Growing up, Sara Moslener believed premarital sex was wrong and abstinence the only option. At the urging of her evangelical teachers and mentors, she marched against abortion and wrote letters to the editor of her local newspaper. “I knew, as an evangelical adolescent, that I had a political role to play,” she told Women in the World in a phone interview. “The movement has deliberately worked to politicize adolescents. They did it in a very sophisticated way. I remember what that feels like, and it’s taken me 20 years to be able to talk about it.”
In her new book, Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence, Moslener — now a sociologist and professor at Central Michigan University — turns an academic lens on a topic of personal as well as national significance. Over the past two decades, millions of teenagers, most of them in the U.S., have pledged in writing to remain abstinent until marriage — and Moslener argues that it’s more about politics than about sex. She hones in on the tactics and messages of two of the biggest and most effective virginity pledge groups: True Love Waits, which was founded in 1993 by Southern Baptists, and Silver Ring Thing, established two years later by an evangelical pastor from Arizona.
Women in the World: Why is there such a focus on purity right now, among the religious right?
Sara Moslener: Most people look at this as a reaction to what they understand to be the excesses of the sexual revolution — Roe v. Wade, gay rights, feminism. [It starts] with the rise of the religious right in the early 1980s.
But there are three significant moments in the history of the purity movement. In the late nineteenth century, there was the social purity movement. The same rhetoric emerges in the 1940s and 1950s in the anticommunist rhetoric of Christian fundamentalism, and then again in the 1970s, with the rise of the religious right. They are all connecting the welfare of the nation state to sexual purity. In the nineteenth century it had to do with racial purity, in the 1950s it had to do with protecting the country from communism, and in the 1970s it had to do with protecting the family from sexual immorality.
The contemporary movement took shape in debates about sex education. In the 1980s, families would give young people some kind of token — a necklace or ring — as a way to show their commitment. It came out of a very fear-based concern that sexual mores were changing — that we needed to do something. It was in the 1980s that they [the leaders of the religious right] started to make a grassroots effort to get adolescents to understand themselves as political actors. Oftentimes they use the same language that LGBT activists use, in terms of coming out and having a sexual identity that deserves respect.
Prior to that, people like [evangelical televangelist] Jerry Falwell and [anti-gay activist] Anita Bryant used the rhetoric of childhood. Bryant led an organization called “Save Our Children,” which situated young people as the most “victimized” by sexual threats. Falwell often talked about sparing little children, protecting them.
WITW: Why did you focus on these two groups?
SM: True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing are the largest and most prominent organizations. They both have had international impact. They both have published a great deal. They both have published Bibles themed around the concept of sexual purity.
They have different strategies. True Love Waits does large national displays of pledge cards. They did the one in DC, where they posted pledge cards on the National Mall. They did one where they launched cards across the Golden Gate Bridge. They did one in Atlanta where they stacked cards through the roof of a sports complex. These events show the vast number of people who have made the pledge.
The Silver Ring Thing is a traveling road show. They have a primary location in Pittsburgh, and they travel throughout the country — and sometimes out of the country — to stage these shows.
The height of excitement is the “heart-board ceremony.” This is a skit where someone from Silver Ring Thing asks for four volunteers. Every time I’ve seen it, it’s been three young women and one young man. There’s a romantic narrative. They say that each of us is incomplete until we meet our other half; we each have half a heart. The young man is given his half a heart [represented by a heart drawn on a wooden board] and told he’s dating one of the young women; things go “too far” and they break up. The same thing happens with the next one and the next one.
The Silver Ring Thing representative says, “Now we’re going to show you what happens.” They put the board [representing the man’s heart] in a vise. Everything is really quiet. Then, suddenly, heavy metal music starts playing, there are pyrotechnics, sparks everywhere. Someone comes out with a chainsaw, wearing a mask. The audience is screaming and the chainsaw starts hacking away at the heart-board. The host comes back at the end and gives a piece of the man’s heart-board to each young woman, and then gives the remaining piece to the young man, and says, “This is what you will take with you when you get married.” It’s a very clear message that something within you is destroyed when you have a sexual relationship.
WITW: How old are these kids?
SM: I’ve seen them as young as 11 and as old as college-age. Eleven is what they consider the ideal age. I haven’t done much work with purity balls, but the girls there are very, very young — some as young as five or six.
WITW: Is there any difference in how boys and girls are treated in this process?
SM: It’s assumed that boys have raging hormones that need to be controlled in a way that’s different than girls. They’re very aware that they have to work harder — and do work harder — to attract boys and young men. Sometimes that means not using the word “purity” at all, because it’s too girly. I think the chainsaw thing is meant to appeal to what they understand guys to be into.
WITW: How do these groups deal with homosexuality?
SM: True Love Waits has a book called Answering Your Questions About Homosexuality, which goes even to the point of saying, “Be careful in your relationships with your same sex friends. Have physical boundaries.”
When I went to Silver Ring Thing, they said some things that were actually kind of homophobic. Someone made a joke about wanting to see Brokeback Mountain, and this idea that it might “turn you gay.” It’s pretty clear that their approach to sexual purity is something that can only be lived out by people who are heterosexual.
WITW: Are they actually effective at preventing teenagers from having sex?
SM: One thing we know is that the states that are the most conservative, in terms of sex education, have the highest pregnancy rates. Those with the more progressive kinds of sex education in schools have the lowest pregnancy rates.
In one of the first studies that came out, a couple of sociologists found that people who take the pledge tend to have sex, on average, two years later than those who don’t. Initially that was a big victory, seemingly, but the next study that came out showed that a number of those pledgers retracted the pledge — and then when they did have sex, they were less likely to practice safe sex and more likely to engage in unsafe forms of sex.
The evidence is very clear, but to them it doesn’t matter. It’s not about whether or not they get government support, whether or not they’re popular in the media. They believe they are doing what God has commanded.
This interview has been edited and condensed.