The topic of female sexuality never ceases to incite fear and outrage, from the biblical Eve to the mythological Medusa, whose phallic snakes coil about her face like hair. Too often, it seems to be up to male storytellers, artists, and philosophers to define a woman’s sex and the female body. We’re morally judged if we choose to be sexually active, and we are similarly shamed if we choose to abstain. When the photographer David Magnusson first read about purity balls— ceremonies in which girls pledge to remain virgins until marriage and fathers, concerningly referred to as “High Priest of the home and family,” promise to preserve their daughter’s physical “purity—” he was uncomfortable and disturbed.
He felt drawn to the ritual, presumably by a combination of fascination and repulsion, and he travelled to Texas, Colorado, Louisiana, and Arizona to photograph the participating girls and their fathers. On his journey, the artist witnesses some unsettling things; “You are married to the Lord and your father is your boyfriend,” said one father to his child. The images capture their subjects un-coached; the protective (or possessive, depending upon how you read it) fathers’ embraces envelop teen girls of various ages, all decked out in modest formal wear. One girl wears a dress greatly resembling a wedding gown, her fathers hands gently resting on her white bolero.
From the outside looking in, these rituals feel terribly creepy and morally unacceptable, seeming to imply both that sex is "impure" and that a woman’s body belongs to her father and then to her husband. But Magnusson found unexpected independence and strength of spirit in his young female subjects; in some of the fathers, a few of whom knew nothing of purity balls until their daughters requested that they participate, he saw genuine respect.
The images remain pointedly ambiguous, and they disallow us from making judgements or generalizations. In some young women, we might detect traces of discomfort, and that’s painful to see, but in others, the girls’ own deliberation and thoughtfulness shine through. Perhaps in a roundabout and controversial way, some of these teens are claiming their own bodies in the only way available to them. In these images, they might express their complex feelings about virginity. Magnusson explains that the photographs are at the mercy of each viewer; we may take from them what we will.
Sex is certainly not "impure," and I personally tend to feel uncomfortable gazing upon these images, although each is nuanced and colored by cultural norms I cannot pretend to understand. These questionable purity balls are a reality for countless girls, and the series raises important questions: in a world where female bodies are analyzed and judged, how are young women encouraged to reclaim our sexuality? Are these rituals purely oppressive, or do they allow for some surprising assertion of the female self? From these images, it’s entirely unclear, but one thing is for sure: our bodies are our own, not our fathers' or anyone else's, and the choices that concern it are ours (and ours alone) to make.
Magnusson's book Purity will hit shelves in August.