SOCIETY

DAD’S YOUR PROM DATE

Wedding-like purity balls celebrate men as father-protectors

CHARLIE GILLIS October 8 2007
SOCIETY

DAD’S YOUR PROM DATE

Wedding-like purity balls celebrate men as father-protectors

CHARLIE GILLIS October 8 2007

DAD’S YOUR PROM DATE

Wedding-like purity balls celebrate men as father-protectors

SOCIETY

CHARLIE GILLIS

In a world of lowrider jeans, friends with benefits, lunchtime hookups and drug-resistant STDs, you can forgive a girl like Christy Parcha for feeling besieged. “It is really hard to be pure,” says the 19-year-old, her hands clasped on her lap, a knit top providing the modesty her offthe-shoulder gown cannot. But tonight in the opulent Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Co., Parcha suffers no shortage of paternal protection.

There is God (“He’s just awesome to me. He makes my life so exciting”). There’s

her father, Mike, whose bulwarks against iniquity include rigid control of the TV and an outright proscription on dating. Then there is a ballroom full of like-minded dads, scrubbed and black-tied for an evening of celebrating their roles as father-protectors and standard-bearers for virtue of all sorts. If the devil plans to stir havoc in this place, he’ll have his work cut out for him.

The annual “Purity Ball” is a high point on the social calendar in Colorado Springs,

the unofficial headquarters of America’s evangelical movement and laboratory of sorts for church-made solutions to all manner of social scourges. For months, the girls and young women here have been trying on gowns and agonizing over footwear choices, counting the days until the big night. Now, as hotel staff rush about with dinner trays, the girls are filing into the Lake Terrace Ballroom in a gust of silk and taffeta, many of them resplendent in white gloves, and about a third of them crowned with rhinestone-studded tiaras. The event has the look of a prom, a wedding and a debutante ball rolled into one. But there’s a twist that just might leave the uninitiated with a case of the creeps: on this night, the debutantes are dating their own dads.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a night of dinner and dancing with your father. But the connubial overtones in this instance are more than a little unnerving. After dinner, about 50 fathers will rise, lock hands with their daughters and swear in unison to “cover” their female offspring “in the area of purity.” “I will be pure in my own life as a man, husband and father,” reads their oath. “I will be a man of integrity and accountability as I lead, guide and pray over my daughter and my family as the High Priest in my home.” Afterward, the crowd will gather in a separate ballroom for more pledges of love and honour, along with rituals laden with cryptic religious symbolism. One man will slip a ring on his 13-year-old daughter’s finger, telling her she’s a “joy and a treat,” and asking for God’s blessing of her. The gesture will draw a round of hearty applause from the couples around the room.

The relationship between fathers and daughters is fraught terrain in any culture—a connection that secular psychologists say is complicated by male discomfort with a girl’s journey toward sexual maturity. There have been attempts to normalize it over the centuries through ritual, and the results range from the poignant to the horrific. Comingof-age parties called quinceañeras, at which 15-year-old girls officially enter adulthood, remain popular in Latin America, and serve as a balm to fathers grappling with their girls’ increasing social autonomy. At the far end of the spectrum are female circumcision

ceremonies conducted in parts of tribal Africa, a practice anthropologists believe to be rooted in fears of female potency.

But for many a North American dad, the default position when it comes to dealing with adolescent females is respectful distance. About the only formal recognition most of us make of our unique relationship with our daughters occurs on their wedding day, when we escort them down the aisle. And while Freud would no doubt view this as an all-tooconvenient sop to unacknowledged anxietywhy do we feel the need to deliver our daughters into the care of another man?—it’s hardly a moment in which most guys revel.

Randy Wilson had none of this sociological history in mind when he organized the first purity ball in 1997 But there’s no doubt he sensed untapped longing in the Christian community to celebrate and better understand the father-daughter bond. Then a junior pastor at one of Colorado Springs’ myriad Protestant ministries, Wilson envisioned a modest dress-up event for the daughters and dads in his congregation—the kind of thing his own five girls might enjoy, and a chance

to air out liturgical themes in a non-church environment. The idea, he says, was for fathers “to model the kind of treatment their daughters should expect from men.” And among churchgoers, at least, the idea took off. Today, purity balls take place in 48 states, while the 49-year-old Wilson has grown into

something of a celebrity. This year, the full gamut of U.S. network morning shows came calling for interviews.

With success, however, has come criticism. Feminists view the events as socially retrograde, affirming as they do the notion that female honour rests in the hands of male protectors. An article in Glamour depicted the evening as a straightforward product of the abstinence movement, lamenting the idea of girls locking up their desires at the behest of their fathers. Even social scientists who promote the idea of dads taking more active roles in their daughters’ lives remain skeptical. “Pure intent doesn’t always produce results,” says JoAnn Deak, a psychologist from Hudson, Ohio, and author of two books on female adolescence. “There are aspects

‘IT’S LIKE, WHAT? YOU’RE GOING TO A DANCE WITH YOUR DAD WHERE HE’S GOING TO MAKE, LIKE, VOWS TO YOU?’

of this that cause me to catch my breath. Yes, you want a father who says he’s supportive of you, who will help you deal with things as they come up in life. But you don’t make that happen with some literal covenant like giving them a ring, or swearing that you’re there to protect them.”

So this year, Wilson and his fellow organizers are trying to tweak the message. “This is really a fatherhood movement,” says Caia Hoskins, media coordinator for the event, as we watch girls as young as eight and as old as 19 settling in next to their fathers. “These are courageous men who are up against a culture that ridicules and diminishes them. We’re not

saying that girls shouldn’t take a purity pledge. But this isn’t about telling the girls to abstain from sex.”

Perhaps. But most of the girls here seem to interpret the whole purity thing as aimed squarely at them—with the goal of keeping them out of the back seat of the proverbial Chevy. “To me, purity means saving all of my body and my heart for my future husband,” says Parcha lightly. “My dad has taught me to love God and treasure purity ever since I was young.” Fifteen-year-old Kaitlin Nelson says the event reinforces her will to resist peer pressure to drink, do drugs and have sex. “The ‘in’ girls do that stuff, and anybody who doesn’t gets cast out,” she says. “I don’t want to be like that.”

And Wilson’s peculiar choice of symbolism can’t help but suggest a certain preoccupation with matters of female innocence and experience. It starts with what the program bills as “Worship in Ballet.” With notes of Agnus Dei trilling through the sound system, five girls clad in tutus carry a seven-foot wooden cross, funeral-style, into the ballroom; after hoisting it erect, the girls drape it in taffeta, place a crown of thorns at the top and commence dancing in a circle around its base. However innocently conceived, it’s a performance that irresistibly recalls pagan fertility rituals—more so because the girls are wearing toe-sandals so tiny they appear barefoot.

The cross dance is just the beginning. With supper over and the purity oaths sworn, fathers and daughters queue up to place white roses at the foot of the cross. Each group (some fathers bring more than one daughter) passes beneath two swords, held aloft by a pair of fathers to form a triangular peak. Wilson later says the swords are meant to represent the protection the fathers afford their girls. But anyone with a liberal arts education would have a tough time fending off the phallic associations.

Then there are the impromptu commitments offered by individual men and their daughters. At the beginning of the evening, Hoskins had lamented the media’s tendency to cast purity balls as events at which girls effectively “wed” their fathers. But during breaks in the dancing, several father-daughter couples take the microphone and offer heartfelt pledges. While some are sweet offer-

ings of the “you’re the best daddy ever” variety, others sound more like the nuptials Hoskins so strenuously disavows.

And it’s not like anyone’s apologizing. After placing a ring on his daughter Rebecca’s finger,

53-year-old Steve Moon shrugs off suggestions that most people would find the whole scene discomfiting. “The culture’s going one direction, and the norm is not what we’re doing,” he says.

“But it’s important to us to say this is what we believe.”

Floating such negative thoughts in Wilson’s presence feels like a bit of a risk. He’s a compact, thickly muscled man with dashes of preternatural grey above each ear and the stare of a college football coach. His 20-yearold daughter Khrystian choreographed and starred in the dance, and at the moment he seems scarcely able to contain his pride at her performance. Now might be a bad time to talk symbology.

But Wilson has heard all the complaints before, and he’s not about to lose his cool over a few shots from the secular peanut gallery. He stresses that his model does not require the girls to deliver their own vows of purity, and he disavows any connection to groups who have augmented his event with an abstinence pledge for daughters. He flatly disagrees, for instance, with a Baptist organization in Arizona that bills its purity ball as “a reminder to young ladies of the importance of purity, even though they are

hearing the message every day that it is okay to have sex before marriage.” “What do you do when a daughter breaks the pledge?” says Wilson. “Nobody’s perfect here, and in those circumstances a girl’s going to feel like she blew it. I don’t think it’s fair to burden them with that kind of guilt.”

For Joe Kelly, founder of a national,

non-religious organization called Fathers and Daughters, those sentiments are comforting, but not so much that he gives purity balls his stamp of approval. While having fathers pledge respect for women is laudable, says Kelly, the business of setting fathers up as white knights to their daughters is fundamentally problematic. “The fear we have as fathers for our daughters’ safety and wellbeing is real and justifiable,” he says from his office in Duluth, Minn. “But the best way to prepare them for life is to develop their sense of trust in themselves, to gain the ability to

learn from their mistakes.”

Deak, the Ohio psychologist, goes further. To her, venerating purity—a morally loaded code word, in her view, for abstinence—is simplistic to the point of being self-defeating. “It closes down thinking around thorny issues,” she says. “You think the world is black and white, good and bad.” And while Deak has no problem with promoting teen celibacy, she thinks events like purity balls deprive girls of the critical judgment they need when the high-pressure moments arrive. “If there’s a guy saying ‘C’mon sweetie, oral sex is okay, everyone does it,’ and all a girl has is ‘My daddy says this is not good,’ well that’s just not going to hold up. Judgment is something you build up brick by brick, explaining the reasons as you go along.”

Are the girls at the Colorado Purity Ball deer in the headlights of those who would take advantage? Certainly most speak of love and sex with a kind of surety that suggests they haven’t a clue what they’re talking about (“I love God and I know he’s going to bring me a husband,” Parcha says at one point). And yet most of the young women in this room know a lot more about facing down peer pressure than any teen girl wearing lowriders and a “Porn Star” T-shirt. As the evening winds down, a 16-year-old named Allyson Eno predicts she’ll be “painted as a prude” for even attending the event. “It’s like, what? You’re going to a dance with your dad where

he’s going to make, like, vows to you?”

The sight of her father Greg affirming in public that he will honour and protect her is worth the ridicule, she shrugs, and she won’t be afraid to tell the girls on Monday where she went tonight. Which, on reflection, demonstrates just the kind of character Deak says a girl needs to get through these parlous times. Vow or no vow, ring or no ring, there’s hope yet that Allyson, and at least a few other girls in this room, need daddy’s protective embrace a lot less than they think. That’s a thought to comfort anyone who doesn’t “get” the purity ball phenomenon—even if it doesn’t quite cure the creeps. M