The Shame of Purity Balls

@SexDayUSA tweeted a link to a 2007 article on Glamour.com about purity balls, which got me thinking. If you’re not familiar with them, a purity ball is an event for fathers to pledge to protect their daughters’ purity and for daughters to “to commit to moral purity and help them understand the beautiful and righteous life God offers them.”

Of course, purity balls are problematic in a lot of ways. They give control of female sexuality to men and turn women into chattel that fathers hand over to husbands. They create an adversarial relationship between boyfriends/prospective husbands and fathers. They ignore the experiences of lesbian, bisexual, and queer girls by reinforcing heteronormativity. They set people up for sexual disillusionment by requiring ignorance. In addition to all of that, the idea that not being a virgin makes a woman morally impure is deeply rooted in sex-negativity and erotophobia because it’s based on the idea that having sex makes a woman dirty, soiled, etc. This is slut-shaming taken to its logical conclusion.

Although it’s a more extreme version, there’s a fundamental similarity between purity balls and the endless discussions about “how many sexual partners is too many” because they’re both based on the idea that after a certain number (whether it’s 1, 10, or 100), someone is permanently turned into something bad, undesirable, or contaminated. Sure, there’s a difference between pegging that number at 1 versus 100 since different people will be in each category as a result. But no matter what number you might pick, it’s still all about shaming people who have “too many” partners. Given that people tend to be much more interested in how many partners a woman has had than how many a man has had, there’s obviously a sexist bias going on here, too.

Personally, I’m much more curious about how someone feels about their sexual history. Did they enjoy (most of) their experiences? Did they learn and grow from them? Have they developed a sense of their own pleasure as a birthright? Do they make sexual decisions from their authentic selves, rather than an externally-defined set of rules? Can they ask for what they want and hear their partners requests? Do they take care of their health, pleasure, and well-being? Can they be honest about their desires?

These are the sorts of questions that I think are much more important than how many people someone has had sex with. In fact, I don’t think that the actual number of partners is relevant at all. Knowing how many partners someone has had doesn’t tell you anything about them. It doesn’t tell you if they have (or have had ) and STI, it doesn’t tell you if they’re sexually self-aware or knowledgeable, it doesn’t tell you if they’re happy, it doesn’t tell you if they’re any good in bed. All it tells you is how many people they’ve had sex with.

I understand that parents want to keep their kids safe. And I get that there are issues and concerns for parents of girls that are different than for parents of boys. But purity balls and abstinence pledges don’t actually help in the ways that their promoters claim they do. So let’s stop shaming girls and women for having sex and help them (and boys and men) learn how to make authentic choices that serve them.

Well, I can dream, can’t I?

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Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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