PEORIA, ILL — It was an evening for couples: girls in formal gowns, tiaras and curly up-dos, escorted by their dads, in tuxedos or suits and ties.
They dined on roast beef and waltzed to classical music in a ballroom decorated with draped crosses and a mannequin in a white wedding gown. They listened as a guest speaker warned of the dangers of premarital sex. Then they stood at their tables, looked each other in the eye and vowed that they would remain pure.
He signed a pledge to be the protector of her purity and to live his own life with integrity. She gave her father a gold key to her heart, and asked him to hold onto it until her wedding day, when he would hand it to her husband. They walked down the aisle with locked arms and she laid a white rose beside a cross, sealing her commitment.
"It's like I'm devoting my virginity to my dad, saying that I will stay pure because it is the Christian thing to do," said Lindsay Anne Schell, 18, a freshman at Bradley University in Peoria. "The rose shows the world that you are devoting your purity to God and to your father."
In an age of "sex buddies," "friends with benefits" and "sexual friendships," father-daughter purity balls have become an increasingly popular trend among conservative Christians in the campaign for abstinence instead of condoms. Since the first event was held in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1998, the concept has spread to 48 states.
Though abstinence has long been promoted as a practical if controversial way of preventing teenage pregnancy, it has been reconstituted as part of a so-called modesty movement sweeping the country. Girls as young as 10 are being asked to take a stand against teen sex and also to counter the negative images they are bombarded with in the media. That means trashing CDs with sexually explicit language, turning off MTV and throwing away low-rider jeans and navel rings.
In this new counterculture, trouble-prone pop stars such as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan are outcasts. Instead, 1 in 6 teens are signing virginity pledges, though 88% of them break that vow before they marry, according to a federally funded national longitudinal study of adolescent health.
Still, they advertise their chastity by sporting T-shirts that read: "Abstinence Ave. Exit When Married" and underwear that says "Notice: No Trespassing On This Property. My Father is Watching."
"Girls are going into marriage with 12 sexual relationships. That brings so much baggage and regret that it breaks down the marriage," said Janet Hellige, a volunteer who organizes the biannual Father-Daughter Purity Ball sponsored by the Christian Center in Peoria. "Girls have a wonderful gift to give, and we don't want them to give all of themselves away. What we want them to do is present themselves as a rose to their husband with no blemishes."
Critics say purity balls and other events send a message to girls that they are property. But the biggest issue, they say, is that abstinence-only programs simply do not work.
"These events represent an idea that there is something about female sexuality that needs to be controlled by dominant men in the household," said Mary Zeiss Stange, a professor of women's studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "That relates to a patriarchal position in the evangelical movement that not only defines female sexuality but females themselves as property. What happens with purity balls is, in effect, the daughter becomes her father's property until he hands her off to her husband."
While teen pregnancy rates have dropped 36% since peaking in 1990, research shows that it is not primarily because girls are refraining from sex; it is because they are having safer sex.
According to a study released last year by researchers at Columbia University, abstinence was responsible for 14% of the decline in the pregnancy rate among women ages 15 to 19, while better use of contraceptives accounted for 86%.
The report, published online in the American Journal of Public Health, warned that policies emphasizing abstinence-only education and excluding information on contraception are "misguided."
A report commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services and released this year found that four federally funded abstinence-education programs offered in public schools and by faith-based community groups have had no effect on sexual activity. The study found that youth in the programs were no more likely to abstain from sex in four to six years after they began participating than those who were not in the programs.
However, another study, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has shown that the percentage of high schoolers having sex has decreased from nearly 54.1% in 1991 to 46.8% in 2005.