Archive for the ‘teen’ Category
Published in Girlfriend, October 2008. Copyright Rachel Hills 2008.
All over the world young girls are pledging to remain virgins until they wed – but are the odds against them?
Every year in Colorado Springs and across the United States, new groups of girls – mostly teenagers, but ranging in age from pre-schoolers to uni students and beyond – come together for a night of glamour and celebration. Complete with dessert, dancing and speeches, it’s a bit like a school formal – only instead of taking your best guy mate or (if things get really desperate) your mum’s best friend’s dorky son, your date is, um, your dad.
It’s a night for father-daughter bonding, but there’s more to it than that. These events, part of America’s evangelical Christian movement, are known as “Purity Balls”, and by the end of the night, every girl in the room will pledge to abstain from sexual activity until they’re married.
Abstinence is a hot-button issue in the US, where attitudes towards sex can often seem torn between two extremes: those who advocate abstinence education and virginity pledges, and those who promote a “raunch culture” in the vein of Girls Gone Wild or the Pussycat Dolls.
The reality is more complex, but events like Purity Balls have provided easy ammunition for those who believe the abstinence movement is too focused on controlling the behaviour of young women, and attributes too much of a girl’s sense of self and value to her virginity. Others argue that they achieve just the opposite, giving girls the courage to resist the pressure to be sexually active before they’re emotionally ready.
For now, Purity Balls are “a purely American phenomenon,” says Emily Maguire, author of Princesses and Pornstars: Sex, Power, Identity, but Australia has its own, lower-key pledge ceremonies. Like the balls, young people at these events make a commitment to stay virgins until they marry, only without the whole dad-as-date factor.
One Australian group participating in the trend is Paradise Community Church, a Pentecostal church in South Australia, which held its first ceremony last year. Around 600 young people participated.
Senior Pastor Jane Evans says the program is designed to show teens that they don‘t have to be sexually active. “A lot of young people don’t realise abstinence is an option,” she explains.
Katey Polak, 14, who attends the church, hasn’t yet publicly committed to abstinence, but made a personal commitment to it when she was 13. For Katey, the decision was based on her religious beliefs. “God created sex to be a beautiful thing,” she argues, “and waiting is something he has set in his plan for me.”
There are other benefits too, Katey says. “You don’t have to worry about STIs or unplanned pregnancy. And it frees you to concentrate on your own dreams, like going to uni or travelling overseas.”
For the church, the concern is as much about how sex affects teens’ emotional well-being as its physical consequences. “The decision to have sex, to connect physically with another person, has huge emotional consequences. Many kids are making that connection over and over again, and in doing so they’re leaving a part of themselves behind,” Jane says.
“We’re passionate about protecting teenagers from wrong choices they might make at a time when they’re not mature enough to make massive decisions.”
The catch, says Emily Maguire, is that teenagers are asked to do this publicly. “Making a private decision to be abstinent to can be a really powerful thing – to have thought about your own sexuality and made that decision for yourself,” she says. “[But] putting young people in a position where their sexuality is a matter of public discussion is really damaging.”
For girls who don’t want to commit to abstinence, the pressure to pledge can be as much as the pressure to engage in sex that pledging is supposed to fight. “A girl who doesn’t want to sign needs to have an enormous sense of self confidence to say ‘I’m not going to do this‘. It puts girls in an incredibly difficult situation.”
And if teenagers aren’t considered mature enough to decide to who have sex, Emily wonders, why are they considered old enough to make informed decisions about their future sex lives?
Then there’s the question of whether the pledges work. Pro-pledgers say that making a commitment to abstain from sex can make it easier for teens who aren’t ready to have sex to stick to their guns.
But most studies have shown that, on average, pledges only delay the age at which someone will have sex by around six months – and abstinence education has been shown to have no effect at all. Eighty-eight per cent of pledgers have sex before they wed.
More worryingly, evidence shows that when pledgers do have sex, many are not prepared.
“Young people who’ve only had abstinence education or signed virginity pledges are less likely to have safe sex,” says Maguire. “Partly because they don’t know how, but also because they’re less likely to carry condoms around to admit to themselves that they might have sex. Psychologically there’s less shame and guilt associated with the act [if it‘s not pre-planned], but healthwise, it’s scary.”
But for Katey and Jane, pledging is still a beautiful thing. “It tells girls that they’re valuable, that they have something to offer, that they have control over the choices they make,” Jane says.
“We’re not judging anyone,” adds Katey. “This is just what we believe and what we live by.”