Don't take this pledge

 

GIVE ME A BREAK:WHEN I FIRST heard the term "father-daughter virginity ball" in relation to the "purity movement" in the US, I thought of a small pale-blue ball - a hollow shell as fragile as a robin's egg.

More than an intra-uterine device, this sex-prevention gadget might be the 21st-century version of the clunky iron medieval chastity belt, but so much more discreet, probably thanks to stealth technology developed by Nasa. At the moment of first attempted intercourse, the delicate shell would gently break, instantly alerting the father through a text message via satellite.

Then I heard the term "virginity ring". Was this a satanic cult breeding virgins for the pleasure of perverts? When I learned that the ring was an object, it brought to mind some sort of device - an unbreakable hymen, perhaps? Then I saw a programme, The Virgin Daughters, on Channel 4 last week, and what I saw was even weirder than my imagination.

Fathers in Colorado Springs, Colorado, were brainwashing their daughters into promising to remain virgins until they were married. Future husbands would be men chosen by the fathers, as the girls had promised to follow their fathers' advice in every aspect of their lives.

The founder of this movement is a self-appointed Christian minister named Randy Wilson, who has five daughters of his own. At the annual "father-daughter virginty ball", shown in the documentary, the girls, as young as five, wear ball-gowns and carry white roses. Their fathers, in black-tie, lead them to the foot of a wooden cross, where the girls lay down their roses and pledge their virginity as their fathers cuddle, kiss and caress them like unsexed suitors.

It's the creepiest thing I've ever seen on Channel 4 - and that includes the vagina documentary where we were given an anatomy lesson by women looking at their private parts in mirrors.

Wilson believes that US rates of unmarried motherhood, sexual transmitted disease and divorce are all due to daughters lacking strong father figures in their lives. Let daddy do all the thinking and the choosing, and do what daddy says, and you will live happily ever after with the husband daddy picks for you.

Wilson's daughters glowed with their youthful clear skin and mouthfuls of orthodontically enhanced teeth. The eldest, who has recently married, did not kiss her fiancé or even hold his hand until their wedding day. She told documentary-maker Jane Treays that the thrill of her wedding night - after a short engagement - had all been worth it.

Another of Wilson's daughters, Hannah, aged 11, was attending her fifth father-daughter virginity ball and worshipped her father.

"I adore being your daughter. When you spend time with me, you make me feel like a beautiful princess," she told him.

Wilson's philosophy is that "the father is everything" and that girls who don't have fathers controlling and validating them are bound for disaster. He looked on lovingly, almost obessively, as another of his daughters, a virgin 20-year-old dressed in a frothy white ballet costume made of ankle-length tulle, marshalled dozens of under-12 virgins through a dance that they would perform for their fathers at the ball. They were like miniature Barbies who fantasised daddy as Ken.

Supposedly, a large number of teenage American girls are taking virginity pledges. Yet Wilson admitted that 88 per cent of those who take the pledge break it. So what's the point? Patriarchal control is the point. It's a reaction against equality for women and it seems to be supported not just by chauvinists such as Wilson, but also by mothers who feel bad and guilty about the sexual experiences they themselves had in the days when sex before marriage was acceptable.

They seem determined to reinvent themselves as the mothers of virgins and to punish daughters who stray. Treays interviewed Jessica, who had promised to remain a virgin but fell from grace when she got pregnant by her boyfriend. A miscarriage pre-empted a shotgun wedding and now she is living in sin with another man and says she is happy, although her mother has rejected her and tells her boyfriend that he's going straight to hell.

It's not a huge jump to think back to the oppression of women by our own Catholic patriarchy and of the punishment meted out to those who strayed - Magdalen laundries and such. This recent right-wing American trend also, ironically, brings to mind the excesses of the Muslim world, where virginity until marriage, and arranged marriage, are fundamental tenets for some parents. Daughters reject such tenets at their peril.

But what really creeped me out about The Virgin Daughterswas the right that these fathers believe they have to enter their young daughters' emotional and sexual lives. In normal situations, girls have difficulty speaking with their mothers about sex, never mind their fathers. While Wilson denied it when asked, isn't a father interfering in his daughters' sexuality a form of incest? I think it is. No wonder 88 per cent of girls break their pledge.