Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
True Love Weights

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Slipping the ring off her finger, Julie gave it to her mother for safekeeping while she swam with my kids. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it except her mother beamed and showed me the “True Love Waits” silver band saying, “It’s her purity ring. Her dad gave it to her when she turned 13.”

Later my daughter Maya, 14, asked me about Julie’s ring.

“Well, I believe it’s called a chastity ring or an abstinence ring. It’s her promise not to have sex until she’s married.” I said.

Maya’s face squinched, “You are joking, right?”

No, not joking. I did a little research to make sure I had my facts straight about the rings. According to Purity Rings online, “Purity rings really got their start in the 1990s when the Bush administration began promoting safe sex and STD/STI prevention/protection.” The government also dedicated over a million dollars to the initiative.

Purity rings are typically worn on the left hand, which signifies the desire to abstain from sex until marriage. Once the individual is married, it is replaced with a wedding band.

“I just feel like it’s unrealistic to promise something like that when you just don’t know what the future holds,” Maya said.

It seems she’s right when you look at the evidence. Ring or no ring, most teens will break their pledge before they marry. The Center for Disease Control states that nearly half of high school students (47.4%) have engaged in sexual intercourse (2011 survey). In addition there is no statistical difference in the number of purity promisers vs. non-promisers in STD/STI contraction.

My friend Laurie, an HIV and sexual health educator, said she based her opinion about purity rings on who is promised the abstinence. Is it parents or the partner? Two teen partners promising to abstain from sex until marriage is one thing. It’s mutual; it’s a choice. But parents asking a daughter or son to make that promise is more complicated.

Laurie said, “I think purity rings as a gift send a mixed message.  On the one hand, I think it's very important for parents and other caring adults to be clear about their own values and expectations, but there are a couple of potential pitfalls with gifting a promise ring to one's child.  If the teen decides to be sexually active at some point, I think there's a good likelihood of them experiencing some shame related to their decision and it closes the door to communication. How in the world would a teen talk to either parent about the possibility of having sex if they know their parent considers it a non-option?  And we want teens talking to their parents!”

Both my teenage son and daughter attended Our Whole Lives (OWL) sexuality education as fourth/fifth graders and then again in middle school for a 26-week program as a part of the youth offerings at our Unitarian Universalist church. The repeated message in their sex education was abstinence from vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse is the only 100% effective way to prevent HIV, other STDs, and pregnancy. However, they also focused on the values of self worth, sexual health, responsibility, justice and inclusivity. The up-to-date information was balanced with activities to help the teens clarify their values and improve their decision-making skills.

Families like Julie’s ask her to make this pledge, "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, those I date, and my future mate to be sexually pure until the day I enter marriage," yet they don’t access education programs because as Julie’s mom says, “You are educating kids to be promiscuous.”

Oh, the ol’ if-we-don’t-talk-about-it-kids-won’t-do-it approach. The equation of education equals promiscuity is bizarre to me. Giving accurate information opens up choices, invites personal responsibility, and prevents kids from being taken advantage of. Sex education contextualizes the information bombarding teens today. For example, although Maya likes the rhythm of the chart topper “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, my daughter questions whether the lyrics are date rape propaganda:

I hate these blurred lines

I know you want it

I hate them lines

I know you want it

But you’re a good girl

The way you grab me

Must wanna get nasty

 I want sexual literacy of date rape, gender identity, masturbation myths and more for my children; I also want it for their friends and future partners.

I ask myself, do I expect my children to be abstinent until marriage? No. There are practical reasons. Americans are getting married later and later (the average age is 27 for women and 29 for men). I don’t want my children rushing into a commitment for the purpose of having sex. Sexual compatibility is also important. Most partnered adults are intimate more than we brush our teeth (based on dentist-recommended two minutes a day, twice a day—28 minutes a week).  Chemistry is to an intimate relationship what toothpaste is to brushing—without it things can be pretty dry. Open communication is important in a relationship; so is good sex. I hope my children will have partners who “get” them—emotionally, physically, and sexually.

Beyond the age limit of too-young-to-know-better, I care less about when my children choose to be sexually active and more about the why (part of a loving relationship) and the how (protected) they are having sex. Why not give rings to our teens that are symbolic of being smart, being strong and being good decision-makers? In the absence of government funding, a piece of symbolic jewelry, a “true love waits” motto and pledge, I offer my kids my truth, accurate information, inclusion in sex education programs, open communication and trust. It’s not fancy or layered with shame. Which is why it is more likely to work.

Heather Cori teaches writers and teachers of young writers in the Pacific Northwest where she lives with her husband and three children. Her published writing career began eight years ago when her husband dared her to try to publish her work with Mothering Magazine. When her first article was retained and later went to print she admitted he was right and then set out to continue to tell her stories. Her personal writing has been featured in Living Without, Midwifery Today and The Sun. Archives of her column “So…” are available at Mamazine.

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Great essay! I've been inspired by this, and your earlier articles, to find a UU church in my new neighborhood and explore the OWL program for my daughter. My friends and I were raised like Julie and it left us ill-equipped to make responsible decisions re: relationships/sex. I look forward to reading more of your work.
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