Power to the pure
By DAVID BARIO Columbia News Service | March 29,2005
SERENA HEDISON / COLUMBIA NEWS SERVICE
Carrie McLemore, who turns 18 this month, proudly shows off the purity ring she's worn for almost five years as a promise to her father.
NEW YORK — Lots of parents wish they could keep a constant eye on their teenage kids. Jack McLemore, a Mississippi jeweler, came up with an alternative for his daughter Carrie.
In the platinum ring he made for Carrie when she was 13, two sapphires represent his watchful eyes, guarding her virginity until the day she marries.
Carrie has been wearing the ring every day since. At nearly 18, she is proud to say that she hasn't let her father down.
"I believe sex is meant for marriage," says Carrie, an actress who lives in Manhattan with her mother. "I want to save myself emotionally and physically for whoever I spend the rest of my life with."
Carrie's ring may be one-of-a-kind, but "purity rings" have become something of a craze. The number of Web sites and shops selling purity rings has exploded over the last decade. Often motivated by religious faith and by government-funded abstinence programs, more than one in eight American adolescents has made a virginity pledge, sociologists have found. But experts on teen sexuality say that, ring or no ring, most teens will break their pledge before they tie the knot.
Many parents are now buying purity rings for their adolescent children. Twelve-year-old Paige Palazzolo recently got a pink-and-white rhinestone ring from her mother. Paige stood before her congregation at a purity ring ceremony at their Southern Baptist church in Chino, Calif., and read from the book of Timothy: "Flee also youthful lust, but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart."
Paige's mother, Robin, hopes that the ring will help her daughter resist temptation. Paige has her own reasons for wearing the ring. "I like it because it has pink in it, and pink is my favorite color," she says.
Other young people decide to wear purity rings in high school or college, when many of their peers are flaunting their sexuality and opting for belly button rings instead. Sam Chey was a sophomore in college when he participated in a four-week course organized by True Love Waits, a national abstinence organization that distributes purity rings to students. His friends on the wrestling team were having sex. Chey saw abstinence as a way to rebel.
Now a 25-year-old English teacher in northwest New Jersey, Chey prefers the name "chastity ring" for the silver band he wears on his left hand. "Because it looks like a wedding ring, it's almost like a safeguard," says Chey, a devout Catholic. "If a woman comes up to me, her first thought isn't that I might be available for sex."
Purity rings are also popular among "secondary virgins," the abstinence movement's name for people who have already had sex but have made a pledge to give it up until marriage. When he got his purity ring through his Baptist church at 17, Robert Stewart was no virgin. Seven years later, Stewart has a girlfriend who shares his commitment to wait and is working to promote abstinence in Philadelphia, though he says it hasn't been easy.
"I'm a regular healthy young guy," Stewart says. "But my ring is like a promise I made to myself."
Vendors say they have seen a continual growth in purity ring sales since Southern Baptist organizations began actively promoting them in the early 1990s. Trisha Magaw, founder and president of Wanting an Individual to Trust, or WAITT, began selling purity rings out of the trunk of her car at abstinence conferences in the late 1990s. Now she sells them by the thousands through her Web site, www.waitt.org.
Under the Bush administration, organizations that promote abstinence and encourage teens to sign virginity pledges or wear purity rings have received federal grants. The Silver Ring Thing, a subsidiary of a Pennsylvania evangelical church, has received more than $1 million from the government to promote abstinence and to sell its rings in the United States and abroad.
According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, the federal budget in 2005 allocates $168 million to abstinence-only education. President Bush is seeking $206 million for 2006.
While proponents of abstinence-only education claim that virginity pledges help to fight teen pregnancy, many researchers are skeptical. Cynthia Dailard, a senior public policy associate at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on reproductive health, says that there is no reliable evidence that abstinence-only programs reduce teen pregnancy or the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
In a 2001 study published in the American Journal of Sociology, Peter Bearman, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, found that only 12 percent of the more than 2.5 million adolescents who had made a virginity pledge by 1995 remained abstinent until marriage. Abstinence pledges do delay sex for an average of 18 months, Bearman found, but those who break their pledges are a third less likely to use protection.
Pledgers are less likely to be prepared for an experience that they have promised to forgo, the study found.
Bearman believes that virginity pledges and purity ring programs are only successful to the degree that they give young people a sense of identity and make them feel like part of a distinct community.
"If you make it a national policy, it's bound to fail," he says. "This is not a policy that can work for all kids."
Jack McLemore, on a visit to New York for Valentines Day, was surprised to learn that purity rings had become a nationwide phenomenon. He likes to think that his daughter's ring helped her resist the temptations of sex as she pursued her acting career far from Mississippi.
"I just thought it was a good idea to have my presence there with her in some form," he says. "I never thought there would be a 1-800 number where you could call and order one for $15."