Daddy Dearest: How Purity Culture Can Turn Fathers into Idols
When we see a man and a woman holding each other tenderly, wearing fancy clothes, we think wedding, marriage, romance. It's simply instinctive. So when looking through a series of purity ball portraits—girls in white dresses, beside loving fathers—we're seeing something very familiar, but in a very different context. This juxtaposition strikes as jarring at best, inappropriate at worst.
The blogosphere erupted with their reactions to Swedish photographer David Magnusson's "Purity" series. "Thoroughly f---ing weird ... striking and frankly terrifying," opined Tom Hawking at Flavorwire. Jessica Valenti at AlterNet called the pictures "beautiful [but] disturbing." In message boards and Facebook groups and comment sections around the Internet, words like "creepy" and "strange" were thrown around. On the flip side, there were those who said you'd have to be "perverted" to think there was anything wrong with the pictures.
In this light, what Magnusson had to say about his own work was particularly interesting. In an interview, he stated:
When I came across the Purity Balls and was so struck by how my own first impressions clashed with how I could relate to them once I learned more, I had the idea to photograph a series of portraits intended to be so beautiful that the subjects, the fathers and daughters, would be really proud of the portraits of themselves in the same way that they are proud of their decisions…
I have met strong, independent, intelligent, thoughtful young women who have made their decision out of their religious convictions and beliefs. And I have met parents that I am convinced want the best for their children.
By his own account, Magnusson came to respect the people he was photographing, and had no intention of creating something creepy. So why did the series strike so many people—including some Christians—that way?
Critics suggest that the culture of purity balls introduces something into the father-daughter relationship that does not belong there. Most of us are familiar with the concept of a "daddy-daughter date," a harmless term we often use for a father and daughter spending time together. Purity balls, they fear, go far beyond that. Suzanne Calulu at No Longer Quivering—a site for those who have left the kind of ultra-conservative lifestyle from which purity balls came— describes the pictures as "beautiful little girls, inappropriately intimate fathers."
"Statistics do prove that the strong presence of a loving father in the life of a girl growing up does tend to keep that same girl from becoming sexually active at a younger age," she writes. "But what message does it send to that same girl (to have) Daddy publicly announcing to the world in her presence that he alone controls her sexuality until marriage?"
Maybe "control" isn't a fair word to use in all or even most of these cases. But the abstinence pledges taken at purity balls do set up fathers as the guardians of their daughters' purity. We begin to see a pattern here—a pattern that helps explain why so many people are disturbed by what happens at purity balls. Between the fancy outfits, the dances, and the vows, it almost looks as if the daughter is being encouraged to treat her father like a bridegroom.
But there's an even deeper problem that sometimes gets overlooked: the encouragement of the fathers to be idols in their daughters' lives.
The father's pledge at Generations of Light (a site run by Lisa Wilson, whose husband, Randy, came up with the purity ball concept) refers to the father as "high priest in the home." It places the responsibility for the daughter's actions on her father. The problem with this idea is twofold. First, no one person can take full responsibility for another's behavior, and any attempt to do so does indeed tend to look like an unhealthy level of control. Second, it places someone between God and the young woman in question. She is directly responsible to her father for her sexual behavior, rather than being directly responsible to God. Last time I checked, that was the definition of an idol.
I took a virginity pledge myself as a teenager, but my church asked us to make our pledges directly to God. I believe that was the right way to do it. I love my father dearly, and I do my best to honor him as the Bible commands, but before I'm answerable to him or any other human being, I'm answerable to God.
This approach is in line with Scripture, which tells us that each of us will have to answer for ourselves before God. And it reminds us that only God is worthy of our pledges of full devotion and full obedience. Human beings, even the best human beings, are fallible, and any human we set up in place of God will be sure to let us down. Just ask all the faithful devotees of Bill Gothard and Douglas Phillips, for instance. If we want someone to obey, to worship, to consider a "high priest," we should be looking to the "High Priest . . . in the heavens" (Hebrews 8:1, NKJV).
Karen Allen Campbell quotes purity ball organizers as wanting to set up "an impregnable wall of fathers" that would, presumably, stand between young women and sexual sin. But that's not how sin works—other people can't block it out for us. It comes from the heart. And that's why young women should be taught to stand against sin themselves, not to expect someone else to do it for them.
The problems we've seen here—father as bridegroom, and father as idol—are what I think a lot of people sensed in these photos. The healthiest and most God-honoring relationships between father and daughter happen when a father and daughter are not doing some sort of idolatrous role play, but simply being a father and daughter. (I think of what might happen if my dad and I attempted to do a dramatic, stone-faced pose in prom outfits in front of a haystack, and I realize it would never work, because we would both fall over laughing.)
By all means, fathers should treat their daughters with tenderness and respect. But that includes entrusting them to God and knowing that, no matter how much their daughters love and look up to them, they themselves are not to be their daughter's gods.