons or our daughters. For their sakes and their future health, we need to recognize our own upbringings, our own hangups about sex and shame (for many of us, that means recognition of religious influence, whether we’re religious or not), and not passing those hangups onto our kids.