- Daddy's Little GirlsOn the Perils of Chastity Clubs, Purity Balls, and Ritualized Abstinence
Recent years have seen a surge in public attention to the culture of chastity, including purity balls, chastity clubs, and other public declarations of abstinence and asexuality. Building on the welfare reform act of 1996—which introduced abstinence-only sexual education primarily as a social mechanism of control over lower-income women of color—the past eight years have ushered in a sharp increase in the visibility of and funding for abstinence-only programs targeted at young women across the spectrum of raced and classed backgrounds.1 As widespread efforts to block federal and state funding for comprehensive sexual education have succeeded, a rush of support for abstinence-only education has taken its place, despite lack of evidence for its effectiveness in delaying teenage sex, preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and promoting contraception usage. With this newfound interest in abstinence-only education, schools around the country have reported a dramatic increase in the emergence of groups on campus whose sole purpose is to support the "culture of purity." Such groups typically recruit members by appealing to their desire to please their parents, God, and their peers by resisting sexual temptation. Although girls from elementary through high school represent the majority of participants in chastity clubs, there is also a rise in the popularity of these clubs on university campuses, and Ivy League campuses in particular, in which women organize with the singular goal of protecting female purity.
When speaking of the irony of sexual repression fostering sexual obsession, Foucault argued, "It is said that no society has been more prudish; never have the agencies of power taken such care to feign ignorance of the thing they prohibited, as if they were determined to have nothing to do with it. But it is the opposite that has become apparent, at least after a general review of the [End Page 116] facts: never have there existed more centers of power; never more attention manifested and verbalized; never more circular contacts and linkages; never more sites where the intensity of pleasures and the persistency of power catch hold, only to spread elsewhere."2 As such, our obsession with restraining sexual expression has led to the sex-obsessed culture of chastity, including purity balls, virginity clubs, and ritualized celibacy pledges. Although these organizations and clubs around the country are not exclusively for women, or exclusively designed by women, they overwhelmingly focus on the recruitment of young women by appealing to their collective desires to fight "the urge to merge." My central argument puts forth that this particular construction of sexuality results in a highly gendered social space that reinforces women's oppressed sociosexual status as the property of men, inadequately prepares them for negotiating the terms of their sexual health, and encourages them to seek out chastity clubs and social spaces that construct an identity based on enforced repression of sexual desire and expression. As such, issues of personal agency—for example, the extent to which women choose or, alternatively, are pushed into these social spaces—represent a crucial problem in the culture of chastity, one I will address here in detail.
This article includes four sections that collectively examine the social spaces in which chastity is rewarded, nurtured, and publicly flaunted. As an outline of the major points covered in this piece, I first examine the social meaning of chastity rituals, including their effects on women's sexual socialization, ideologies of sexual violence, and their relationship to "losing" virginity. The central claim in this first section is that the gendered space of chastity clubs encourages women to adopt the worldview that women are distinctly and essentially different from men and that sexuality is itself dangerous, resulting in, for example, the construction of sexual violence as "giving in" to temptation.
Second, I examine the perils and dangers of the culture of chastity, including a survey of recent studies that show increased sexual risk-taking among women who have joined chastity clubs, as well as an analysis of the relationship between traditionalist religious teachings and young women's sexual behavior. When only the most...