There are some mothers and some uncles among the 150 people in the ballroom of the Broadmoor hotel, but the night belongs to fathers and daughters. The girls generally range in age from college down to the tiny 4-year-old dressed all in purple who has climbed up into her father's arms to be carried. Some are in their first high heels--you can tell by the way they walk, like uncertain baby giraffes. Randy Wilson, co-inventor of the Father-Daughter Purity Ball, offers a blessing: he calls on the men to be good and loving listeners, tender, gracious and truthful. And he prays that the girls might "step into the world with strength and passion, to lead this generation."
Kylie Miraldi has come from California to celebrate her 18th birthday tonight. She'll be going to San Jose State on a volleyball scholarship next year. Her father, who looks a little like Superman, is on the dance floor with one of her sisters; he turns out to be Dean Miraldi, a former offensive lineman with the Philadelphia Eagles. When Kylie was 13, her parents took her on a hike in Lake Tahoe, Calif. "We discussed what it means to be a teenager in today's world," she says. They gave her a charm for her bracelet--a lock in the shape of a heart. Her father has the key. "On my wedding day, he'll give it to my husband," she explains. "It's a symbol of my father giving up the covering of my heart, protecting me, since it means my husband is now the protector. He becomes like the shield to my heart, to love me as I'm supposed to be loved."
Kylie talks with an unblinking confidence about a promise that she says is spiritual, mental and physical. "It's something I'm very proud of. I plan to keep pure until marriage. It's a promise I made to myself--not pressure from my parents," she says. She speaks plainly about what she wants in her life, what she thinks she has the power to control and what she doesn't. "I'm very much at peace about this," she says, and looks out across the twirling room. "I don't feel like I need to seek a man. I will be found."
Randy and his wife Lisa Wilson believe in celebrating God's design and life's little growth spurts. But the origin of the purity-ball movement was not so much about their five daughters; it was about the fathers Randy saw who, he says, didn't know what their place was in the lives of their daughters. "The idea was to model what the relationship can be as a daughter grows from a child to an adult," Randy says. "You come in closer, become available to answer whatever questions she has."
So he and Lisa came up with a ceremony; they wrote a vow for fathers to recite, a promise "before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the areas of purity," to practice fidelity, shun pornography and walk with honor through a "culture of chaos" and by so doing guide their daughters as well. That was in 1998, the year the President was charged with lying about his sex life, Viagra became the fastest-selling new drug in history, and movies, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, reflected "a surge in the worldwide relaxation of sexual taboos."
Word of the event spread fast: soon the camera crews came, and so did Tyra Banks and Dr. Phil. The Abstinence Clearinghouse estimates there were more than 4,000 purity events across the country last year, with programs aimed at boys now growing even faster. And inevitably the criticism arrived as well, dressed up in social science and scholarly glee at the semiotics of girls kneeling beneath raised swords to affirm their purity. The events have been called odd, creepy, oppressive of a girl's "sexual self-agency," as one USA Today columnist put it. Father-daughter bonding is great, the critics agree--but wouldn't a cooking class or a soccer game be emotionally healthier than a ceremony freighted with rings and roses and vows? Some academic skeptics make a practical objection: The majority of kids who make a virginity pledge, they argue, will still have sex before marriage but are less likely than other kids to use contraception, since that would involve planning ahead for something they have promised not to do. This puts them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases. To which defenders say: Teen pledgers typically do postpone having sex, have fewer partners, get pregnant less often and if they make it through high school as virgins, are twice as likely to graduate from college--so where's the downside?
The purity balls have thus become a proxy in the wider war over means and ends. It is being fought in Congress, where lawmakers debate whether to keep funding abstinence-only education in the face of studies showing it doesn't work; in the culture, as Lindsay and Britney and Miley march in single file off a cliff; at school-board meetings, where members argue over the signal sent by including condoms in the prom bag; at the dinner table, where parents try to transmit values to children, knowing full well that swarms of other messages are landing by text and Twitter. "The culture is everywhere," says Randy's daughter Khrystian, 20. "You can't get away from it." But maybe, the new Puritans suggest, there's a way to boost girls' immunity.
Rules of Engagement
It was an elbow in the ribs from his wife that drove Ken Lane to his first purity ball with their daughter Hannah, now 11. Tonight is their fourth, and they are sitting in the gold-and-white Broadmoor ballroom, picking at the chicken Florentine and trying to explain what they're doing here. "My kids are on loan to me for a season; it's important how I use that time," Ken is saying as a string quartet plays softly. "There's a lot for us to talk through--the decisions she'll have to make are more complex. I want to be close enough to her that she can come talk to me. That's what my wife understood. I didn't understand the role dads can play to set her up for success."
In the face of the hook-up culture of casual sexual experimentation, he explains, with its potential physical and emotional risks, he wants to model an alternative. Even with older teenagers, many of these families don't believe in random dating but rather intentional dating, which typically begins with a young man's asking a father for permission to get to know his daughter. Lane was so stymied by how exactly that conversation would go that he even asked Randy Wilson if he could sit at a nearby table and listen in one day when Wilson met one of Khrystian's potential suitors at a local Starbucks. "We're trying to be realistic," Lane says. "I'm not ready to be like India--have arranged marriages. But there is some wisdom there, in that at least the parents are involved."
This, of course, is the kind of conversation that makes critics howl. What about a young woman's right to date whomever she pleases, make her own mistakes, learn from the experience, find out who she is and what matters to her? To which the Wilsons and their allies reply: If you still think this is just about sex, you are missing the whole point. The message, they say, is about integrity, being whole people, heart and soul and body. Wilson himself has said virginity pledges have a downside: "It heaps guilt upon them. If they fail, you've made it worse for them," he said. "Who is perfect in this world? One mistake doesn't mean it's all over." Everyone here has a story, and very few are in black and white. One man is dancing with his younger daughter, wishing his older girl had come as well. She used to wear a purity ring, he says, until a boy she knew assaulted her; she took it off--felt too dirty. Her parents gave her a new one, a bigger one; it took many months and much therapy, her father goes on, before she was able to put a ring on again. "That was part of a healing process," he says, "with the message that you're valuable no matter what someone did to you."
Symbols and Substance
After dinner comes the ballet performance, when seven tiny ballerinas in white tulle float in; then seven older dancers carry in a large, heavy wooden cross, which they drape in white, with a crown of thorns. Four of the five Wilson daughters are among the dancers, and they offer a special dance to their father, to the music of Natalie Grant: Your faith, your love And all that you believe Have come to be the strongest part of me And I will always be your baby ...
Then Randy and his friend Kevin Moore stand in front of the cross, holding up two large swords, points crossed. Fathers and daughters process beneath the swords to kneel; the girls place a white rose at the base of the cross while the fathers offer a quiet blessing. Splayed on the floor all around them are half a dozen photographers looking for the right angle and a camera crew from the BBC, in a syncopation of private praise and clicking shutters.
So what, exactly, does all this ceremony achieve? Leave aside for a moment the critics who recoil at the symbols, the patriarchy, the very use of the term purity, with its shadow of stains and stigma. Whatever guests came looking for, they are likely to come away with something unexpected. The goal seems less about making judgments than about making memories.
Out on the terrace under an almost moon, the black swans have vanished into the lake. David Diefenderfer has slipped outside for a cigarette; he's a leathery South Dakotan in a big black cowboy hat, and he hands over his card. HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL: BREEDER SERVICE, it says, with a picture of a syringe. He's in the cattle-reproduction business. He's also the father of nine children by seven women.
Three of his daughters are with him tonight, including 10-year-old Taylor. I asked what purity means to her. "I don't really know," she says, and she's shy about talking about all this. "But it means you make a promise to your dad to be a virgin until you are married and not have a lot of boyfriends."
That's what her oldest half sister Juliet was taught as well; she remembers hearing how her mother got pregnant the very first time she had sex. Juliet is now 37 and has come from Reno, Nev., where she works for Microsoft Licensing. She has watched the evening unfold with some skepticism. "I think I'm finding I'm more of a feminist than I thought," she says with a sly smile. "I had a hard time there hearing about 'rescuing' our girls. I was brought up to be a strong woman. Why would I need rescuing?" It's the boys who she thinks need help these days. "It's great for girls to have a Cinderella night with Dad, but families still need a good strong father role model," she says. The role-model question is tender for her. "I didn't have that--no offense, Dad," she says, and then she looks hard at him. "But my siblings do. He really stepped up to the plate. He's a great dad now. I say that with a tinge of jealousy. I'm not afraid to admit it."
Her father hopes his kids will learn from his mistakes. "I never planned to have nine children by seven women," he says. "I believe it's necessary to instill a set of values, give them tools to make good decisions." But he won't be there to help. Juliet explains when he goes back inside the ballroom to catch up to the younger girls: "We're sort of here on borrowed time," she says. David Diefenderfer has Stage 4 inoperable lung cancer; they figure tonight is something of a gift. "He won't be at their wedding," Juliet says, looking into the glowing room, "but they can look back and remember the dance they had tonight."
A Delicate Dance
If you listen long enough, you wonder whether there is really such a profound disagreement about what parents want for their children. Culture war by its nature pours salt in wounds, finds division where there could be common purpose. Purity is certainly a loaded word--but is there anyone who thinks it's a good idea for 12-year-olds to have sex? Or a bad idea for fathers to be engaged in the lives of their daughters and promise to practice what they preach? Parents won't necessarily say this out loud, but isn't it better to set the bar high and miss than not even try?
Maybe mixed messages aren't just inevitable; they're valuable. On the one hand, for all the conservative outcry, there is no evidence that giving kids complete and accurate information about sex and contraception encourages promiscuity. On the other, a purity pledge basically says sex is serious. That it's not to be entered into recklessly. To deny kids information, whether about contraception or chastity, is irresponsible; to mock or dismiss as unrealistic the goal of personal responsibility in all its forms may suit the culture, but it gives kids too little power, too little control over their decisions, as though they're incapable of making good ones. The research suggests they may be more capable of high standards than parents are. "It's always tempting as a parent to say, Do as I say, not as I do," says a father who's here for the first time. "But it's more valuable to make the commitment yourself. Children can spot hypocrisy very quickly."
The dancing goes on past midnight, when Randy Wilson finally has to shoo people out. Many of the girls are still light-footed, merry; it's their dads who are fading, and you wonder who will be leaning on whom as they head out into the cool mountain night.