June 8, 2022

It looks like some upsetting combination of a homecoming dance and a wedding. The teenage girls are dressed in polyester facsimiles of the big white poofy gowns they’ve fantasised about wearing since childhood, arm in arm with older men in suits that fit them when they bought them ten years ago. It’s the kind of coupling that, were you to spot them out in public, you’d wonder: is that her dad or a date and manifestation of her daddy issues? Is he dad or “daddy”?

The relief that comes with realising these are father-daughter pairings is short-lived, however, once the girls start to pledge their sexual purity to their fathers, and the men vow before God to shield their daughters from a fallen world. The feeling grows as the men place rings — cheap knock-offs with cubic zirconia and metal that will eventually turn their skin green — on the girls’ fingers.

They are called purity balls, and they emerged from Midwestern Evangelical culture just in time for the George W. Bush administration and the consolidation of Christian political power. If seeing Donald Trump groping at his daughter Ivanka made you gag, a purity ball is bound to make you heave. Grown men slow dancing with teenage girls, their arms wrapped around their waists protectively, promising to remain sexually pure for one another, taking portraits together that could easily be mistaken for prom photos.

The fathers receive rings, too, “symbolising my commitment to protect and shield you from the enemy”, as it’s put in a common version of the pledge. The “enemy” is a vague reference to secular culture, Satan, and boys, a mishmash of influences seeking to sully the virtue of good Christian girls. And it isn’t just an annual dance — it is an industry. True Love Waits was trademarked in 1993, and Evangelicals had made a lot of money from selling purity starter packs, from rings to books to workshops teaching girls how to be saintly young women.

When they emerged in the Nineties, purity balls were a reaction to what the Christians saw as an overly permissive, sexually charged culture. Premarital sex was not only seen as acceptable — it was the norm. Pornography was finding its way into the mainstream with widespread usage of the internet; girls were wearing pants with “juicy” written across the ass; MTV was a nonstop parade of scantily clad women in suggestive poses. (This sexually permissive culture was itself a reaction to the decades of sexual repression and conservative shaming, a time when sodomy was still technically illegal and teens were taught about sex through lectures about abstinence and doom-laden stories of how it will inevitably end in disease, pregnancy, and death. Aged 15, I was given a pamphlet that gave 101 alternatives to having sex: “bake a cake”, “hold hands”, “go on a walk”.)

Since their peak in the 2000s, spreading to almost every state in America, purity balls have largely died down. But while there might be fewer father/daughter dances and cringe-inducing photo shoots, virginity pledges are back, albeit in a different form and for different reasons. It’s not surprising that the deeply patriarchal ritual of the purity pledge — swearing an oath to your father to obey; he in turn praying to a heavenly father for guidance — didn’t survive waves of vigorous social justice movements over the past few decades. Celibacy culture has instead fused with a secular self-care culture that prizes autonomy and comfort above all. While a decent percentage of the TikTok videos making declarations of virginity are from Christian and Islamic influencers and creators, most are not.

One particular trend on TikTok has involved dancing to The Weeknd’s satirical song “I’m a Virgin”. It was originally created for the animated show American Dad as a way of poking fun of the singer’s playboy image, but for many members of the platform it was taken sincerely. (The lyrics in the videos include “I’m a virgin / never got close enough / cell phone blowin’ up, but I’m waiting / for the right person”, but cut off before getting to things like “inside I’m a 12-year-old boy” or “the power of God in my loins”.) There are still videos being made of men and women of various ages lip syncing to the camera, professing their desire to find the right one.

TikTok is not a great way to get information about anything, in general. The viral videos found under hashtags involving virginity include both diatribes about why the idea of virginity is a myth and the word should be replaced in the lexicon with “sexual debut” and people proclaiming that losing your virginity is so painful for women it is common to develop PTSD from your first sexual act. But TikTok has a well-documented contagion factor, with followers mimicking not just dances but behaviors, politics, language, and even mental disorders that they watch being performed on the platform. While not too long ago someone remaining a virgin past a certain age, say 20 or so, was seen as strange or pathetic, now virginity until marriage is roundly celebrated and normalised on social media.

Much has been made about the younger generation’s tendency toward prudery. Generation Z, or the Zoomers, have some of the lowest rates of sexual activity in generations. They wait longer to initiate sexual relationships, are more likely to have long stretches of celibacy, and, so far at least, have low rates of partnership. They’ve turned the stereotype of youths being the most transgressive and sexually active demographic on its head.

While they don’t share the justification for the celibacy — whether it’s patriarchal desires to control the female body or God’s commandments about morality — they do overlap with the religious Right in their desire to counter, and sometimes control, the oversexualised mainstream, which many view as harmful rather than liberatory. There is a worrying tendency when it comes to matters of sex to find these strange alliances between the far-Left and the far-Right, such as in the Eighties when several prominent feminists found themselves working alongside Evangelicals in their bid to outlaw pornography. Their reasons were different — the dehumanisation and objectification of women versus an unholy industry built on temptation and sins of the flesh — but their objective was the same.

With the new puritans, the concern tends not to focus on sexual deviancy but instead focuses on the ethics. They came of age when the culture had a libertine surface, awash in the sometimes violent imagery of online pornography, the legitimisation of sex work, and the proliferation of new and very specific sexual identities. But roiling alongside this were noisy and painful conversations about rape culture, sexual predators, and abusive romantic relationships.

So much of the online sexual puritans’ discourse can be understood as thinking out loud as they try to figure out how to be sexually active in a less harmful way. That they don’t seem to understand just how many previous generations have tied themselves up in similar knots to figure this out is just a problem of youth, not ignorance. The strange directions that online consent discourse take can certainly be off-putting. There is a popular idea on social media that movies should not have sex scenes, with people creating various justifications for why this is: from “it is potentially uncomfortable for asexual viewers”, to “asking actors to simulate sex is unethical” and even “we as viewers do not have the consent of the fiction characters to watch them engaging in sexual activity”. The logic was confusing to all who witnessed.

Philosophical musings about the meaning and value of human sexuality is one thing, and designing hard and fast rules that you expect everyone else to follow is another. Discussions about whether “age gap” relationships are harmful have turned into online harassment of celebrities and public figures who have significantly younger romantic partners. The perennial “should there be kink at Pride parades” conversation can lead to threats against queers from older generations for whom being public and open about their sexuality after decades of repression and shame is still freeing.

As long as these declarations of right and wrong come with condemnation and control, it’s going to be hard to differentiate their notion of “consent” from the Christian idea of “purity”. But this is just another chapter of the long struggle humankind has had with their own sexuality, controlling it, understanding it, sublimating it. For all the handwringing and panic, it’s good to remember that today’s repression will inevitably fuel tomorrow’s liberation.