Displaced Ownership of Female Sexuality: The Case of the Purity Ball

by | August 8, 2013
filed under Feminism

Logo for the 2007 Hollywood Father-Daughter Purity Ball

Logo for the 2007 Hollywood Father-Daughter Purity Ball, showing a heart. Inside the heart is a stick figure of an adult male holding a key and the hand of a little girl with a key-hole on her skirt.

Gender Focus welcomes new contributor Jennifer Geinosky! Jennifer Geinosky is an aspiring author, lifelong student, and brand new blogger bring her thoughts to light on her website: This Much I Know is True: A Place for My Thoughts.

Historically from virginity to marriage, we’ve witnessed the displaced ownership of women’s sexualities. Today, girls across the world are participating in “purity balls” where they dress to the nines to pledge their virginity to their fathers. I wanted to write a piece critically assessing these purity balls, since they relate to our discussion of sexuality.

To better understand the concepts that fuel the purity ball trend, we have to look at them independently. We must first address virginity. Our familiar notion of virginity has no scientific grounding or basis in reality beyond the meanings we’ve given it. We typically think any discussion of virginity refers to females. The idea that women “lose” something – their virginity – during their first experience of vaginal intercourse is problematic. Firstly, vaginal intercourse is a severely limited description of female sexuality. In a more general sense, “losing something” implies that something is misplaced by force or accident, in which both cases the owner lacks control. The language also implies that virginity is lost forever, never to be recovered or shared again.

The physical act that has defined a woman’s loss of virginity is the breaking or tearing of her hymen. In reality, this can occur at anytime between birth and death for a variety of reasons, and for some it never occurs regardless of sexual activity. While one’s first sexual experience can be a very special time, it can also be very awkward, confusing, or traumatic.

We’ve evolved to expand the definition of virginity to both males and females, and now consider it to be given and not just lost, but the definition is far from comprehensive and harmless.

Next we need to look at the broader definition of ownership. Ownership is arguably just another social construction. Though we’ve drawn up contracts and developed norms regarding possession, all have been human made. Even the concept of territory is inorganic. No one “owns” natural resources; some people can simply afford to hoard them with the threat of force or legal penalties in their theft.

Concepts of ownerships are not always harmful. For example, the notions that we own our own body, our own labor, and our own resources afford those that are awarded them great protection. However, these concepts of human rights have been preceded by vile histories of slavery that continue today.

While many countries have outlawed the ownership of human beings, girls around the world are handing over their virginity (inactive sexuality) to their fathers until they marry, at which point their (active) sexuality is given to their husbands. This is greatly influenced by religions that revel in concepts of purity and uncleanness that are long outdated. If I went to my father when I was 16 and told him I was giving him my virginity, I would hope he would say, “That’s okay, you can keep it.” In an ideal world he would laugh and tell me that virginity is an outdated social construction, but he’s not a sociologist.

I would likely find his response to be empowering. It would give me a sense of responsibility and trust, and reassure me that I alone own my body and get to decide what to do with it. On the other hand, promising your father of all people not to have sex until you’re married is downright weird. This is the man who should be least interested in your sex life, unless it brings a child into the world and under his roof or compromises your health.

Concepts of ownership and virginity – reinforced by religion – seem to be the greatest forces behind purity balls. In my opinion, these young women and girls should promise themselves, if anybody, how they will behave sexually and with whom, based on comprehensive sexual education and critical, personal decision making. Until we let go of our discomfort with the idea that girls are sexual beings capable of making their own decisions, some will continue to misplace the ownership of their sexuality to fathers and husbands.

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