Is There Really Nothing Left to Say About Purity Ball Photos?

by Jillian Steinhauer on June 11, 2014

David Magnusson, photo from the 'Purity' series (© David Magnusson)

David Magnusson, photo from the ‘Purity’ series (© David Magnusson)

Considering they’ve been making the internet rounds for over a month, I did not want to write about David Magnusson‘s photographs of fathers and daughters who attend purity balls. The pictures have been featured on the Huffington Post; they’ve been shown on Flavorwire; they’ve been on BuzzFeed and Slate — hell, Time‘s LightBox blog beat everyone and wrote about them last year. There wasn’t anything left to say, I figured, and so I didn’t need to write about them.

But see, that’s just it: there’s so much left to say, because barely anyone has said anything. In the bland, mindless reposting of Magnusson’s Purity photos, we have a prime example of the vapid virality of the internet. Which would generally be fine if the photos weren’t also bound up with patriarchy and sexism in troubling ways that pretty much no one is interested in talking about.

Let’s start with the phenomenon itself. Purity balls are formal dances at which girls and young women pledge to abstain from sex until they’re married, while their fathers pledge to protect their purity. The first one was organized by a couple in Colorado because (according to Wikipedia) they were concerned that fathers didn’t have enough of a place in their daughters’ lives. So, you know, logically they should become protectors of their daughters’ virginity. Because that’s how everyone fills a family gap … with sex.

Magnusson, a Swedish photographer, heard about and became fascinated by purity balls, and he decided he wanted to photograph some of the participants. After making contact with and securing the participation of a number of families in Louisiana, Colorado, and Arizona, he flew out a number of times to interview and photograph the father-and-daughter pairs. The resulting portraits and texts make up his Purity project.

David Magnusson, photo from the 'Purity' series (© David Magnusson)

David Magnusson, photo from the ‘Purity’ series (© David Magnusson)

Here is how Magnusson frames the project in part of his statement (which he emailed to me):

When I first heard about the Purity Balls I imagined angry American fathers terrified of anything that might hurt their daughters or their honor. But as I learnt more, I understood that the fathers, like all parents, simply wanted to protect the ones that they love — in the best way they know how. It was also often the girls themselves that had taken the initiative to attend the balls. They had made their decisions out of their own conviction and faith, in many cases with fathers who didn’t know what a Purity Ball was before being invited by their daughters.

The more I learned, the more I was surprised that I had been so quick to judge people I knew so little about. I was struck by the idea that what set us apart wasn’t anything more than how we had been influenced by the culture we grew up in and the values it had instilled in us. …

Magnusson’s acceptance of purity balls and their participants is sort of touching and admirable, but it’s also deeply problematic. First of all, there’s no mention of the glaringly gendered nature of the phenomenon (where are the purity balls for young men?). But more importantly, with a quick rhetorical trick, Magnusson shifts the responsibility onto the girls’ shoulders. It was also often the girls themselves that had taken the initiative to attend the balls. Where’s the part explaining that some of these girls are five years old — far too young to having their “initiative” treated as adult decisions?

David Magnusson, photo from the 'Purity' series (© David Magnusson)

David Magnusson, photo from the ‘Purity’ series (© David Magnusson)

Even for the young women who are 18, there’s an entire culture that’s groomed them to make these decisions, a culture that’s brought them up to believe in a “distinctly American story … wherein a girl’s virginity is held up as a moral ideal above all else, a story in which the most important characteristic of a young woman is whether or not she is sexually active,” as Jessica Valenti wrote in the Guardian. Magnusson vaguely alludes to “how we had been influenced by the culture we grew up in,” but his bland acceptance of the sexism and patriarchy of the culture in question is disturbing.

But, you know what? Fine. Magnusson doesn’t necessarily have a responsibility to give us all the context. If we ignore his writing and look at his photographs, we see that he’s achieved an impressive level of ambiguity in these unflinchingly creepy portraits. Bathed in a pale, ethereal blue light, the fathers hold onto their daughters the way they would brides or prom dates, which is to say, in vaguely sexual poses. The girls wear white dresses. Some of them close their eyes and look deeply, uncomfortably reverential. Magnusson writes:

In Purity I wanted to create portraits so beautiful that the girls and their fathers could be proud of the pictures in the same way they are proud of their decisions — while someone from a different background might see an entirely different story in the very same photographs.

He has most certainly achieved that.

And so, here is where the blogs and magazines and websites come in; it’s our job, as writers, to contextualize things — to explain, analyze, critique, maybe praise the photographs while calling out Magnusson on his blithe acceptance of purity balls. Or at least explain the issues surrounding the balls, obvious though they may be to some of us. Maybe?

But no, all David Rosenberg, the editor of Slate’s photo blog Behold, can muster to describe the photos is the non-descriptor “striking,” followed by cheery quotes from Magnusson, and, well … that’s it. Alan White, at BuzzFeed, does the same thing in list form. Lily Rothman, at LightBox, is properly and journalistically objective, allowing only that “the movement is controversial.”

David Magnusson, photo from the 'Purity' series (© David Magnusson) (click to enlarge)

David Magnusson, photo from the ‘Purity’ series (© David Magnusson) (click to enlarge)

Then we have the attack of the adjectives. At the Huffington Post, Priscilla Frank cites some criticism of the photos but then frames them as “beautiful or bizarre.” She also calls the purity ball tradition itself “bizarre” — as if it were akin to, say, a unicycling parade, rather than a troubling sexist practice. At Refinery29, Matthew Zuras also brings in some of the critiques but counters them with ones of those gushing adjectival onslaughts so unique to the web, dramatically calling the photos “beautiful but haunting, powerful, and unsettling.” Like the latest film in the Twilight saga. Only Tom Hawking at Flavorwire is honest enough to call them “frankly terrifying.”

Look, I know how it goes: you need material for the blog, so you find some “striking” photographs, get a quote or two from the artist, and throw together a post that’s sure to bring in lots of traffic. I’m on board with this base level of work when we’re dealing with pictures of cats. But when they’re pictures that are basically stand-ins for the patriarchal culture that condones physical and emotional violence against women in this country every day, can we all try just a little bit harder?

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  • mazi

    nicely put…

  • Kat Zagaria

    After seeing these photos make the rounds, I went out and read Jessica Valenti’s book The Purity Myth, because I wanted to know more about the roots of the purity culture. In it, I learned that there are balls for men: called Integrity Balls. Yeah. Just think about that for a minute…what would you rather be brought up valuing, your integrity, or your “purity?”

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Wow. Thank you, thank you for sharing that. I need to read the book.

      • Kat Zagaria

        I just checked it out from my local library and finished it last week. Glad to help!

    • Chicken Fingers

      “..what would you rather be brought up valuing, your integrity, or your “purity?”

      Uh, oh…it’s time for Logic 101. Valuing integrity is not mutually exclusive with valuing purity, culturally or rationally. That is, one does not devalue “purity” by valuing “integrity” or vice versa. It’s hard to believe you read the book and came away so confused. (Is the author this confused?) It’s one thing to disagree with how other people choose to live. Mindlessly misrepresenting them is another. Yours and Jillian’s response to these people is rather like the Bush administration’s response to Jihadism. “If we earnestly seek to understand these people, we will look like sympathizers.”

      • Kat Zagaria

        Woah there. I agree with the fact that they are not mutually exclusive, but they are being celebrated in different ways for each of the sexes. I suppose I should have written “valuing more” because it does seem to me that more emphasis is put on the importance of purity over integrity or vice versa based on the gender of their children. Yes, the two can be intertwined, but one is being touted as more important, more integral, than another.

        I also grew up around and in abstinence culture, we just came away with different viewpoints on it. And I did seek to understand this further…the abstinence culture I grew up in was focused on “no sex” but the message wasn’t exactly “always be a virgin, stay pure,” if that makes sense. That’s the whole reason I checked out that book, to understand the roots of purity culture and how these balls began and are gaining in popularity. And after learning what I did, I came to that conclusion that integrity is valued more for men than it is for women. The problem I have is not that men are being taught integrity, it’s that the same emphasis on integrity is not being put forth to women. If it is, it’s using the term purity instead of integrity, and that’s wrapped up in sex moreso for women than men.

        It doesn’t mean I don’t sympathize with a culture, or think they’re monstrous foreigners. It means I disagree with their views but I certainly don’t think of them as alien. I’m sorry if my comment led you to make assumptions about me, but please don’t assume I’ve written off an entire sect of American people as crazy because i disagree with their viewpoint.

        • Chicken Fingers

          The differences in ‘moral weight’ given to either quant-seeming virtue is due to sexual dynamics. Visit any bar right now and you’ll see groups of women expecting and wanting to be hit on by men, that is, be approached, whereby they are given power to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. We don’t call women “creeps” because they generally don’t’ behave predatorily.

          Purity is more self-referential because, unlike integrity, it doesn’t connote a relational exchange; it is a particular state. A woman can, theoretically, be “pure” in any state of affairs. Integrity connotes relational exchanges and navigating them with openly-taken responsibility. So it makes more sense to “brainwash” horny Mormon boys into thinking they are responsible for the consequences of their sexual behavior, especially to girls, and brainwash girls into thinking the answer ‘no’ to sex will always be reliably better than saying ‘yes,’ prior to having a social ceremony that requires a man to publicly vow life-long devotion to her.

          There is plenty of critique to be made of religious cultures that regard women as brainless, prize trophies, but it would be bad to leave it at that. Visit the bar again and you’ll have plenty of women acting like brainless, prize trophies. Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton are, culturally speaking, brainless, prize trophies, even after starring in their own home made porn. The problem is women aren’t being viewed as having agency. And that’s bad?

          When is a *girl* allowed to have agency? Jillian doesn’t think these girls in Purity Balls have agency. Let me wager that you and Jillian believe that a 16 year old girl should be able to decide if she can get an abortion, should she become pregnant. Is it also the case that a 16 year old girl is incapable of, on her own accord, openly committing herself to chastity in a ceremony with her dad? As I see it, the only way to regard the first girl as empowered and self-actualizing, and the second as oppressed and under some form of cultural tyranny, is by being remarkably prejudiced.

          If I understand you correctly, emphazing “integrity” for women would be closer to acknowledging their autonomy. That right to me.

  • Antihistaminer

    Thanks for recycling these photos and pretending not to.

    • aaronnorth

      thanks for hitting the nail on the head

      • Hrag Vartanian

        And the award for Most Cynical People in the World goes to …

  • Grace

    I feel like you could have gone more in to depth with this article.
    Seems pointless to accuse other news sources of recycling images with no
    context, when the exact same has been done in this piece. I would have
    preferred to read an article deciphering the implications these images
    promote/possess rather than read about how other websites aren’t talking
    about the issue this same article fails to explore.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I’ve actually been thinking about this since before I saw your comment. To a certain extent, I agree. I don’t think I’ve done “the exact same” in this piece at all, and I felt very strongly that other news orgs and the photographer needed to be called out on their language — that that was important. But I do think you’re right that I could have gone more in-depth with my analysis of the images and/or the purity balls themselves.

      • Seph

        No, I disagree. I think you were trying to do two things at the same time. Call attention to HOW the other news outlets avoided the issue, and then b), tried to point out what they missed. Your critiques are pointed but concise. If one takes your piece to be about how the media fail to bring a critical awareness to these very important issues, you have done so. Be sure of that.

        • Jillian Steinhauer

          Thank you.

    • Seph

      I simply don’t understand how you could have reached this conclusion. Are you in the pay of some service that employs you to level the same argument at the writer/source that the writer/source is leveling at someone else. Steinhauer points out that the images are embedded in notions of patriarchy that are taken for granted and left unaddressed by other news outlets that have done pieces on these images. She has a relatively well developed critique, albeit a concise one: The girls are assumed to have agency or be the protagonist;, the poses are sexualized; the notion that what needs protection most is virginity, based on some (likely) pre-modern idea of what constitutes value in a girl/woman before she is married; etc. The author also spends some time deconstructing how the other news outlets have failed to do what she thinks they should have done.

      Your criticism needs to be about really seeing the work, not about (which is what I am taking from what you’ve written) having a moment where you get to assert yourself. This isn’t intellectually honest.

  • Cat Dixon

    Pretty sure these are going to be the “Victorian Dead Relative Photos” of the future… creeping out generations to come.

  • Empress de Snark

    While I share your views about purity balls (and the purity pledges with bridal-style rings and vows), one reason the other sites that posted these images may not have expounded at length on the archaic sexual politics of the practices is that everybody’s heard it by now. Your outrage is equivalent to wondering why photos of families in ultratraditionalist, polygamist cults don’t get more discussion about the exploitative control and trafficking of women, especially unconsenting young girls. It’s because just about anyone who’s outside that culture already agrees that the subject lifestyle is harmful and creepy. The reason these get so many clicks, and have been shared so much, is that this ritual is not mainstream; it’s a lurid, circus freakshow and trainwreck to most readers. And most get why it’s a lurid trainwreck.
    Secondly, you might consider allowing your fellow journalists to do what journalists do best: expose a sliver of an alien lifestyle to public view, and then let the viewers decide how they feel about what they’ve seen.
    Thirdly, the subjects in the photos are all there of their own free will. As nauseating as the idea of a father owning and protecting his daughter’s virginity (and thus owning her entire worth as a person until she’s handed off to another man’s custody) is to us, we have to allow that there are a few people out there who think this is a great idea, and for now, are choosing to participate in the ritual, with or without examining its politics or power dynamics.

  • elgati

    I think these fathers are a little too interested in their daughters’ hymens. Even if the girls proposed it, the parents should know better and teach them real humility instead of cultivating this kind of theatrical piety. That’s why they are the adult. Apparently nobody’s in charge there.

  • Jillian Steinhauer

    The purity ball phenomenon is a prime expression of a culture that entrusts men with women’s sexuality. Men are in charge—that’s why a woman’s virginity is pledged to her father, until she is married off to her husband. That is an emotional violation right there—to treat women as objects, not as independent beings in charge of their sexuality in and allowed to make their own decisions about it. This is the same culture and way of thinking that allows male politicians to decide they’re the best ones to regulate whether or not women have abortions and make laws that place the onus of rape on the victim. You can’t think about these photos withOUT the patriarchal and sexist baggage.

    Also, saving your sexuality’s full expression for someone totally committed to you is wonderful. Saving it for your dad is not.

    • Betsy Fenik

      Genital mutilation happens when men are in charge of women’s sexuality. I find these photographs very disturbing.

    • Cheryl Muller

      Please read the article carefully. They are not ‘saving it for their dads’ (although that is the unfortunate visual read of the photos). They are saving it for a future mate(presumably making their pledge to God) and their fathers are pledging to be in their corner;back them up,protect.

  • WildPony

    Forgive me, but its very Scandinavian to be accepting of outside cultural phenomenons, rather than judgmental of them. Their attitude tends to be on the extreme side of open-minded, even though I don’t see any purity balls happening north of the US…He probably thought he was documenting a foreign custom and had no entitlement in deconstructing it, and he WAS photographing a very foreign custom.

  • lyone

    I have no idea why these photos are “stand-ins for the patriarchal culture that condones physical and emotional violence against women”. To me it seems like exactly the opposite–especially since part of the Purity movement includes Integrity Balls for young men. Here we have examples of young men and women, along with their parents, saying that there are values in relationships that are higher than physical pleasure and that there are ways of expressing yourself to/with others besides just sexually. This seems like it would discourage all sorts of violence between genders, and encourage more mature verbal communication. Basically all these young folks and their parents are saying is that they want more to their relationships than serial sex. Why is that considered such a threat?

  • Cheryl Muller

    I imagine the photographer took a number of pics of each ‘couple’, including smiling ones, and ASKED for a shot while they thought of the seriousness/solemnity of the occasion, and then selected the creepiest of the lot, in spite of his professed ‘respect’ for this subculture.

  • Jane Ludo

    Are there purity balls for mothers and their sons? Is purity not important to boys?

    Personally I find these pictures beyond creepy and, more objectively the last line of the article nails it: ‘when they’re pictures that are basically stand-ins for the patriarchal culture that condones physical and emotional violence against women in this country every day, can we all try just a little bit harder?’

    The idea behind the need to protect women’s purity is behind heinous crimes. Here it seems to lead ‘only’ to emotional violence but there is plenty of violence being inflicted to girls and women worldwide also on the basis of the protection of their purity not for its own sake but for how it reflects on the family (see male head) honour and image.

    • Cheryl Muller

      As far as I know, there are no honor killings in the (christian)culture these balls spring from. (That is what you’re referring to, yes?) Usually, family trauma followed by forgiveness, acceptance/reconciliation. Not all patriarchal religions are the same.

      • Jane Ludo

        While the amount of physical violence inflicted on women may be different at different moments in history, patriarchal religions do share the unfortunate feature that the male regulate female activities particularly reproduction. They may not be as well publicised as honour killings in Muslim countries but remember that ‘Christian’ cultures are also present in countries outside of the Western world and violence against women is rife there. And even in Western countries with high income levels, hundreds of women die at the hands of their partners/ex-husbands every year in ‘Christian’ cultures in what is only the tip of the iceberg of domestic abuse.

  • analogpoem

    The Purity series does seem to be made for media manipulation. The artist gets press, the blogs get clicks which gets them paid. The recipe for creepiness + anger stoking is what drives engagement in our current news world.

  • Sheik of Chic

    I loved the auricle until the end…it’s interesting your last sentence “. But when they’re pictures that are basically stand-ins for the patriarchal culture that condones physical and emotional violence against women in this country every day, can we all try just a little bit harder?” Isn’t the flip side of our culture which promotes women as sex objects on a daily basis in movies billboards adds television a form of emotional and physical dehredation of women in our country? You cannot write about these purity balls without taking in to account the real devastation the supposed “liberation of women” has wrought. What exactly have women been steered towards post sexual revolution of the 50s? We have more out of wedlock mothers, a more violent culture that holds up women as obscene sex objects. These pics may highlight a sort of counter reaction to this degrading and demeaning bombardment of women everywhere in our culture.

    • katiehippie

      So it’s ok because the world in general does this too? The pics are the same thing. Women are objects to be owned and protected.

  • katiehippie

    It makes women and girls to be all about sex. Your dad protects you until you get married and then it’s the husband’s job. These women aren’t allowed to decide what they want to do.

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