From virginity to marriage, we’ve historically witnessed the displaced ownership of women’s sexualities. Girls across the country participate in “purity balls” where they dress to the nines to pledge their virginities to their fathers. I wanted to write a piece critically assessing these purity balls, since they are an important part of our discussion of sexuality.
To deconstruct the concepts that fuel the purity ball, we must first assess them independently. The first aspect I want to discuss is virginity. The concept of virginity has no scientific grounding or basis in reality beyond its place as a social construction. Virginity has historically been a concept attributed to females. The idea that women “lose” something – their virginity – during their first experience of vaginal intercourse is problematic. First of all not all women engage in sexual intercourse as it is heteronormatively defined. In a more general sense, “losing something” implies accidental or forceful misplacement, in which both cases the owner lacks control.The language also implies that something is lost forever, never to be recovered or shared again.
The physical act that has defined losing one’s virginity is the breaking or tearing of her hymen, which can occur at anytime between birth and death, and can also never occur regardless of sexual activity. While one’s first sexual experience can be a very special occasion, it can also be very awkward, confusing, or traumatic for some. We’ve evolved to expand the definition of virginity to both males and females, and now consider it to be given and not just lost, but the definition is far from comprehensive and harmless.
This segues well into the broader definition of ownership. Ownership is perhaps just another social construction. Though we’ve drawn up contracts and developed norms regarding possession, all have been human made. Even the concept of territory is inorganic. No one “owns” natural resources; some people can simply afford to hoard them with the threat of force or legal penalties in their theft. Concepts of ownerships are not always harmful. For example, the notions that each person owns one’s own body, one’s own labor, and one’s own resources afford those that are awarded them great protection. However, these concepts of human rights have been preceded by vile histories of slavery that continue today.
While the United States has outlawed the ownership of another and his or her body by anyone or any body, girls around the world hand over their virginities (inactive sexuality) to their fathers until they marry, in which case their (active) sexuality is given to their husbands. This is greatly influenced by religions that revel in concepts of purity and uncleanness that are far beyond outdated. If I went to my father when I was 16 and told him I was giving him my virginity, I would hope he would say, “That’s okay, you can keep it.” In an ideal world he would laugh and tell me that virginity is an outdated social construction, but we can’t all be sociologists.
I would find his more likely response to be empowering. It would endow upon me a sense of responsibility and trust, and reassure me that I alone own my body and get to decide what to do with it. On the other hand, promising your father of all people not to have sex until you’re married is downright weird. This is the man who should be least interested in your sex life, unless it brings a child into the world and under his roof or compromises your health.
Concepts of ownership and virginity seem to be the greatest forces behind purity balls, along with religion. In my opinion, these young women and girls should promise themselves, if anybody, how they will behave sexually and with whom, based on comprehensive sexual education and critical, personal decision making. Until we let go of our discomfort with the idea that girls are sexual beings capable of making their own decisions, some will continue to misplace the ownership of female sexuality to fathers and husbands.