How to spot a media-generated purity ball trend

How do you spot a fake news trend? You start asking questions. You find out what key figures are behind something, how much money goes into it, who knows about it. Remember Mark Oppenheimer, columnist for the New York Times? We interviewed him fairly recently. He spotted a fake trend recently, putting his belief in skepticism towards something called "purity balls."

To give some context, it should come as no surprise that I'm pretty immersed in Christian culture. By that I mean I'm very immersed, thanks to my job. So if some new trend is on the horizon, I'm generally aware of it, maybe even writing about it. It wasn't until I read something in some mainstream media outlet (can't even remember which) that I heard about "purity balls."

But I was grateful to Oppenheimer for suggesting that I had not indeed been in some internet cave for not knowing what purity balls are. So if you don't know either, let me explain, drawing on his most recent column:

In 1998, in Colorado Springs, Randy Wilson threw the first “purity ball,” a formal dinner and dance at which he and other fathers signed pledges to protect the virginity of their unmarried daughters. This October, Mr. Wilson will host his 13th purity ball (they have been almost annual). And from the first ball to now, the Wilson family has made an industry of purity.

A field director for the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization, Mr. Wilson has promoted purity balls across the United States, and his Web site says they have been held in 48 states. He and his wife, Lisa, have written a book, and they sell a “purity ball packet” for $90.

Now, I do know one person in the entire country who has been a part of this, but I assumed it was a Colorado Springs thing, given where she grew up. Mark tweeted, "does anyone KNOW anybody who's ever been to a purity ball? every news report relied on one family in Colorado Springs..." I tweeted back, "@markopp1 Yes, but they live in Colorado Springs. Not kidding." I love the following part from Oppenheimer's column:

The media have lustily promoted the Wilsons. The family has been featured on Anderson Cooper’s television show, in magazines like Glamour, in many newspapers, including The New York Times, and in at least two documentaries: one, a Swiss production called “Virgin Tales,” was released this summer.

But there is something fishy about all this media attention.

Despite all the coverage of the Wilson family and their balls’ dramatic imagery — the girls doing ballet, placing roses before a cross, ballroom-dancing with their dads — there is little hard evidence that purity balls have spread much beyond Colorado Springs.

And then the column raises some questions and angles about what purity balls do for girls and women and how they think about sexuality. And then he quotes from a respected professor who studies this stuff.

In doing research for her book “Making Chastity Sexy: The Rhetoric of Evangelical Abstinence Campaigns,” Christine J. Gardner, a professor at Wheaton College, intentionally excluded purity balls.

“They are not a hoax,” Dr. Gardner said in an interview, “but I wouldn’t call them a trend. Purity balls seem quirky and even creepy to the feminist outsider, but maybe it’s time to find a new scapegoat for our fears over sexual and religious conservatism.”

Purity balls don't shock me, but I don't see any sweeping trend or friends posting pictures to Facebook or something. That doesn't mean they don't exist. They just don't exist in the Twitter, Facebook, blog, Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, church, denomination, friendship circles that I read or run in. Still, I know even that widely casted net is pretty limited. So if there's some niche trend in some circle of the country, I at least like to acknowledge it. Unless it's an inflated trend.

How do you spot a fake trend? For starters, find one more than one family in one city acting out the trend.

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