I tried to be open-minded about The Virgin Daughters, Jane Treay’s deeply unsettling study for Channel 4 of the ‘Purity Movement’ in the United States, in which young girls pledge to remain virgins until marriage. Nevertheless, within 10 minutes of the opening credits I was snapping at the TV in exasperation.
The film focused on four devout families preparing for a father-daughter purity ball. During the annual black-tie shindig, fathers take time out from whisking their pint-sized princesses (some as young as six) round the dance floor, to declare their pride at their offsprings’ loveliness and celebrate their lack of carnal knowledge. The daughters, meanwhile, make heartfelt speeches about just how swell their fathers are.
All the girls and young women involved earnestly described how they had close and loving relationships with their dads, and how their self worth was based on qualities other than their level of attractiveness to boys (predictably, neither lesbianism nor bisexuality were mentioned). This is entirely commendable, and there should be a lot more of it about. But is replacing the approval of young men with positive affirmations from a dad who’s appointed himself the guardian of your unsullied status (and squarely positioned himself as the only man in your life until your nuptials) really a direct route to flourishing self esteem and healthy sexual relationships? And is a young woman’s worth linked to her virginity? Last time I checked it was 2008, so I think not.
The fathers featured in The Virgin Daughters clearly loved their kids and wanted the best for them, but their fixation with their daughters’ virginities was the result of squeamishness about the fact that their children might, horror of horrors, actually enjoy exploring their sexuality
“Dangerously naïve” were words that leapt to mind when listening to the film’s participants. The adolescent girls were, at times, a little smug in a sugary kind of way, but polite and intelligent too. Yet their ideas about love and marriage owed far too much to Cinderella and not enough to reality.
For them, the sex act was a delightful, mystical, warm and fuzzy kind of experience devoid of animalistic elements such as panting, sweating and bodily fluids. The majority didn’t believe in kissing, let alone making love, before getting hitched, and one young woman went so far as to insist that sex before marriage was forbidden by the Ten Commandments. And she wouldn’t entertain, or simply didn’t understand, the idea that you may not necessarily be sexually compatible with your husband. Now I can understand parents’ desire to shield their children from the wretchedness and self doubt that amorous liaisons can bring. But substituting accurate, up to date information about sex and relationships with romantic confection (thereby rendering your kids worryingly ill-informed) is selfish, misguided and irresponsible.
As much as the fathers featured in The Virgin Daughters clearly loved their kids and wanted the best for them, their fixation with their daughters’ virginities was the result of unhappiness about their own experiences (two had indulged in pre-marital sex, another busy chap had nine children by seven women) and squeamishness about the fact that their children might choose to explore and, horror of horrors, actually enjoy their sexuality.
This brings us to issues of power and control. It seems unlikely that the female members of this particular heterosexist movement had chosen their path themselves (what little girl is preoccupied with chastity issues at the age of six?). There seemed to be a whole lot of indoctrination going on. An indication of the fathers’ influence over their daughters, and the latter’s eagerness to please, was the way in which one young woman constantly looked over to her father for guidance when answering questions directed at her.
And what did the matriarchs think about all this? You’ll be astounded to hear that their views were rather thin on the ground
Although it was never stated, you got the sense that, for some of the families, the steady flow of paternal appreciation and satisfaction was dependent upon the young women in question remaining virgins. Randy Wilson, the humourless and self-satisfied founder of the purity ball (and father of seven) saw himself as some kind of divine being. As such, he felt that one of his duties as a deity was to “bless” each of his children and his wife once a week. It seemed unlikely that any “fornicators” in the Wilson brood would be welcome at this unwholesome weekly ritual.
One articulate 27-year-old law student spoke about how she had fallen foul of the movement’s diktats and, much to the anger and shame of her folks, found herself pregnant and then swiftly engaged to the baby’s father. She lost the child, didn’t marry the father and felt that, subsequently, her mother regarded her as a “lesser person” who was unable to make sensible decisions about her life. It made you want to reach into the telly and give her a hug. You’ve got to wonder how you get to the point where you’re so blinded by religious dogma that you fail to see any good in your child, and choose to reject them and their achievements, because they failed to live up to standards rooted in prejudice and fear.
And what did the matriarchs think about all this? Well you’ll be astounded to hear that their views were rather thin on the ground. The only one who featured was Randy Wilson’s wife who echoed her husband’s opinions before being overcome with emotion at the sheer splendour (or was it volume?) of what she and her spouse had been able to produce.
Love and respect in father-daughter relationships shouldn’t be bound up in unease about young women’s sexuality; or contingent upon their continued vestal state
In some kind of semblance of equality, it appeared that the families’ sons were also strongly encouraged to refrain from any kind of sexual relations before saying their vows. However it was unclear whether they’d receive the same type or level of moral opprobrium as their sisters if they chose to give in to their carnal desires.
I think it’s great that there are fathers out there who recognise the need, and value, of the presence of a positive male role model in their daughters’ lives. But the love and respect in these relationships shouldn’t be bound up in unease about young women’s sexuality; or contingent upon their continued vestal state.
As I have no children of my own, I only have a basic grasp of the difficulties involved in parenting. Even so I believe that, whether they’re male or female, educating your children about emotions, sex and relationships, and crediting them with the sense to make informed decisions (and to learn from ones that may be less so), can only be a good thing.
Dawn Kofie lives in Edinburgh. During her 32 years her dad has shown scant interest in her sex life, and for this she is extremely grateful