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The Virgin Tribe

Photo from Yaa Baker.

High school is a time of rapid sexual exploration, with the average American having their first kiss at fourteen/fifteen and their first-time sex at seventeen.1 Discovering one's sexual identity is an effective way to separate oneself from their parents as an independent individual with the agency to give consent and a great way to bond with their peers on the messy journey toward adulthood. Admittedly, many of these reports are lies, an effort to stand out (or not to) among their peers. Even the stories that are true are sometimes motivated by peer pressure so they can be cool like everyone else. At a time in one’s life where people search for sexual experiences, individuality, and community so desperately that they would lie about their sexual history or even engage in sexual activities to appease their peers, could you imagine someone gathering their peers together, announcing that they are a virgin and plan to stay that way, then marking themselves so that everywhere they go people can see their sexual status? This is the culture of purity rings. 

Learn more about my own experience with a purity ring below: 

Young-people, usually young women, vow not to have sex before they are married. This often includes a ceremony, a rite of passage. The person is separated from the community, usually with sexual life-style mentors or others who are about to declare the same decision with them. Then they are presented to their friends and family to declare their abstinence and given a ring that they wear at all times to mark their status as pure.  

Though only 16% of women and 10% of men vow to be abstinentI would argue that declaring abstinence to a community and declaring sexual activity, though much more widely practiced, are similar social tropes. They both achieve exclusive inclusivity. It is a declaration that separates them from their parents and those not like them and empowers them to bond with others who are like them (or lie and say they are) through reported sexual practices. In this way, a hickey2 is not so different from a purity ring. Both are public displays of an unapologetic agency to make their own sexual choices. They are just different choices, accompanied by marks that allow people with similar reported lifestyle choices to identify them and bond with them over shared experiences.  

Being a virgin throughout high school is by no means atypical. At nineteen, about 32% of people have never had sex (much more than the 13% who vow to be abstinent). Among earlier high school ages, about 85% of fifteen-year-olds are virgins. What distinguishes these young people from their peers is not their sexual practices, but their sexual performance. In contradiction to some of their peers who perform agency through radical self-fulfillment, the purity ring community performs agency through radical self-control. In this way, “…virginity [is] more attitudinal than physical…”  

Announcing an unconventional sexual practice, like anything a bit odd in high school, is not without consequence. Many of these consequences persist in different forms in an abstainer’s post-high school life. Some abstinent people experience mocking, as seen ithis episode of the talk show Straham Sara and Keke. They may even experience challenges in their dating lives as reflected in this excerpt from the People’s Choice Award-winning show Jane the Virgin. 

These challenges are not functionless in the exclusive inclusivity appeal discussed earlier. In fact, they are bonding opportunities over shared experiences. Abstinent folks even have celebrity role models to help them negotiate those challenges. Like Jamie Grace, Instagram verified abstinence advocate, who assures abstinent girls struggling with dating that affirms that singleness is just a confirmation of their radical agency in her post she’s single because she chooses to be. She’s single because she is waiting. She’s single because she is choosing to wait.” “Waiting” referring to waiting to have sex until marriage. Another abstinent celebrity is Jeremiah Chase, who discusses the challenges of being an abstinent man in this Instagram live3 and says, “We’re all family in this…” 

The purity ring is a way for young people to establish their identity as self-agents, individuals, and community members. While the purity ring is a layered and complex symbol with both religious and secular significance (a discussion for another article), it is also a social signal of a tribe.   

Footnotes: 

1. These studies are not particularly recent. Due to the nature of statistical studies, they do not tend to be published in the same year that they represent. 

2. This claim assumes that the hickey and purity ring wearers both understand the social connotations of their marks and know how to apply and remove them with ease. 

3. This episode was intended to be viewed on Instagram where it visibly (from the heart notifications) had many viewers. It was only preserved as a YouTube, therefore the documented views may not be reflective of the actual number of people who have seen the video. 

Yaa Baker is a junior Religion major at the University of Rochester who works as an interfaith intern facilitating interfaith events and dialogue for students in her school's chapel. Her Baptist faith tradition leads her to interfaith work by the command “love thy neighbor.” Yaa is an IFYC Coach. 

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.