Fathers show girls that life without sex is fun
By Alex Spillius in Spearfish, South Dakota
Last Updated: 2:00am BST 26/03/2007
With dinner and speeches over, the happy couples took to the floor as the disc jockey opened musical proceedings with a Glenn Miller number.
The men, all in suits and ties, were old enough to recognise the tune, but not so their younger dancing partners in ball gowns and carefully prepared hair. For all the dating couples were made up of fathers and their teenage daughters.
They had come to a Purity Ball, to celebrate the father-daughter relationship and to take home written promises to each other. The girls' pledge said they would remain virgins until marriage, while the fathers vowed to love and protect them.
The fast-growing instance of America's ardent movement against pre-marital sex, the gatherings emphasise the vitality of evangelical communities that have shaped much of the political agenda for a decade and will do so again in next year's presidential election.
Some girls, such as Kay Marrs, were as young as 12. She said: "I am saving myself until I am married. We are Christian and we believe God doesn't want us to do that until we are married."
Her father Paul, a cattle rancher, said: "There are so many kids who jump in [to sex] and get hurt spiritually, emotionally and physically. God's thinking is that the best decision is to wait until marriage. God created us and He knows what's best for us."
Thousands of girls have taken the vow as Purity Balls have spread across 40 states and, according to organisers, begun to attract interest from Christian groups in Britain and other countries where concern about teenage pregnancy runs high.
They are most popular in devout, mid-western small town and rural communities such as Spearfish, in South Dakota, where on Saturday night 100 fathers and daughters dined at large, candlelit tables in a convention room of the Holiday Inn hotel. It could have been a wedding reception, and at some events fathers place "purity rings" on their daughters' wedding finger, which are to be removed only at marriage.
The number of annual functions has soared amid alarm at increased sexual activity among the young, sexually transmitted disease and high divorce rates. To a man and girl, the Spearfish guests were horrified by popular culture's glorification of sex.
"The world says play the field, try before you buy, but it isn't working," said Rick Goeringer, 61. "I am trying to give my daughter an example of a godly date, where you can go out with somebody who will listen to you and talk to you. What better person to do that than a father?"
The guest speaker was a local woman who had retained her honour until marriage. Now 28, she exhorted the girls to "make it through" and warned them against forming even emotional attachments with boys. She urged fathers to earn their daughters' trust, lest another male fill the gap.
Girls in the audience who had taken the purity vow last year were asked to stand up and take a round of applause. The male compere closed the speeches by announcing to applause that he, too, had saved himself for his wife.
The Purity Balls have led to criticism that some girls do not understand what they are signing.
Shelby Knox, now in her early 20s, took the pledge at 15. "Father-daughter time is great but I didn't know what sexual intercourse was. I just knew the pledge was something my church and my parents wanted me to do," she said on prime-time breakfast television last week. Mary Zeiss Stange, a columnist and professor of women's studies, argued that girls from sheltered backgrounds with poor sex education are, if they break their oath, "highly likely to engage in risky and unprotected sex".
A government study of 12,000 young people found that a majority of girls who pledged abstinence, either at the balls or at church or religious rallies, went on to have sex before marriage.
Some Spearfish fathers were less bothered about the vow than helping a daughter make the right decisions. David Diefenderfer, a stud farmer who has nine children by seven mothers, said he simply wanted 15-year-old Kaleesha to "learn from my mistakes". Shocked
I think the operative word here is the second one in the title.