Sunday 28 September 2008

The Virgin Daughters (Channel 4 TV)

Last Thursday, at exactly the same time that Five was broadcasting The Million Dollar Mind Reader, Channel 4 showed the latest in the Cutting Edge documentary series: The Virgin Daughters. To quote from the Channel 4 website:
This week Cutting Edge explores the controversial purity movement currently sweeping across the United States. One-in-six American girls now pledges to remain a virgin - and some even to save their first kiss - until their wedding day. But is this their decision, or their fathers'?

Providing a fascinating insight into America's heartland, award-winning documentary maker Jane Treays follows a group of fathers and daughters as they prepare to attend a Purity Ball in Colorado Springs. (1/5) (2/5) (3/5) (4/5) (5/5)

(Thanks again to threespeed79 for uploading the YouTube video clips. BitTorrent enabled viewers go here.)

It was fascinating to watch, not just for the fairly neutral stance that the documentary makers took with the commentary, but also for the way the film accentuated the superficial wholesomeness of the community. The fathers were upstanding, quietly reverent and sincere. The daughters were beautiful, well-spoken and articulate. The religious aspect was evident but not stressed. The whole production spoke of quality, and indeed purity. Even the background music promoted an air of idyllic magnificence.

But despite the portrayal of genuine concern for the future of young lives needing to be cherished, the many scenes with the fathers and daughters together was undeniably and disturbingly creepy. So much utter perfection on display could only, I felt (entirely without evidence), hide something horrendously putrid at its core. Maybe I'm conditioned by so many sad news reports of in-family abuse, but this impression was, for me, unavoidable.

Randy Wilson, a father, is the minister at New Life Church, Colorado Springs* (where the infamous Ted Haggard was minister until his spectacular fall from grace), and he runs the Purity Ball. His wife Lisa was asked about her reasons for promoting purity. Surprisingly she did not quote biblical texts to support her view. Rather, she pointed out the risks of sex before marriage: unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. This is ironic, given that these people clearly support 'abstinence only' sex education (which means, in effect, no sex education at all).

It was telling, also, that the one son interviewed on the programme was shown wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned "Patrick Henry College", a university that was the subject of another Channel 4 documentary, God's Next Army.

(*If Randy Wilson is the minister of New Life Church, Colorado Springs, why can't I find his name listed anywhere on the church's website?)


  1. Hi Paul

    It was indeed, at least to British eyes, creepy. (At least, to my evangelical British eyes.) Though we have to remember that US and UK are two countries divided by a common language, and completely different ways of doing things, culturally. And yes, the evidence is that the silver ring thing does not seem to work too well as the girls get older.

    However, the base question is, would young people, and society in general, be better off if they were not bonking away like there was no tomorrow? Would it, in fact, be better to have a single sexual partner for life? Even if few of us achieve that, might it be an option to aspire to, individually and as a society?

    Illustrating the opposite extreme is Dawn Porter's TV documentary on a free love commune in Germany, where a major problem is jealousy!

    I think it was C S Lewis who suggested that society had come to view the 10 commandments like an exam paper, 'any three to be attempted'.

    Best wishes


  2. Tony,

    You pose pertinent questions, especially the one about monogamy. Yet is this necessarily the best way of forming a life-relationship? "Serial monogamy" has many adherents, and this would include dating and divorce. I don't like to think that a young person could be permanently shackled by an early unwise decision, when there are generally acceptable ways of getting out and starting again.

    I would agree with you that promiscuity in young people is not to be encouraged, but I think it's easy to swing too far in the other direction. Certainly the "abstinence only" philosophy doesn't work, as is clearly shown in this documentary (and, incidentally, in McCain's choice of running mate in the forthcoming US election).

    As for the Ten Commandments, I would contend that on the whole these are irrelevant to today's broadly secular society.

  3. Hi Paul

    I tend to think of this world as C S Lewis said, 'shadowlands', with many shades of grey. In a more perfect world, our 19-year old daughter might not have got pregnant. But her little girl is just so much fun, such a blessings to all of us.

    Now, on the 10 commandments - or at least the wider legal code attached to them... you'll find a swingeing condemnation of selling with false weights. That is precisely what subprime mortgage companies have been doing, mis-representing mortgages to poor people who can't afford them. And don't get me started on merchant banks gambling with money they don't own. A financial system based on biblical standards of morality would look very different to the unbridled capitalism we see falling apart before our eyes!

    Best wishes


  4. "...a swingeing condemnation of selling with false weights" sounds like a less generalised version of "you shall not steal", which seems to be in the preferred list.

    But my point here would be that five of the ten have less to do with modern society's idea of 'morality' than with biblical ideas of worship and authority.

  5. It seems puritanical - the ideology. When viewed through their paradigm, the "fairytale" they speak of it does admittidly have that quality. But, we know now where it comes from... To say we've advanced since the birth of Christianity or the Reformations (which are where their social constructions of monogamy are adapted from)is a loaded question, we have to concede that much of what we call good is a result of zero-sum gains.

    But there is definitely some universal good from moderinity - and here an interesting metaphor for science should be brought in to the discussion. Would they ask their daughter to take for example, cholesterol medication if it was discovered it would improve their quality of life by a factor of 50%? Obviously rhetorical, but one would expect their answer to then be similar in terms of scientific disvoeries in terms of physiological responses in terms of sexual stimulus (or lack there of) of wedded couples.

    We learned much from the Kinsey studies (some errors in sampling there) but it was revealing in terms of the importance of the sexual side of enduring and more importantly "happy" marriages.

    What if she figures out at 45 yo how unsatisfied she is sexuall, he grows overweight (like the wife of the huckster in colo springs did), then what? Suffer? What sort of happiness is that - instead call your god universe, part with the idea of afterlife and be happy.

    I find that I can defend the Christian faith more than most I speak with which says something about why people engage in something like religion to begin with..

  6. Hi anonymous

    I'd query that monogamy is a Christian or even religious construct. With very few exceptions (those being societies where men are exceptionally dominant, and think its a good idea to have extra wives/sex) we have a built-in tendency to pair up one-to-one and expect that relationship to be special and exclusive.

    Here's another remarkable built-in behaviour. It has to be hard-wired in my opinion. It amazes me to see how children too young to speak more than a few words, can play make-believe and "eat" pretend food from magazine pictures, or follow a simple narrative story. Even more remarkably, babies can also discern friend from foe long before they can talk, according to research published in Nature magazine. Babies of six months were shown a puppet seemingly helping or hindering another puppet climb a slope. Afterwards, all the babies reached out to hold the "helpful" puppet and rejected the "nasty" one. They could not only follow a make-believe narrative, but make a moral judgment about it!

    Best wishes