It has all the ingredients of a wedding. The proud tuxedo-clad father, the frosted white cake, the limousines and an exchange of vows.
But there is no groom and the girl in the long gown is no bride. She’s daddy’s little girl, there to take a vow of chastity.
In what is becoming a trend among conservative Christians in the United States, girls as young as nine are pledging to their fathers to remain virgins until they wed, in elaborate ceremonies dubbed “Purity Balls.”
The gala affairs are intended to celebrate the father-daughter relationship.
The highlight is when the fathers and daughters exchange vows, with dad signing a covenant to protect his daughter’s chastity by living an unblemished life and the daughter promising not to have sex until marriage.
Many fathers at the ceremonies also slip “purity rings” around the finger of their misty-eyed daughters or offer them “chastity bracelets” and other jewelry that the girls can entrust to their husbands on their wedding night.
“The father makes a pledge that he is going to keep his mind pure and be faithful to her mother and there is also a time when there is a conversation about putting the right kinds of things in your mind, such as the father not using pornography,” Leslee Unruh, founder of Abstinence Clearinghouse, a leader in the so-called purity movement, told AFP in describing the balls.
She said some 1,400 Purity Balls were held across the United States in 2006, mainly in the south and midwest, and double that number were expected to take place this year.
Mike Parcha, who recently attended one of these balls with his 11-year-old daughter Lora in the western state of Colorado, said the events reinforce his family’s Christian beliefs.
“We realize that purity is a lifestyle, not an event, and this is just a celebration of that lifestyle and of that relationship that I have with my daughters,” he said. “The ball is a culmination of the relationship we have with God and with each other.”
He said his three daughters have looked forward to attending the balls and have no qualms about pledging to remain virgins until marriage.
“They are just all for it, they think it’s the greatest thing,” said Parcha, 43, who is a college math teacher. "We raise our children as Christians, we share the same beliefs … and we’re on the same page.
“It’s not like there is a tug of war of any kind going on.”
His two older daughters, aged 11 and 18, have attended the balls while the youngest, aged 4, must wait a few years. The three girls, along with their three brothers, are all home schooled. Parcha’s oldest daughter Christy, who recently graduated from high school, is now working on a fictional book about “the emotional purity of a young girl as she grows up.”
The first Purity Ball in the United States was organized in 1998 by Generations of Light, a popular Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Randy Wilson, who runs the ministry with his wife, said the idea was to create an event that celebrates the bonds between father and daughter.
“We saw that in our culture there wasn’t a place for the father to work for a good relationship with his daughter,” Wilson told AFP. “So this (relationship) allows the daughter to become a stronger person in her culture as she is bombarded with all the sexual images that are out there.”
Wilson, who has five daughters, said the balls have become so popular over the years that there is now a waiting list for those wishing to attend.
Enquiries are also pouring in from aboard with organizations or churches in New Zealand, Britain and other countries asking for guidance on how to organize such gatherings.
The popularity of the balls in the United States, especially among evangelical Christians, mirrors the Bush administration’s support of abstinence education in US schools. The government’s funding for such initiatives has more than doubled in recent years to 206 million dollars (150 million euros).
But critics say that while teaching abstinence to children may be laudable, it is just as essential to make them aware of sexually transmitted diseases and condom use.
They also point to studies showing that the majority of adolescents who take purity pledges break them within a few years, often by engaging in risky and unprotected sex.
One study conducted by researchers at the universities of Columbia and Yale found that 88 percent of pledgers wind up having sex before marriage.
“Unfortunately these young people tend, once they start to have sex, to have more partners in a shorter period of time and to use contraception much less than their non-pledging peers,” said Debra Hauser, executive vice president at Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based non-profit organization.
“Teens may pledge with the best of intention… and then as they break their pledges they are so shamed and embarrassed that it’s unlikely they will go for help.”