Friday, June 09, 2006

Special Report: Purity Pledges and Rape Reporting

When pressed for time and needing to gather your thoughts (World Cup starts in 45 minutes! Ex gets re-married in 30 hours!), post stuff from your dailyKos diary. Sure recipe for success. So now I reach back to April and rescue a piece I apparently never got around to putting up here...

Continuing the theme of purity pledges and a level of paternal involvement in pre-adolescent girls' sexuality, we turn to the wide world of chastity jewelry, divergent symbolism for girls and boys, and some of the unsettling implications for those kids' lives once they grow up. This was spurred by yet another Digby post, this one discussing the purity jewelry offered by a guy loosely connected to Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry.

The Heart to Heart jewelry guy provides the material manifestation of the queasy pseudo-incest imagery suggested by the Purity Ball's vows between daughter and father involving (1) saving the girl's purity as a gift to the future husband and (2) the father "covering" his daughter and protecting her purity until handing her off to the husband. Visitors to the H2H website can find a heart-shaped locket with a key for Daddy to keep until the wedding day, at which point he gives the key to the groom, who inserts it in his wife's keyhole (wink, nudge) and opens her heart. As a nifty bonus, the locket is designed to hold a note written by the girl to her future husband, promising to love and serve him faithfully despite never having laid eyes on him at the time the note was written. At least there's a "masculine cross" option for boys, giving equal time to genitalia depictions now adopted as symbols of religious sexual purity. No similar note-writing provision is made for the boy's locket, however; while his future bride will be given the key to the cross, the boy isn't expected to literally commit himself on paper to a woman he won't meet for several years.

Pumpkinseed Press carries even more incongruous gender-specific jewelry to go with their complete purity ceremony in a box. For the girls, a heart-shaped ring with a keyhole in the middle. For dad, a key-shaped lapel pin for him "to wear until the wedding day in which he places it on the lapel of the groom, signifying transition of protection and authority." Also included is a pre-printed covenant for father and daughter to sign. And for the boys? They get a wristwatch. Printed with "I will wait for God's timing." No accompanying symbol of parental control, no totem to be transferred to his future wife, no covenant to sign. Just... a watch. And the implicit assumption that, having decided to remain chaste, the boy is perfectly capable of seeing after that himself. Or not; apparently it doesn't matter much given the lack of a public vow and corroborating paperwork.

In both cases, the fathers are given the power and control over the girl's sexuality; the Heart to Heart folks at least make a half-hearted stab at trusting the boy's key to both parents. While the protection aspect is certainly appopriate in thinking about young children--as well as, let's admit it, the emotionally unready portion of the teenage population--the model falls apart when extended to adults of marriageable age. In fact, the entire program and the movement behind it looks geared to a social system that moves children directly from school to marriage. Explicitly--the "masculine cross" aside--it is a system designed to move a girl directly from her father's home to her husband's, with no intervening alone time during which she may venture out into the world, be exposed to dangerous new ideas, and, even worse, risk sullying her purity, which would render her potential as a gift to her husband void.

How does this translate to a world in which a girl graduates high school, graduates from college, and gets a job for a few years before settling down with Mr. Right? She is no longer a girl. She is a woman, an independent adult. Unfortunately for her, she is also an adult whose parents still claim sole authority to her sexuality, a claim they are likely to expect to see reinforced by the girl-woman continuing to wear the locket that only Daddy can open. What happens when this putatively independent adult woman runs into situations she was unprepared for or is unable to control?

I wasn't able to find anything dealing with how these newbie women cope when they find themselves in a guilt-inducing but nonetheless consensual sexual relationship before marriage, but I did find two rape accounts that underscore the additional emotional burden the Purity mindset can bring to a sexual assault. One woman was raped by a short-term acquaintance she met at a campus church group in Texas, the other by a long-term friend in Illinois. Both are religious; both made statements about how much they valued their virginity and feared their parents' disapproval for having been compromised, although it is unclear whether either formally made a purity pledge. The Texan filed charges and went through the trial:

During opening statements Tuesday, defense attorney David Barron described a different scenario in which the woman was a willing participant who made up the rape claims in order to save her religious reputation... Meanwhile, Barron urged jurors to question the woman's credibility. He described her demeanor on the stand as "flippant" and said the presence of her father - a youth minister - in the courtroom motivated her to minimize her involvement that night...

The woman in Illinois did neither:
Maybe it was the embarrassment. "I wanted to tell my parents, I wanted to tell a lot of other people. But I knew that one of the things my mom and dad thought was really great about me was the fact that I was a virgin, and I was very ashamed that this happened to me."

The stories are admittedly anecdotal, and reliable documentation of the effects of chastity vows on rape reporting are scarce on the Web. In fact, documentation of all sexual assault regardless of individual victim attributes is uneven at best, given the lack of consensus on what percentage of rapes are reported and what percentage of those may be false claims (sources here and here). The second complicating factor is the relative youth of the abstinence movement; while religious and social conservatives have essentially always expected chastity from their daughters, that expectation has only recently become formalized in public displays through ritual and adornment with specific jewelry.

The anecdotes related here do demonstrate, however, two different potential unintended effects of the chastity program stemming from the same cause; the additional guilt and turmoil injected into an unwanted sexual encounted by heavy parental expectations and praise of virginity are argued, by different parties, to lead to either false reporting or no reporting at all. In each case, the male involved did not have his behavior constrained by similar expectations, even when he came from essentially the same religious demographic as the woman.

This is not an indictment of the purity program. My personal biases and family background make me highly skeptical that a promise made at ten years of age to remain sexually pure is anything but a naive fantasy that places unrealistic pressure on post-adolescent women who end up outside the protective barriers put in place by their families. In an age of plentiful and deadly STDs and ever-decreasing abortion (and, in some places, even contraception) availability, chastity is not an option to be snorted at. But it should be an option that is chosen based on the individual's informed conscience (yup, I broke from the Catholic Church long ago, but I've always found that phrasing very useful), irrespective of gender, rather than being coerced only from girls by symbolically giving their fathers the sole authority over their bodies.

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