Like everyone else in the world, I love me some Chris Rock. Of his many memorable lines, this one from his "Never Scared" routine -- as recounted by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer -- is one of my favorites:
"Sometimes I am walking with my daughter, I'm talking to my daughter, I'm looking at her, I'm pushing her in the stroller. And sometimes I pick her up and I just stare at her and I realize my only job in life is to keep her off the pole.
"Keep my baby off the pole!
"I mean they don't grade fathers but if your daughter is a stripper you f*&$#@ up."
Sorry for the [symbolically] rough language, but you get the point. (For more on how Chris Rock's thoughts on fatherhood are vindicated by Nobel laureate economists, read here.) I thought of the Rock routine while reading Nancy Gibbs' piece about purity balls in this week's Time. Ever since Neela Banerjee covered the phenomenon in the New York Times, purity events have had a raised profile. Here's how the Time piece begins:
There are some mothers and some uncles among the 150 people in the ballroom of the Broadmoor hotel, but the night belongs to fathers and daughters. The girls generally range in age from college down to the tiny 4-year-old dressed all in purple who has climbed up into her father's arms to be carried. Some are in their first high heels--you can tell by the way they walk, like uncertain baby giraffes. Randy Wilson, co-inventor of the Father-Daughter Purity Ball, offers a blessing: he calls on the men to be good and loving listeners, tender, gracious and truthful. And he prays that the girls might "step into the world with strength and passion, to lead this generation."
The actual article itself describes the movement as dealing with both male and female teenager virtue. To that end, the slightly creepy headline -- "The Pursuit of Teen Girl Purity" -- is also incorrect. If this movement has been going on for a decade and programs aimed at boys are now growing even faster, as the article reports, perhaps it would be good to frame the issue a bit more broadly than "teen girl purity." Either way, the article quickly presents many strongly worded objections to the events. It also permits the defenders to respond briefly.
There are some problems -- such as the brief, unsourced statement that abstinence-only education doesn't work. I'm not arguing that it definitively does work but reporters should be careful here.
There really aren't good studies on the topic. I think there is only one federal study on the matter and it was very limited in scope. It showed the results for four counties and wasn't controlled for anything from socio-economic data to what other sex messages students received in the larger culture. It showed that students who had received "abstinence-only" education had sex beginning at the same age and with the same level of safety as the general population. I haven't reviewed the various studies about sex education (other than this weak and discredited one from the CDC that was spun as anti-abstinence education) but I believe many observers say the most effective programs (of those that have been analyzed) heavily emphasize abstinence but also provide information about how to protect against sexually-transmitted diseases or use birth control if you do engage in sex. Of course, what constitutes "effective" is itself up for debate.
Either way, there isn't just one "abstinence-only" curriculum or "abstinence-emphasis" curriculum or "abstinence-mention" curriculum. It stands to reason that there would be variation within each subset. More relevant to this topic are the studies that show that girls with strong relationships with their fathers tend to delay sexual activity.
But the story, while fully engaging the conflicting views over how best to transmit values to younger generations, is respectful of all parties. It doesn't have that anthropological feel that you sometimes get in stories about those wacky evangelicals. After quoting Wilson speaking positively about some aspects of arranged marriage, the story continues:
This, of course, is the kind of conversation that makes critics howl. What about a young woman's right to date whomever she pleases, make her own mistakes, learn from the experience, find out who she is and what matters to her? To which the Wilsons and their allies reply: If you still think this is just about sex, you are missing the whole point. The message, they say, is about integrity, being whole people, heart and soul and body. Wilson himself has said virginity pledges have a downside: "It heaps guilt upon them. If they fail, you've made it worse for them," he said. "Who is perfect in this world? One mistake doesn't mean it's all over." Everyone here has a story, and very few are in black and white. One man is dancing with his younger daughter, wishing his older girl had come as well. She used to wear a purity ring, he says, until a boy she knew assaulted her; she took it off--felt too dirty. Her parents gave her a new one, a bigger one; it took many months and much therapy, her father goes on, before she was able to put a ring on again. "That was part of a healing process," he says, "with the message that you're valuable no matter what someone did to you."
One family profiled in the story is what you might call non-traditional: one dad and nine children by seven mothers. The father, who is dying, knows he won't make it to his daughters' weddings. He has much to regret about how he lived his life. An older daughter who came to the event flat out says he was a horrible role-model. She's jealous that he's a better father to her younger siblings.
The article ends with some very opinionated commentary from the reporter. But it actually seems to add value and provide a way of understanding what -- and how -- she has written up to that point. She argues that mixed messages about sex aren't just inevitable but valuable. She defends multiple approaches to parenting, including the purity approach:
If you listen long enough, you wonder whether there is really such a profound disagreement about what parents want for their children. Culture war by its nature pours salt in wounds, finds division where there could be common purpose. Purity is certainly a loaded word--but is there anyone who thinks it's a good idea for 12-year-olds to have sex? Or a bad idea for fathers to be engaged in the lives of their daughters and promise to practice what they preach? Parents won't necessarily say this out loud, but isn't it better to set the bar high and miss than not even try?
I completely get the visceral reaction some people have had to these events. To be completely honest, I share it. Which is why I really appreciated this article. By helping competing sides in this particular culture war understand where the other is coming from, Gibbs provides a valuable service to everyone and provides more light than heat.