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)

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)

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)

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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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

34 replies on “Is There Really Nothing Left to Say About Purity Ball Photos?”

  1. 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?”

    1. “..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. 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.”

      I grew up, and still am, in close proximity to cultures that value abstinence. The language of “integrity” used for men includes treating women with integrity, which entails rejecting predatory behavior, being aware of the chemical and emotional bonds that are created during sexual intercourse. It also means being aware of false intimacy created by sexual promiscuity and the vulnerability one is put in by feeling and believing that “something” is there, when in fact it isn’t. To deny that lots of damage comes from that requires some measure of self-deceit and callousness. These religious freaks just happen to be avoiding that. And good for them.

      1. 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.

        1. 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, in the same way.

          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. At the bar again and you 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 most ‘Purty Ball critics’ 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 tyranny, is to have let one’s prejudices override their ability to think critically about people.

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

  2. OK, if you really think about it, without all the patriarchal and sexist baggage, how is valuing ones sexuality so highly that you pledge to save it’s full expression for someone totally committed to you, condoning ‘physical and emotional violence against women’?

    1. 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.

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

      2. 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.

    2. 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.

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Pfft. I think it’s funny that you mentioned “needing material” at the end of the post because that’s what I was just about to ask you. However.

    A) “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” –Maybe I’m just not understanding, but this sounds really reaching and like a big vague hypothetical generalization. How do you know these fathers are part of “the patriarchal culture” that “condones physical and emotional violence”, and what specifically does that even mean? Define “patriarchal culture”, what is wrong with whatever you’re describing as patriarchal culture, just to understand? and what about this particular group of people (most likely christians), makes them “patriarchal culture” and what specifically in their beliefs is condoning physical and emotional violence? Because most spiritual practices, and specifically Christianity, teaches loving your neighbor as yourself, loving your wife as your own body, loving others as Christ has loved you, and loving God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind – through loving others.

    B)You seemed to feel that “bizarre” was not enough of a descriptor. In any case, there are pride parades, naked bike rides, etc all up and down the spectrum around the world. This group chose to care for their daughter’s emotional, physical, mental, spiritual self through protecting her from undue entanglement and harm until she has a wise context in which to express her sexuality. I see no reason to judge them for celebrating sexuality in this way.

    C)”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.” Yes, it seems clear (or appears) that the author wanted to create trust within the individuals being photographed, YET allow his judgement and opinion, or the image he was painting, to be obvious in the photos. And I agree. He certainly did that. So, additionally, any blame to be had for the “creepiness” of the photos has less to do with the subjects, and more to do with the photographer’s direction as to their poses. Most people being photographed are not photographed often, and definitely not professionally, and may feel awkward and will follow direction or suggestions. Also just one point to consider, as to the “overly” adoring fathers of the daughters – sometimes when we haven’t been exposed to close or healthy relationships, when we do see closeness or healthy interaction, or even fathers being protective of daughters if we did not ever have that for ourselves, we feel revolted.

    D) Why is it “sexist” to have purity balls? Not everyone holds the same opinions as we may, as for the gender appropriateness of certain things – so … I’m guessing the girls like to dress up, do something special AND meaningful, like most girls do. Where are the purity balls for boys? I don’t know, I don’t see any boys lining up and longing to get dressed up and go to a “ball”. Also, women and men, despite what you may wish, are different. women are typically more feminine, being & receiving, men are typically more masculine and “doing”. Girls by nature may tend to be more in need of protection, or be more receptive. Sorry that’s not the popular opinion, but it doesn’t make it less true – Regardless, men by nature desire to GIVE, DO, and protect. Especially fathers. I am not sure if you are one who holds the idea that men and women are completely equal and the same, but I believe that men and women are *different* and are complementary to each other. yin and yang.

    E)” 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?”
    The author used the word “often”. Not always, Often. The parents of the five year olds, unless they already treat the five year olds decisions as though they were adult decisions, most likely treated their decisions the same way they usually do: They evaluated them, deciding whether the activity sounds healthy, safe, fun, in alignment with their values, and said yes. That doesn’t mean the child didn’t take initiative by her interest, regardless of whether it was about spiritual values or ballgowns.

    F)”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,”” …… Culture has groomed all of us to make many decisions. That doesn’t inherently make those decisions not beneficial. Also, I am *guessing* that those participating in purity balls are likely mostly those of Christian beliefs. Christian beliefs do not uphold a girls virginity above all else, whatsoever. While physical purity is a supporting part of many values, definitely not above all else. Also, each person’s individual beliefs about what part of their spiritual practice is important, or how they understand it, may vary as much as every single person’s reason for going or not going to church or anything else in life. So I feel unaccepting of this comment that seemed to be a very broad generalization and inaccurate at that.

    Also, what difference does it make whether these girls were “groomed” by “culture” to make these decisions? Following the majority of what is popular opinion is not the best way to make decisions, but all children must grow up to find their own reasons for their values and beliefs. And all parents pass down their own values and beliefs to their children. Even if your value and belief is NOT sharing your values and beliefs, you are still by word or example, passing it down. I’d also add that valuing a girl’s virginity is NOT a distinctly American story. Countries all around the world have their own values and ideas regarding purity, from one end of the spectrum to the other. I’d feel better to read a more positive article from you. This one just feels like it’s reaching and grasping, and judgement is easy. If it has to be this negative, how about complaining about female circumcision instead.

    As to miss Empress below, in my experience I have never met any christian father with the belief of protecting his daughter in any way, who ever held the idea of “owning” his daughter’s virginity. That accusation toward this group of people sounds ridiculous. Also I believe that one reason there are “purity balls” or ceremonies is this: There are many values held by this group of people. Purity in heart and mind, as well as a loving, giving spirit are important as well. Yet, in the American culture, everything is so over sexualized, that many feel that there is a huge gaping hole in the other side of the coin, and some subjects need more attention. When you consider how many teenagers are having sex, and how YOUNG, suffering the consequences of getting pregnant, the spiritual, energetic and emotional bonds, and the relationship not lasting, or casual sex, diseases, etc. — how “acceptable” this seems to kids now, many girls want to protect themselves this way, or feel protected!! And you can bet that any parent in their right mind wants to protect their children.

  7. I doubt anyone values Flavorwire or Refinery 29 as serious sources of criticism anyways..

  8. 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?

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

    1. 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.

  13. What I find in almost all these replies is an unconscious collusion with the intention of the subject matter, which is the glorification of the cult of the individual human being as a distinct and autonomous entity unencumbered by the contextual existence of Earth. Note in the photos that the landscape is degraded country. Not just a literal desert but weeds and dead stuff everywhere as in a dead desert, a desecration of country. The subjects reveal the current crisis of humanities disengagement with nature in that beyond all other considerations a human sense of purity is paramount and the context within which that purity is determined is the male mind and the female vulva by and of themselves. Absolutely psychologically alone and arrogantly devoid of any considerations outside the human intellect that might by context reveal a less than pure existence. It is evident in their preoccupation with their own purities that in their eyes there is no accounting whatsoever of the natural degradation around them for which they and their ancestors are likely responsible.
    They are disturbing not because they willingly sacrifice some sort of licentiousness by elevating their own sexuality to a level of banal and self-indulgent sacredness, but because they are so disengaged from the world around them with their oh so important sense of self-worth, that they condemn by ignorance the Earth to desertification with nary a nod to the real roots of their existence bar using it as a backdrop. They exchange our entire birthright for their pure little birth canals. They, and by that I mean all like minded self indulgences, make me sick.

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