My fifth-grade boyfriend made me extraordinarily happy the day he gave me his ring—silver, accented with a turquoise star. As I wound it with endless amounts of masking tape so that it would fit my much smaller finger, I proudly imagined the responses my newly fashioned finger would cause.
In a matter of a few short days, with anger pulsating through my veins because I heard from a friend who heard from her friend that Lance, my boyfriend, had been seen with Angela and probably had even kissed her in the dark alley after youth group, I tore off my taped-wrapped ring and hurled it down the toilet, flushing before I changed my mind. There. I’d done it. I had broken up first and destroyed all of the evidence that I had ever been so stupid as to trust my heart to Lance.
It has been many, many years since I’ve seen Lance, and I probably wouldn’t recognize him anyway. But, I remember his ring; I remember how wearing it made me feel and I remember the shame I felt when I realized that by destroying his ring I had taken something from him that I could never return.
So, I must admit to a degree of ambivalence around the more recent craze of purity rings, started about the time former President George W. Bush emphasized abstinence for teens.
While I believe it is good to reserve sex for one’s marriage or life-partner, I’m just not all that sure that the best way to promote this sexual ethic is on the ring of an adolescent girl. Apparently there are purity rings for young men, but honestly, how many wear them?
Too, I wonder how young adolescent women hear this message of abstinence while even as they wear their rings? Do they hear that the most important thing about themselves is an intact hymen? Do they hear that the absolute worst thing they can do, the very worst sin of all, is to have sex before they are married? Do they feel even more guilt than they otherwise would if they are sexually violated as many are?
Purity rings and the related alternative “proms” where fathers and daughters dress up and dance to celebrate the teen’s pledge of abstinence until marriage is intended, I suppose, to add public weight or what is called positive peer pressure to the pledge commitment. Does such an event give the teen the impression that through her participation all questions related to sexuality are now answered? She is to avoid sexual intimacy until marriage and since she has signed the pledge and made her intention public, she will have no need for further advice or conversation about sex. Or, more to the point, do these events give parents the false confirmation that their daughter’s need for education and communication about sex has been aptly met?
While this abstinence impulse conveyed through purity rings raises many questions for me, I do not want people to think I am against abstinence necessarily. However, what I hope to call attention to is the ways in which such programs while having good intentions nevertheless fail to account for the reality of living in a patriarchal world.
Without addressing the underlying problems of a patriarchal culture where women are viewed as objects and seen as subject to the whims and desires of men and where men are viewed as more like God than women, the abstinence message falls short. Placing the impetus on young women to maintain a state of sexual purity without turning a critical eye on the religious structures that create a sense of feeling less important than their male counterparts, the people who support these programs are choosing to ignore the really good work they could do by helping a generation of young women learn from an early age that they are valued and good by themselves. They are already fully made in the image of God and need no male counterpart to become more than that.