Terence Blacker: A ring of ignorance, hypocrisy and stupidity

A girl's public announcement of her chastity will rarely, if ever, act as a deterrent to boys with designs on it
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The Independent Online

The corruption of childhood is now pretty much a fact of modern life. The adult world, through films, music, fashion, magazines and newspapers, has elected to share its various self-indulgent obsessions with the young so that, while the age of consent has remained the same, the age of knowledge has been hurtling down the years towards infancy. The wolf, perhaps best represented by the vulpine figure of Hugh Hefner, whose Playboy brand is now marketed to children, is through the gates and in the school playground.

All the same, it is difficult not to feel shocked by the new fashion, popular with certain parents, of advertising their daughters' chastity through so-called "purity rings". There may be one or two mitigating factors here- religious fervour, a general sense of moral threat, fear of the modern world - but, in the end, sexual exhibitionism is the same, whether the boast is of promiscuity or of purity, and it has no place among girls in their early teens.

Silver purity rings are available to girls who are aged between 11 and 18, and whose fundamental religious beliefs have led them to make a vow of premarital chastity (boys, mysteriously, seem to play little part in the scheme). Pioneered by an American organisation which goes by the teen-friendly title of The Silver Ring Thing, the campaign involves three-hour presentations to children during which, along with comedy routines and a rap anthem ("Oh no, don't give it away" is the chorus), young audiences are warned of the many terrible diseases which can be caused by teenage sex. At the end of it all, the famous silver ring can be acquired with a small amount of money and a very big promise: to avoid sex until marriage. Then, on that magical night, perhaps many years hence, it can be solemnly handed to a husband. On the ring there is engraved a reference to the quote from St Paul's Letter to the Thessalonians, which is the biblical foundation of the purity movement: "For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye shall abstain from fornication: That every one of you shall know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour."

The startling news that there are British teenagers who have vowed to keep their vessels in sanctification and honour comes from an all-girl comprehensive school in west Sussex, which has had problems with its younger pupils and their purity rings. Bravely, the headteacher ruled that the rings fell within guidelines concerning religious uniform, and banned them. The girls persisted. There have been detentions; the offending chastity campaigners have had to be taught separately from their school-mates. Inevitably, non-virgin parents have become involved and have complained to the press. A group of pure-minded 15-year-olds have posed for photographs.

Here is one of those small-but-significant stories, where different varieties of ignorance, hypocrisy and stupidity intersect. When the Reverend Denny Pattyn launched The Silver Ring Thing in Pittsburgh 11 years ago, he announced that it would offer teenagers "protection from the destructive effects of America's sex-obsessed culture". It may be that this man of God is unusually innocent or stupid, but even so, someone, perhaps one of the teenagers he cares so much about, should surely have taken him aside to explain that a girl wearing a virginity ring on her finger will not think less about sex, but more; its presence sexualises her everyday life.

It has precisely the same effect on the opposite sex. Regrettable as it may seem to the Reverend Pattyn and the God-fearing parents of west Sussex, a girl's public announcement of her chastity will rarely, if ever, act as a deterrent to boys who may have designs on it. After all, Britney Spears built a career around a sexy, virginity-based marketing campaign. The findings of a survey into chastity pledges, conducted by Yale and Columbia universities, will surprise few: in almost nine out of 10 cases, the vow was broken.

Often the behaviour of concerned grown-ups, expressing their own anxieties and neuroses by meddling in the lives of the young, does as much harm as that of those who push adult values for profit. In this case, there is more at stake than the fact that levels of confusion and guilt will be ratcheted up during vulnerable teenage years. A central part of the Silver Ring Thing's message is that safe sex is a contradiction in terms, condoms are unreliable. So when the vows are broken, the effects can be unusually disastrous. In fact, the purity campaign actually increases the risk of disease and accidental pregnancy among teenagers.

As a story of moral panic, this has a truly contemporary feel. There are accusations of religious intolerance and bias against Christianity, with claims that the school allows Muslim girls to cover their heads, Sikhs to wear the Kara bangle. The middle-brow newspapers have whipped themselves up into a state of outrage. The obligatory Tory MP, of whom no one has ever heard, has become involved. We need only a few references to political correctness, human rights or an EU directive for the affair to become the perfect story of contemporary decline for middle England.

But the headmaster's stand against his school's purity campaigners was correct. Morality is a private matter, not an excuse for self-marketing and boastfulness. Life for teenagers is confusing enough without a virginity craze sweeping the kingdom.