Elise opens it to discover a piece of jewelry she knows well—her mother's confirmation ring. To explain why she's chosen to pass the heirloom along, Mrs. Forte reads Elise a letter.
"Dear Elise. This is the day of the Purity Ball... We are so excited... This ring is made of gold..., a precious metal, and shaped into a heart, and it signifies how precious your heart is to God, to us, and to your future husband, who God is preparing you for... The diamond chip is a sign of purity, a reminder that you are committing to purity in heart, soul, mind, and body until marriage... You will be able to give your husband the gift of purity, rare and precious."
Mr. Forte slips the band onto his daughter's ring finger. With a tender smile, he hands her another box. In it Elise finds a man's ring. Her creamy brow furrows in confusion. Mr. Forte explains that just as Elise now wears a ring representing her promise to be pure until marriage, he will wear one, too, as a sign of his dedication to the same goal. "It is in the form of a shield," Mr. Forte reads, "symbolizing my commitment to protect and shield you from the enemy. Inside the shield is a heart, which is your heart, which I am covering. Across the heart are a key and a sword—the key is the key to your heart, which I will safeguard until your wedding day, and the sword is the protection I pledge to you... On your wedding day, I will give this ring to your husband. I love you, my jewel, my princess. Daddy."
Elise slips the ring onto her father's right-hand ring finger, then falls into his arms, crying. A few minutes later, the family returns to the festivities at the seventh annual Colorado Springs Father-Daughter Purity Ball. During the evening, the girls present white roses before a cross under swords held aloft by two fathers, the attendees watch a "celebrate fathers" ballet choreographed to Natalie Grant's "Always Be Your Baby," and all the fathers sign a covenant that reads:
I, (daughter's name)'s father, choose before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity. I will be pure in my own life as a man, husband, and father. 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. This covering will be used by God to influence generations to come.
The first purity ball took place in 1998 at a nearby Marriott. Randy and Lisa Wilson, a Colorado Springs couple with seven children, hosted about 100 daughters and their parents, primarily from Evangelical Christian churches in the area. In 2006 the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, the ten-year-old nerve center of the U.S. virginity-until-marriage movement, sold 750 packets that outlined how to host a purity ball, and events were held in 48 states: Nearly 200 people attended the one in Tucson, about 150 people gathered in Spearfish, South Dakota, and around 600 fathers and daughters celebrated at a ball in Peoria, Illinois.
The balls are an outgrowth of the purity movement, which began in the 1980s when American teens, mostly girls, began taking abstinence pledges in their local churches and community groups. The campaign was largely a grassroots Christian response to the AIDS epidemic, high teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease (STD) rates, and the cultural mores of the sexual revolution. Pledging spread by word of mouth and went national in the 1990s, with programs such as True Love Waits, which encourages teenagers and college students to sign commitment cards that obligate them to remain pure and sexually abstinent by saying no to "sexual intercourse, oral sex...sexual touching...and pictures that feed sexual thoughts" until they enter "a biblical marriage relationship," and Silver Ring Thing, which encourages middle and high school boys and girls to think of their sexuality as a car engine that is safest not to "turn on."
Today Peter Bearman, PhD, the Columbia University sociologist who codesigned the largest, most comprehensive survey of adolescent health ever taken, estimates that one in six Americans between the ages of 12 and 28 has taken a purity pledge.
The growing emphasis on abstinence is no doubt fueled by the increasing support the government has provided the abstinence movement. In 1981 conservative Republican senators Jeremiah Denton and Orrin Hatch sponsored the first legislation "to promote chastity and self-discipline." President Ronald Reagan signed their bill into law, and Congress put $11 million behind it. In 1996 congressional social conservatives attached language to the welfare reform bill that required newly federally funded abstinence education classes to teach that "sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."
In President Bush's first six years in office, annual funding for abstinence-until-marriage initiatives more than doubled to $176 million. This money is earmarked despite a 2004 congressional investigation that found that 11 of 13 federally supported abstinence programs contain misleading or flat-out-incorrect information—for example, that 5 to 10 percent of legal abortions lead to sterility, that 50 percent of homosexual male U.S. teens have HIV, and that touching another person's genitals can result in pregnancy.
The comprehensive sex education some of us remember from public health classes—covering various methods of birth control and how sexually active people can reduce their risk of getting STDs—receives no federal money. (If a school wants to teach beyond abstinence, administrators must use local or state funds; poor schools often can't afford to offer additional classes.)
Supporters of abstinence-only initiatives claim their programs are largely responsible for the fact that between 1990 and 2002, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate declined by more than 30 percent and the number of abortions went from about 1.6 million to just under 1.3 million. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, further bolstered the abstinence movement when it reported in 2005 that teens who are virgins when they graduate high school are nearly twice as likely to graduate from college than their sexually active classmates. "Obviously, teaching kids to be proud virgins works," says Leslee Unruh, the president of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse.
But social scientists who've researched these numbers don't agree that abstinence programs are the driving force behind either those declines or the academic successes. For instance, Peter Bearman says that virginity has no effect on school achievement, explaining that the Heritage Foundation analysts are "confusing causality."
He compares the situation to that of a Swedish town that simultaneously had a lot of storks and babies. "They decided storks bring babies," Bearman says. "Actually, though, storks breed in chimneys. So when there's an increase in population—i.e., babies—there's an increase in houses, chimneys, and thus storks. Babies and storks are independent things that occur in this particular town simultaneously—like virginity and good grades in a certain kind of person."
In addition, Bearman discounts the influence of virginity pledges on those declines in teen pregnancy and abortions. He explains that pledges succeed at delaying sex only within an extremely narrow set of circumstances: if an adolescent is between 14 and 16, and if she's part of a group that consists of no more than 30 percent of the population where she's growing up. "The only way the pledges work is if they draw kids into a moral community and give them a sense of identity," Bearman says. Under these circumstances, teens delayed having their first sexual experience by an average of 18 months.
The problem, Bearman says, is that 88 percent of pledgers wind up breaking their promise. "And you can't take a purity pledge and carry a condom in your pocket," he says. "From what we can tell, pledgers have fewer partners than nonpledgers and they are sexually active for a shorter period of time; however, their STD rates are statistically the same as nonpledgers. Pledgers are much more likely than nonpledgers to engage in substitutional sex—including acts that may put them at higher risk for STDs, such as oral and anal sex. "
It's interesting to note that at the same time that abstinence programs were on the rise, another statistic shifted—one that many experts believe had a larger impact on teen pregnancy and abortion rates. Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards points to the increased use of condoms by teenagers, from 46 percent of sexually active high school students in 1991 to 63 percent in 2005. In fact researchers at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy have found that some of the most effective programs to get teens to put off having sex offer them information on both abstinence and contraception, or sex education in combination with activities that don't have anything to do with sex—sports, arts, or mentoring.
Teen pregnancy, STDs, and public policy were not on Randy and Lisa Wilson's minds when they held the first Father-Daughter Purity Ball in Colorado Springs nine years ago. They love creating rituals that bring families together, particularly ones that give fathers ways to be involved in their children's lives.
Their passion is born of personal pain. When Lisa was 2 years old, her dad walked out on her family. Although he later tried to establish a relationship, she says, "I felt as if my father ripped my heart out and threw it on the ground and said, 'Deal with it.'"
Randy says his dad "unintentionally abandoned" him. "He was a great provider, but we didn't do relationship well. Dad worked nights, so he wasn't there for my football games or basketball games. He never saw any of that, so he never saw me."
Randy, now Family Life Pastor at Colorado Springs' Mountain Springs Church, has done a lot of research on the importance of fathers in their daughters' lives. It's true that studies have shown that girls with involved fathers get better grades, are less likely to use drugs, and have better self-esteem than those whose fathers are uninvolved or absent.
"Guys out there are about themselves," Randy says. "They're not about the girl. They're out only to get what they want from the girl, that pleasure. There's an incredible risk of abuse. A guy I know—his sister-in-law, at 18, in a bad relationship, unmarried, was pushed out of a car and killed."
Judy Kuriansky, PhD, an adjunct associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Teachers College and a board member of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, has worked with a number of women who've made purity pledges. "Certain aspects of purity balls are highly appropriate and laudable," she says. "You want better family relationships, you want kids to make wise choices. Dynamite." But Kuriansky finds some aspects of the ball troubling. "It's controlling—it's overinvolved," she says of fathers promising to be their daughters' "authority and protection in the area of purity." She wonders, "Whose needs are really being met by making such a pledge?"
That's a question Jessica Decker (not her real name), 23, wished her mother and father had asked themselves. At their behest, she began taking purity pledges in kindergarten at her south Florida Baptist school.
"You got a purity ring when you got your period," Decker recalls. "I got mine when I was 9 years old."
At the beginning of every school year, she renewed her purity pledge, even after she began having sex with her boyfriend when she was 15. "I wanted to save myself for marriage because it was what I had been taught," Decker remembers. "But in the heat of the moment I was thinking, 'I'm 15 and I'm horny, and my boyfriend is 18 and he's hot.' I didn't use a condom because I didn't know what a condom was. No one ever told me. If we told our school counselor we were sexually active, she would tell our parents and we would be expelled. There was no place for me to get information. My parents were like, 'You are never allowed to let a boy touch you there!'"
Decker believes many of her classmates were sexually active, but says, "You just didn't talk about it." Not even when Decker was certain one of her friends was in the middle of miscarrying. "I'm not sure if it was self-inflicted. I was at her house, and she was sitting on her toilet and blood was pouring out of her, and I was thinking, Hmm, this can't be good. We ended up never telling anybody."
When Decker was 17 years old, her mother took her for a gynecological exam. "I was like, 'Please don't tell my mother I had sex!' The doctor told me I had HPV. I thought I was going to die, because I didn't know what it was. I couldn't tell my friends, because they were all going to think I was a slut."
The physician agreed to tell Decker's mother she had an "abnormal Pap smear," and her mother asked no further questions. The physician himself didn't counsel Decker to use condoms if she was going to continue to be sexually active. It wasn't until a few years later in college, when she enrolled in a women's studies course, that Decker learned that most types of HPV are harmless. Today Decker works as a community educator for Planned Parenthood.
Marjorie Holmes (not her real name), 35, took a virginity pledge through her Presbyterian congregation in Atlanta when she was 17 years old. "I loved my church youth group," Holmes says. "It was fun. Whether or not I really understood what I was doing wasn't a big deal to me because I wasn't very involved with guys."
After Holmes earned her nursing degree, she moved to Southern California. There she met Clark (not his real name either), a model. A Christian from the Bible Belt, too, he is "a big, strapping boy who cooks better than anybody I know. He's also a woodworker—great with his hands. He's just an amazing guy," Holmes says. Like nearly nine out of ten virginity pledgers, Holmes didn't keep her vow. She slept with him while they were still dating. She thought their sex life was normal, she says. "But our honeymoon night was a disaster. Nothing happened. It was horrible." When the couple returned home, she said, there were some weird things that took place and odd requests. Six weeks into her marriage, Holmes discovered her husband was sleeping with his best male friend. "I didn't tell anyone I was leaving him until the day that I filed for divorce," she says.
Holmes has since remarried and is now trying to get pregnant. She believes that the culture around the purity movement kept her from knowing what she wanted in a partner or what she needed for herself. About purity pledges, she says, "I would never do that to my daughters. Never. It's a setup for shame and ignorance."
Among the women who took purity pledges, kept them, and married happily is Amber Davidson, 27. She made virginity vows at home and through her nondenominational Sioux Falls Christian High School in South Dakota. "On my 16th birthday, my dad took me out on a date and gave me a purity ring. He told me how much he loved me and how beautiful I was." He spoke about how purity is a big part of "ultimate love and ultimate trust."
Even though she was a popular, outgoing student, Davidson didn't date at all during high school. "There were so many girls in these drama relationships, it was ridiculous," she says. "I thought about my future husband—how I wanted to give him the very best of me. I wanted to be able to come to him without all these memories of past guys. To be able to give him the ultimate. Give him myself."
After her senior year, Davidson met and fell in love with a young man at a summer camp. They dated for three and a half years and never once kissed.
"We talked for more hours than any couple I've ever known because of that," she says. "And the day I got married, I felt so honored. Here's this man who respected me despite what his desires of the moment were, who has been strong, who hasn't taken advantage of me."
Davidson believes she has a better sex life than friends who had sex with multiple people before they got married. "It's very hard for them," she says. "They have all those memories they can't get rid of when they're in bed with their spouse. And they don't have that level of trust. My husband showed me his self-control before we were married, so I don't have to worry about it after."
Davidson swears there need be nothing awkward between two virgins on their wedding night. "I can't explain to you how beautiful it was when we saw each other for the first time in our hotel room," she says. "It was amazing. I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that he loved me for who I am. For my heart and my mind. The emotional and mental part was so deep, which made the physical part out of this world."
That's the kind of intimate relationship Jerry Forte wants his daughter, Elise, to enjoy. It's what he feels he has with his wife, Denise. Raised a Catholic, Jerry had a conversion experience when he was 19 years old. He took the strictures of his new Evangelical Christianity seriously. He was 32 and still a virgin when he met Denise, who was also raised Catholic and became a born-again Christian at age 29. Before they met, she had been engaged.
"But," as Denise Forte tells the story the day after the ball, "my dad said, 'I don't really think he's the right one.' And I thought, 'You've got to be kidding.' Everything seemed like it was great. And my dad said, 'I just love you so much. I don't know if I can walk you down the aisle.' I ended up saying, 'Okay, Dad. Because I want you to be proud, I will postpone it for six months.' And then I found out that my fiancé was not faithful. He was not what I thought he was. But my dad knew that. I think God gives the fathers that kind of insight."
Jerry and Denise's daughter, Elise, is grateful for her parents' input. "I think your life is kind of like a flower," she says. "And every time you have a relationship or a boyfriend or something, you're taking a petal of your flower and giving it to that person. So you're giving all these petals away. Pretty soon you're not left with anything to give your husband."
Until Elise marries, Jerry sees his job as protecting that flower. "I want Elise's heartstring to be tied to me. Then on her wedding day, I'll be able to give her to her husband with a whole heart." Jerry adds that, when the time comes, he'll "train this guy in Elise's heart... I'll be working with him and getting to know him and mentoring him and loving him." Jerry says that he wants Elise "to be attracted to that person—but she would want me to be able to bless that."
Asked if she doesn't ever just long for a boy to like her, Elise's Roman lips curl into a dazzling smile. "I want my dad and brother to like me," she says.
Back at the ball, Elise straightens the new ring on her hand. She gets up from her chair and brushes wrapping paper and ribbon from her tulle skirt. "Come on, Dad. Let's dance." Jerry leads Elise to the ballroom, where they join the other couples—born-again, Catholic, Presbyterian, Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, military, even a few fathers who brought their daughters as well as girls whose dads were not in the picture.
The girls are giddy about purity. "I'm 13," Gabrielle Perkins says. "And I want to save myself for my husband. I would want him to do the same thing. I don't want my husband to already have seen a bunch of other girls. I don't know who he is, but right now I pray that he will be able to remain pure, too." Her dad, an air force lieutenant colonel wearing his full dress uniform, looks on and beams.
Twelve-year-old Claire Moore just wants to dance. "Come on, Dad," she says. Now all the fathers lead their daughters to the dance floor as a song plays:
I like the way ya make me feel about you baby / Want the whole wide world to see / Whoa, whoa, you got the best of my love.