Critics of the purity balls marshal the usual feminist arguments. The fathers, they say, are trying to keep women in their subordinate place, reiterating the oppressive patriarchal structure of Christian homes and the broader society they seek to control.
This position is always offered as though women have no choice in whom they marry or what religion they practice. Fundamentalists of all stripes are too literal for my book club, but even the most extreme Christian is still subject to American laws prohibiting slavery, indentured servitude, assault and battery, rape, stoning, female genital mutilation and whatever other horrors patriarchal paranoiacs imagine happen when fathers act as heads of households.
Talibaniacs are not us.
Nevertheless, a women's studies professor writing for USA Today expressed her concern that such pampering comes at the price of the daughters' "sexual self-agency." She also asserted that the underlying premise of the balls is "the age-old assumption that sex is dirty: hence the infantilizing conflation of 'purity,' or sexual innocence, and ignorance."
Nowhere have I heard or read that these Christian men think sex is dirty. But they might think it's dangerous, and statistics on STDs and emotional dysfunction among teenage girls support their concerns.
In a culture where 46.7 percent of students will be sexually active before high school ends, there are also 5 million to 6 million new cases each year of human papillomavirus, which is associated with cervical cancer. What, fathers worry? Critics of abstinence-only attitudes and education inevitably cite a study that found that kids who take virginity oaths are at greater risk for STDs than are those who have been exposed to sex ed. Apparently, members of the virginity crowd sometimes trip on the light fandango and, surprised by passion, are unprepared.
Other studies, however, show that deep father involvement in a girl's life increases her self-esteem and delays sexual experimentation. All things considered, purity balls are probably less a threat to women's sexual self-agency than the culture that has spawned them.