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Sex and the single evangelical: Purity balls, odd daddy roles, and saving it for Jesus Christ

Welcome to the big business of Christian purity: Books, dances and pledges keep young women chaste and repressed


Amy DeRogatis
November 3, 2014 5:30AM (UTC)
Reprinted from "Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism"

In May 2008, at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a group of conservative evangelicals gathered for a gala event to honor their unmarried daughters. The hosts, Randy and Lisa Wilson, organized the Generations of Light Purity Ball, a glamorous occasion with floral centerpieces, a string quartet, dining, dancing, and beautiful decorations throughout the hall. The men were dressed in tuxedos with boutonnieres; the young women wore lavish A-line ball gowns embellished with sequins, beads, and pearls. Many of the young women had sparkling tiaras on their heads or had braided flowers into their hair. The sweetheart necklines, tulle skirts, pearl earrings, diamond necklaces, three-quarter length white satin gloves, and well-applied makeup, created the impression that every young woman at the ball was a princess in a fairy tale.

Throughout the evening the young women danced with their fathers, listened to testimonials about the power of purity, and, as one young woman summarized, reaffirmed their powerful choice to “say no for the greater yes.” Younger girls dressed in all white performed a dance in front of a large, rough wooden cross, first placing white roses at its base and then spinning around the cross with their arms extended into the air, their skirts floating around their small bodies.

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This annual event, the Wilsons believe, affirms young women’s choices to refrain from any sexual contact prior to marriage. A godly father who escorts his daughter to a purity ball demonstrates to the young woman that she is valuable and deserves respect. Purity, they contend, is a sacred choice that puts young women at odds with an American culture that simultaneously degrades female sexuality and limits the father’s role in the lives of his daughters. But participation in purity balls is contested even within evangelical circles. The Wilsons are aware that detractors claim that the purity balls are exploitative, commodifying female virginity as in the ancient practice of the “bride price.” Lisa Wilson explains in the documentary “Virgin Daughters” that forging a close relationship between fathers and daughters accomplishes a different goal: “It’s about a bigger picture of expressing dignity and worth and launching our daughters into healthy relationships with men because they respect themselves and they have been taught by their fathers that this is the standard they should expect to be treated with incredible dignity.” The celebration of female virginity at purity balls is directly linked to a strong and close relationship between fathers and daughters. For the daughter, the promise of waiting is the expectation of a gallant and godly husband, approved of by her father, who will provide her with a fairy-tale marriage.

Purity balls stand out as a dramatic form of pledging virginity within American evangelicalism. The emphasis placed on the father’s role in protecting his daughter’s chaste body until marriage, and the daughter’s commitment to her father as well as God, raises important questions about female autonomy and the value being placed on young girls’ virginity. It also raises troubling questions about a young woman’s ability to make informed sexual choices.

Since the late 1990s, father-daughter purity balls have been gaining media attention as a growing phenomenon among conservative evangelicals. According to the 2008 documentary “The Virgin Daughters,” one in six girls in America takes a purity pledge. The media attention focuses on the wedding-like atmosphere and the ceremonial moment during all purity balls when young women pledge their virginity to their fathers in return for their fathers’ promise of protection. Unlike in the traditional father-daughter wedding dance at purity balls, the father is also the date.

Father-daughter purity balls are an extreme ritualized expression of themes that arise in evangelical purity literature. The gowns, tuxedos, saving sex flowers, tiaras, music, decorations, food, dancing, and the exchange of a ring, can leave even a sympathetic observer with the feeling that there is something unseemly about the intimacy encouraged between fathers and daughters. This is not your run of the mill daddy-daughter Valentine’s Day dance. Unlike those increasingly popular community dances geared at elementary-school-aged children, purity balls are aimed at girls over the age of ten and into their early twenties. They also depart from daddy-daughter dances by the inclusion of a chastity pledge that the young woman makes to both her father and God. The climax of the evening is the ceremonial moment when daughters place white roses under a cross to symbolize, publicly and silently, their virginity pledge. The fathers encircle their daughters and read aloud their “covenant” to protect their daughters’ bodies until marriage. Fathers also are asked to promise to be a model of purity for their daughters. “I, (daughter’s name)’s father, choose before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity. I will be pure in my own life as a man, husband and father. I will be a man of integrity and  [sic] as I lead, guide and pray over my daughter and my family as the high priest in my home. This covering will be used by God to influence generations to come.” They then sign a document containing this promise and their daughters co-sign as witnesses. The pledge and contract are to remain intact until the daughter takes another vow, to another man, on her wedding day. According to New Life Pregnancy Centers, who sponsor many purity balls across the country, the aim is to support a meaningful relationship between fathers and daughters and to “help instill the principles and strength that your daughter will need to protect her heart and body until she commits to a man on her wedding day.” Attending a purity ball, the sponsors claim, ensures that daughters will learn how a young woman should be treated and demonstrate to daughters that they are valued by their fathers. In fact, the organizers believe that the fathers are the only men the young women should “date” prior to courtship. Thus, the fathers are called to protect their daughters and are assured that participating in a purity ball will “make an investment that will last a lifetime!” Randy Wilson explains “because we cherish our daughters as regal princesses—for 1 Peter 3:4  says they are ‘precious in the sight of God’—we want to treat them as "royalty.”

In the context of purity balls, female sexuality is viewed both as sacred and dangerous, not simply because of unwanted pregnancy, disease, or emotional distress, but because sexual desire could compromise a young woman’s value as a virgin prior to marriage. Scholar Breanne Fahs explains “purity balls enter women into a system of commerce in which their sexuality becomes an object to be traded between men.” The expectation among many of the fathers and daughters at purity balls is that the young women will never fall into sexual sin because she will be protected by her father and by her church community. Similarly, she will not make a poor choice of a spouse (and first sexual partner) because she will not be solely responsible for that decision. In her 2007 Glamour magazine article on purity balls Jennifer Baumgardner quoted a father who explained that he was not worried about his daughter maintaining purity because she would never be in a situation that would allow for sexual contact. “She is never going to come close to those situations. She believes, and I do too, that her husband will come through our family connections or through me before her heart even gets involved.” This is a gentle way of stating that the fathers have the authority to pick a husband for their daughters with or without their initial consent.

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Purity balls are just the tip of the iceberg. There is an industry in purity books, websites, blogs, podcasts, magazines, events, conferences, and more. On the other end of the purity spectrum from the balls are Christian rock concerts and chastity rallies such as True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing. In these events, purity-pledged evangelical youth call their commitment to purity “radical” and “countercultural.” Although the people on both ends of the purity spectrum would disagree about language, rituals, and community, they agree that sex prior to marriage is unbiblical and dangerous. They also agree, mostly, that purity is larger than abstinence. It is a lifestyle that requires scrutinizing all one’s innermost thoughts and feelings and working tirelessly to guard oneself from any evidence of improper sexual desires or actions.

In purity literature and rituals, young evangelical women are taught that they are powerful and valuable when they suppress their sexual desires and submit fully to the authority of their fathers. Young women are instructed that their sexual desires are dangerous to themselves—and to young men. Modest dress and behavior help young women remain pure and deter vulnerable young men from sexual sin. Therefore, they must participate in rituals of constant daily self-inspection to cleanse their minds of impure thoughts that might lead to sinful actions. Furthermore, young women are informed that the key to ultimate emotional, social, psychological, spiritual, marital, and sexual happiness rests with a strong relationship with and dependence on her father and God. This, they learn, is true liberation. According to purity literature, young women who depart from this path are not only living a sinful life of impurity but are endangering the health and happiness of their future spouses and children.

The fairy-tale life

A purity lifestyle begins at an early age. There are a number of children’s books, specifically geared toward girls, that employ a fairy-tale narrative. A princess seeks Prince Charming to teach the value and ultimate pay-off of remaining “pure” until a deserving and noble man arrives. While many of these books are written for children, the knight in shining armor motif is also used for books aimed at teens and beyond. The message on the surface is simply that a princess will likely meet unworthy men before she meets her Prince Charming. While the unworthy men have many worldly possessions and charms, her true love will not hold the world’s honors but will be honest, faithful, and pure. Rather than fighting a dragon, Prince Charming will prove his worth by saving all forms of intimacy for his future spouse.

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Jennie Bishop’s The Princess and the Kiss: A Story of God’s Purity is an excellent example. In this story aimed at preschoolers, at birth a princess is given a gift from God—her first kiss. It is guarded by her parents until she reaches maturity. When she is grown, her parents present her with her first kiss in a glowing orb that they inform her >was given to her by God because he loves her. The princess is entrusted to guard the kiss or give it away as she sees fit. “ ‘But use wisdom, my daughter,’ warned the king, ‘and save your kiss for the man you will marry. Never part with it for the sake of a stranger.’ ”

For the remainder of the story the princess interviews Prince Peacock, Prince Romance, and Prince Treasurechest. They offer her strength, excitement, and wealth, but none is worthy of her kiss. Although the princess despairs, the queen assures her that God would either bring her a husband or she will keep the kiss and treasure it forever. Eventually a poor farmer arrives at the castle. He admires the princess and admits that he has no worldly goods to offer but he is able to give her his precious first kiss. They are married in a church and soon have a child who, in turn, receives his first kiss from God.

The princess purity books typically paint a picture of a long ago kingdom ruled by a just king and queen who protect their daughters from the world. In Bishop’s book the daughter is entrusted to guard her first kiss and to use her judgment to discern who is a worthy suitor. This is strictly a book about maintaining purity prior to marriage. The reason for refraining from even a kiss is that the first kiss is a gift fromGod. But the reward for this behavior is marriage to a worthy man. Some princess-themed books focus on the relationship between father and daughter. For example, Katheryn O’Brien’s, I’d be Your Princess, and to a lesser extent, Cindy Morgan’s, Dance Me, Daddy, celebrate developing a close relationship between father and daughter, king and princess, to teach godly behavior. Other princess-themed purity books stress that every girl is a princess when she realizes that the “true” king is God. In Sheila Walsh’s, Gigi, God’s Little Princess, the main character does not live in a castle, but learns that she is a princess as a child of God, the true king. These books introduce themes that will be elaborated in purity books geared at teens. In Bishop’s book, purity, which is given by God, encompasses all aspects of physical contact, especially the first kiss. Girls who guard their purity will either find a true Prince Charming and live happily ever after or will have the purity as a gift from God to prize for the rest of their lives. The theme, found in Walsh’s book, that each girl’s true parent and king is God will be elaborated in teen purity literature to emphasize that each person’s body ultimately belongs to God.

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The purity books geared toward girls who are 5–10 years of age continue the princess theme but develop it to include parents as crucial participants in the child’s endeavor to remain pure. Unlike the early years and the teen years, which tend to focus on the father’s role, in these middle years the mother–daughter relationship is highlighted. This is likely a result of the assumption that mothers are in charge of childrearing and, at this age, the majority of a young girl’s time is spent with her mother. A good example of this is Jackie Kendall’s Lady in Waiting for Little Girls, which is written for mothers and daughters to read together. Its goal is to help mothers mentor their daughters to develop their devotion to God in the manner of a princess waiting for her prince. The princess-themed purity books for this age group also expand on the idea presented in Walsh’s story that all girls are princesses because they are part of God’s royal family. In these books, the acceptance of and relationship with Christ is introduced. For example, Kelly Chapman’s, Princess with a Purpose, informs readers: “you become a real princess the moment you prayed and asked Jesus to live in your heart. And since He is the King of Kings and you are His daughter, that makes you His princess.” For this age group there are a plethora of devotional guides and workbooks (penned by many of the same authors) to develop the princess–God relationship. Notably, princess-themed bibles are popular for this age group. My Princess Bible, written by Andy Holmes in rhyming format, provides portraits of 19 biblical women who displayed princess virtues. Princess Bible: Pink has a bejeweled, bright, pink, sparkly cover that shows a crown and is a complete Bible in the International Children’s Bible translation. The front cover advertises “the positively perfect gift for princesses of all ages.” There are many more princess-themed Bibles and workbooks.

The princess theme continues in abstinence literature geared toward the tween and teenage years, roughly 10–18 years of age. Not surprisingly, for this age group, the amount and variety of media concerning purity is tremendous: CDs, DVDs, websites, Facebook pages, blogs, conferences, festivals, music, novels, activity books, journals, magazines, podcasts, and more. Not all focuses exclusively on the princess theme. The concepts of being treated like a princess or acting like a princess, however, are common. Also popular are gift books that follow the fairy-tale narrative to promote purity without directly mentioning chastity or a first kiss. Lisa Samson’s, Apples of Gold: A Parable of Purity tells the story of two poor sisters who live on a faraway island governed by St. Juste. The girls—Liza, who is ugly but wise, and Kate, who is beautiful but foolish—are offered a challenge by the Governor of the land. He asks them to promise to keep two red apples perfect for his son Claude, who will return home the following week. The girls are told that whoever keeps the apple intact will be rewarded with service in the son’s household. Liza keeps her apple safely in a basket to protect it from ruin. Kate allows others to look at her apple, touch her apple, and eventually bite her apple. The apple becomes soiled and rotten. In the end, both girls must present their apples to the Governor and his son.Liza wins and is rewarded not with service to the son but with marriage. Throughout the story Liza worries that because she is not comely she will never find a husband. She learns that her ability to be obedient and guard something valuable demonstrates her true beauty and worth.

It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to notice the references to the biblical story of Adam, Eve, and the apple. In Genesis, Eve is portrayed as the one responsible for divine disobedience by desiring the one thing that the creator father has forbidden her to take. It is Eve’s treachery that initiates “The Fall.” When she ate the apple and offered it to her innocent husband, they both gained forbidden knowledge, became mortal, and felt shame for their naked bodies. As a punishment for disobedience, Eve and her female descendants would forever desire sexual congress with their husbands but, as a result of the sexual act, feel terrible pain during childbirth. The biblical allusions to female sexual rottenness and public shame for desire in Apples of Gold would not be lost on young evangelicals who know their Scripture.

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In the afterword to Apples of Gold the author writes directly to the reader and to the reader’s female guardian or mother. She explains that the story illustrates that God set the purity standard out of love for humanity to help us avoid suffering. We should also love without judgment those (like Kate) who cannot reach this standard. “God wants us to stay pure because he wants us to avoid pain. We must certainly still love those who have failed to maintain sexual purity and meet them with grace and encouragement to begin again. God’s mercies are new every morning.” Painful childbirth, of course, is the result of Eve’s disobedience. Therefore, women who become sexually active—even within marriage—will never be truly free from physical pain. Purity allows young women to control their emotional pain and limit their shame before marriage. Although Kate, like her apple (and perhaps Eve), is ruined because of her disobedience, she deserves the chance to try to again.

Mothers are then asked to serve as positive or negative role models for their daughters. If they maintained purity prior to marriage they are encouraged to talk with their daughters about the importance of entering marriage as virgins. If they did not remain chaste they are urged to apologize to their daughters for sinning against them because they were not able to give that “gift” to their daughters. “If you cannot give the gift of your own personal commitment to purity because your past decisions weren’t as wise as they should have been, might I suggest that an apology is in order? When we sin against our bodies and ourselves,we sin against our children too.” Similar to evangelical sex manuals that emphasize generational curses (more on this later), Samson contends that purity runs through family lines. “Purity seems to be a generational blessing, and a commitment to it is something God honors. Encourage your daughter or granddaughter or niece or dear friend to be the first in a line of blessing. Admit your guilt to her, tell her you’re sorry, and pledge your own commitment to her.” While the mother–daughter relationship is important in Samson’s book, a mother’s status and authority is called into question if she is perceived to be a sexual sinner. In that case, the mother owes her daughter an apology for her past sins. In this book, the father’s sexual status is not subject to scrutiny, he is not held responsible for soiling the generational “blessing” of purity—and he does not owe anyone an apology.

Perhaps one of the best-known princess-themed purity books aimed at teens is Sarah Mally’s Before You Meet Prince Charming: A Guide to Radiant Purity. Mally’s book creates a bridge between the princess fairy-tale themes in the books for younger readers and the purity books and magazines for older teens that mirror secular teen literature on dating, relationships, beauty, and body image. Mally identifies herself as a home-schooled young woman who has pursued a purity lifestyle and founded “Bright Lights” a national organization that encourages purity among 10–13 year-old girls. When she wrote Before You Meet Prince Charming, she was in her mid-twenties and single. The book alternates between a fairy tale about a princess waiting for a noble prince and sober lessons about the meaning, purpose, and practice of purity. Purity, in Mally’s view, extends to all aspects of a young woman’s life and is grounded in her relationship with and firm commitment to God. The princess in Before You Meet Prince Charming is waiting for the right man but her ability to remain pure is based on her convictions. “It is your heart—your own internal commitments before the Lord— that will make the difference. Only those who have formed their own personal convictions will have the strength required to remain pure and the discernment needed to escape temptation.” A true princess relies on her inner strength to maintain purity.

Throughout the book Mally emphasizes that a young woman should not endeavor to find a princely husband; that is God’s job. She is responsible for using her single years with purpose and for cherishing her purity. “I don’t know about you, but if I get married someday, I want to be able to look back on my single years and see that I used them wisely, enjoyed each day, and made the most of every opportunity. My prayer is that I would be a trustworthy steward of the gift of singleness that God has given me.” In Mally’s view, the only thing a young woman should do to attract a worthy husband is to dedicate her life fully to God and remain chaste. Every day is a new opportunity to perform these two tasks. It is through God’s will and her father’s blessing that she will be united with a spouse. Any form of female initiative toward marriage, according to Mally, is potentially dangerous. “If it is God’s will for us to be married, then He will not leave us single for even one day longer than He knows is best, right, and perfect. But whenever we jump ahead of His timing we find ourselves in an extremely dangerous position.” This leads Mally to reject any form of interaction with males who are not relatives outside of church work and family gatherings. Mally insists that this approach frees her to devote her unmarried life to missionary work and strengthening her relationship with Jesus. “The years of your youth are some of the most valuable ones of your life. If you can catch a vision for how much potential these years have for the Lord, you will begin to feel that your life is a race—a race against time to accomplish as much as you possibly can for the kingdom of God.”

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Mally relies on her father (and sometimes older brothers) to judge the worthiness of a potential spouse. This, she believes, helps her avoid making a poor choice based on emotions. One of the key pieces of advice that Mally gives to her readers is parental involvement in any relationship forged with males. “Whenever I talk to young ladies about this topic, I like to encourage them to make a commitment to direct any young men who express interest in them to their dads first. If you make this commitment now and tell your father, it can have many benefits.” Mally, like other teen chastity writers who focus their attention on girls, suggests that both the girl and her parents independently make a list of requirements for marriage. The list should include necessary qualifications (the boy should be Christian) and desirable qualifications (the boy should have a pleasing face). After comparing the parents’ and girl’s list, the family should agree upon the necessary credentials for>marriage. Mally believes that if the family is satisfied with a girl’s list, her father’s choice of a suitor will avoid disappointment, wasted time, and perhaps heartbreak. “If you have thought through your qualifications in advance and written a list, it will be a safeguard to keep you from being captivated or ensnared by someone who comes along but who may not have the spiritual strength to which you are committed.”

Mally depicts her rejection of dating as a specific form of female empowerment. This is not the type of empowerment that secular women tend to seek. Mally’s empowerment is not about controlling her body or finding strength and power in the workforce. Empowerment is not even about choosing a husband with whom to share her life. Empowerment is complete surrender to the will of her father and God. “I don’t have to date, flirt or be searching for a husband. The Lord is more than able to arrange my marriage without my help.” Dating, according to Mally, is pointless. It is not intended to lead to marriage and it often ends in heartbreak. According to Mally, since there are no examples of dating in the Bible, it is not a godly practice. Of course, there are no examples of texting or driving in the Bible, but those practices are not deemed ungodly. Young women, she believes, tend to degrade themselves by focusing on their physical appearance when trying to attract a young man to date. Ultimately, Mally finds no reason to support cultivating a romantic relationship for any purpose other than marriage. In fact, she casts her rejection of dating as a type of radical empowerment against the forces ofsecular culture. She comforts her readers with the shared understanding that many people will criticize and challenge her approach to waiting for God to bring a spouse and involving her parents in all aspects of this process. Standing firm and remaining pure is a particular type of witnessing.

“Don’t expect others to understand the commitments to which the Lord has led you. . . . Strive to love and accept others who misunderstand you, but never be afraid to face criticism for standing alone.” This courage is directly related to being a true princess of the true king. “A true princess realizes this danger (from outside forces) and understands her own need to be protected. This is not evidence of weakness or fear, butrather it is evidence of true courage. It requires courage to do things God’s way, to wait for His timing, and to trust that He will bring you and your life partner together according to His perfect plan.” Mally’s form of purity is liberating, empowering, and allows a true princess to display her courage.

One of the best ways to prepare for marriage, according to Mally, is for girls to focus their attention on their fathers. “Ephesians 5 commands husbands to love their wives, and wives to respect their husbands. As women desire to be loved, men desire to be respected. In order to be prepared to respect and submit to a future husband, it is crucial that we learn to honor our fathers. Ask the Lord to strengthen your relationship with your dad and to give you ideas about how you can honor him in your daily life.” It is noteworthy that Mally says little about her relationship with her mother. In Mally’s view, and that of many other purity writers, a strong relationship with one’s father is a significant safeguard against the perils of single girlhood. Mally, unlike other writers, suggests that girls practice for their future role as wife and mother in their relationship with their fathers. This approach is consonant with young women being their father’s “dates” at purity balls. Ultimately, Mally explains, young women will move from the protection of their father’s home to the protection of their husband’s.Mally even rejects attending Bible colleges that, from her place on the evangelical spectrum, appear “too worldly” if they enroll women. The boundaries of an unmarried young woman’s safe world are the walls of her father’s home.

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Mally’s primary audience is girls who are too young to be married or in some cases young women who are waiting for their God-chosen spouse to arrive. After the lists have been made and the young women are involved in church work, the wait for a husband becomes a true test of spiritual commitment. The focus on earthly marriage, according to Mally, can sometimes lead young women away from God. While Mally insists that it is both natural and scripturally sound for a woman to desire marriage, she must not work too hard for it, and she must realize that it is not the most important goal. In other words, purity requires repressing sexual desires and specific future hopes. Although her book details all the ways that young women should prepare themselves for marriage by living a life of purity, there is a higher purpose. “As a young lady, you probably believe that God is calling you to be a wife and mother. This is a very noble calling. In fact, there is no assignment more important than raising a new generation to serve the Lord. Yet, marriage cannot be your ultimate goal in life. You must have a life purpose that is bigger than marriage. If you don’t, you won’t be fully prepared for marriage.” Specifically, you will not be prepared to navigate the rough terrain of a marriage that may not seem like a fairy tale.

Women who long for a husband must understand that marriage does not bring true fulfillment in life. Mally acknowledges that sometimes a husband brings heartache and despair. Only a relationship with the true bridegroom—Jesus—will satisfy all their needs and desires. Marriage, after all, is not perfect, and Jesus is available right now. “Marriage on earth is only a picture of the spiritual relationship that the Lord wants to have with every one of us. Anything we desire in marriage, we have completely in the Lord. We long for someone who loves us, understands us, listens to us, provides for us, protects us, cares for us—is crazy about us! God gives these desires. Don’t you think the One who instills the desires knows how to fulfill them? In every one of these ways, the Lord is far able to meet our needs than anyone on earth ever could.” Unlike the careful safeguarding of emotional feelings and expressions of desire while waiting for an earthly husband, Mally encourages young women to pour out their emotions to Jesus. Young women should eagerly fall in love with Jesus by spending time alone in prayer with Him and reading his love letters (the Bible). She should set apart time to be alone with Him, frequently proclaim her love for Him, tell others how great he is, and keep journals of time spent together. All in all, young women should set aside time to be with her eternal beloved because “we will never experience the joy of falling in lovewith Jesus unless we make an effort to spend time alone with Him.” All of the emotion and conviction that is forbidden for young women to expend seeking earthly marriage is funneled into a direct, loving, spiritual communion with God.

Mally is concerned with developing beauty—“radiance” as she prefers the term—a quality that is different from mere physical attractiveness. Radiant beauty, she explains, is the outward reflection of inward purity. By following her prescriptions for living a pure life, girls and young women can expect to develop a luminous countenance that is visible to those with eyes to see true beauty. True purity is evident all over the body. To attain it, young women must be pure in all respects, not just their bodies but also their minds and hearts. “Being reserved for one includes not only physical purity but emotional purity as well. This requires guarding our hearts, our minds, our thoughts, our words, our emotions, and our eyes. It means saving that close, intimate friendship for one man only, avoiding premature emotional attachments, and staying free from the intimate bonds that can form so easily, but that are painful to dissolve.” Purity requires vigilance. A total commitment to purity, in Mally’s view, is a response to what God commands (1 Corinthians 6:18–20) and in the end is a promise to the heavenly bridegroom not the earthly one. When young women follow Mally’s purity path the real beauty of a true princess shines through as she waits for her eternal prince.

The idea that inner purity shines outwardly is a common one, and not only in princess literature. Indeed, many of Mally’s ideas—making qualification lists for suitors, including parents in decisions about spouses, rejecting dating for courting, the emphasis on the girl’s relationship with her father, waiting for God to bring a spouse, and considering purity beyond physical chastity—appear in the majority of literature aimed at evangelical teen girls and beyond. Leslie Ludy, author, speaker, and co-founder (with her husband) of Ellerslie Leadership Training, refers to princess longings as natural and powerful, but connects them directly to claiming a radically pure life that is “set-apart” from the secular world. In Ludy’s books and on her website she challenges young Christian women to become radiant through purity and to achieve the fairy-tale life by allowing men to follow the model of masculine leadership outlined in the Bible. Wanting to be a princess, according to Ludy, is not only natural it is scriptural. “We dream of capturing the heart of a noble prince with our stunning beauty, like the princesses in our childhood fairytales. But our longing to be wooed by a heroic groom didn’t originate with Cinderella—it is actually a biblical concept.” In order to fulfill these scripturally sound desires young women need to first develop a romantic relationship with God. “Our feminine longing for a fairytale was actually put within us by our Maker because He desires to fulfill it—first through our romance with Him and then through an earthly love story with a true warrior-poet, if His plan for us is marriage.” Like Mally, Ludy insists that this eternal romance leads to true beauty and ever-lasting fulfillment. “Instead of finding fulfillment through chasing after short-term flings with guys, I learned to find the deepest desires of my heart met in a romance with my heavenly Prince. Instead of desperately seeking to become attractive to the opposite sex, I desired to be beautiful in His eyes.” This, Ludy claims, is the ultimate romantic relationship that transforms a young woman into a radiant princess.

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Ludy believes that young women who follow her program will transform into radiant beauties reminiscent of princesses in fairy tales. “The secret to becoming the radiant, beautiful, alluring, lily-white princess of childhood dreams is forgetting all about self and becoming completely consumed with only one thing—Jesus Christ.” True loveliness shines through when a young woman devotes herself to Christ as the prince of her soul. This outward sign of inner glory sets her apart from other women. To achieve and maintain this state one must adhere to strict daily practices, living with what Ludy terms “sacred decorum.” These acts encompass all aspects of a young woman’s life and behavior. According to Ludy, a set-apart young woman who is pursuing a relationship with Christ eschews the beauty standards of the world. Through her dress, actions, thoughts, and behaviors she only seeks the approval of Christ, neither the approval of worldly men nor the secular fashion industry. Specifically, women who practice “sacred decorum do not draw attention to their bodies as sites of physical beauty; their radiance comes from the purity of their souls as reflected in their daily actions. Ludy explains: “There is a sacred decorum of set-apart femininity, a pattern for daily living that marks a young woman as a true daughter of the King. When it comes to our clothes, words, actions, thoughts, pastimes, and pursuits, we must be. . . . dead to the world and its applause, to all customs, fashions and laws of those who hate the humbling cross.”

Modest dressing is a particularly important issue for Ludy and other purity writers. Modesty fashion shows, websites, and books are popular among LDS, Catholic, Muslim, and orthodox Jewish young women, and evangelicals sometimes follow their lead. For example, Ludy recommends Wendy Shalit’s book A Return to Modesty, which argues that dressing practices in Orthodox Judaism and Islam help overcome misogyny and give women control of their bodies. Most of the high-traffic modesty clothing websites and popular fashion shows emphasize that modesty can be also be high style. Bloggers often reference the traditional style of Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and now Kate Middleton (in her wedding dress) as examples of modest high fashion. Ludy assures young women that although many Christian girls are influenced by impure beauty standards of the fashion industry, which encourage girls to dress to attract male attention, set-apart girls, clothe their bodies to please their heavenly prince. In the 2011 May/June issue of Ludy’s online magazine, Annie Wesche discusses the challenges of stylish modest dressing in an article called “Beautiful Provision: When God Claims a Closet.” She writes that, through prayer and waiting, she found fashionable clothes at J. Crew and shoes at D.S.W. that were both modest and inexpensive. Following the article is a Q&A penned by Ludy that asks the question: “What kind of swimwear is appropriate for a set-apart young woman?” Ludy recommends swim shorts and loose sports tops, anything that covers areas of your body that should only be seen by your future spouse. Dress, like all other aspects of a set-apart girl’s life, reflects her commitment to purity and rejection of the world’s standards of beauty. But it doesn’t require her to be a fashion tragedy. “Becoming a set-apart woman—a ‘lily among thorns’—doesn’t mean we become physically unattractive. But it does mean that we live differently than the thorns around us, especially when it comes to guys. A set-apart woman does not seek to "win male favor through enhancing her sex appeal or drawing all eyes to her body.” Male favor and attention should be earned by looking at a young woman’s soul, not her body.

Perhaps more than other purity writers, Ludy focuses on the intimate relationship with the eternal heavenly prince as the primary relationship for young evangelical women. Like others, Ludy also encourages young women to keep their future earthly husbands at the forefront of their minds at all times. On the one hand, Ludy believes young women should keep their bodies pure because they are God’s temples, and they should also refrain from any physical (or emotional) defilement to protect the divine marriage covenant. On the other hand, chastity is also essential for a strong earthly marriage. “Giving away your physical purity is not just a matter of ‘crossing the line’ but of sharing any part of your sexuality with someone outside the marriage covenant.” A young woman should only give her emotional intimacy after an engagement and, of course, physical intimacy should occur only after the marriage ceremony. If this path of purity is followed, if a young woman waits for God to bring a perfect spouse, and if she allows the man to take the lead in courting, then, Ludy assures her readers, their future husbands will treasure and protect them like princesses. Young women are responsible for guarding themselves emotionally and physically from forbidden feelings and actions. If they succeed, they will move from the protection of their father’s household to the safety of their husband’s home. Maintaining purity and receiving protection are the building blocks of God’s fairy tale.

Young women are praised and valued for maintaining purity, not for making individual choices or stepping outside of the role set for them by their fathers and God. For people within the purity movement, female virginity prior to marriage is critically important because it allows men to fulfill their biblical gender roles as fathers and husbands. Without virgin brides, there is no need for noble princes and there are no fairy tales. In stories in which men are the actors and women are waiting to be saved, only virgins are worth fighting for. This is God’s plan for marriage. “God’s pattern restores the long lost art of masculine nobility and feminine dignity—returning us to the days of gallant lords and fair maidens. Following God’s design is what sets the stage for those seemingly impossible dreams to come true. If finding our deepest romantic longings fulfilled is what comes of following God’s design, then I think we need more of His amazing ‘old fashioned’ ways.” The Bible, according to Ludy, is the ultimate princess narrative.

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Reprinted from "Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism" by Amy DeRogatis with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © Oxford University Press 2015. All rights reserved.


Amy DeRogatis

Amy DeRogatis is associate professor of religion and American culture in the department of religious studies at Michigan State University. She is also the author of "Moral Geography: Maps, Missionaries and the American Frontier."

MORE FROM Amy DeRogatis

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