There was a time when MTV was about sex and rebellion, when the hottest accessories worn to the Video Music Awards were Madonna's boy-toy belt or Lil' Kim's exposed breast. This year, however, every shaggy-haired boy-bander, Disney princess and American Idol reject rocked something more fitting for a church picnic than a nationally-televised celebration of pop culture: a promise ring, a symbol of faith-based sexual abstinence and a quickly rising trend amongst America's famously over-sexed teens.
Miley Cyrus has one, and so do her lesser-known Disney Channel successors Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato. All three Jonas Brothers wear them, even little Nick, who told Details in February that he "got it made at Disney World. It's awesome."
That very ring was at the center of a controversy at the VMAs on September 7, after host Russell Brand repeatedly mocked the brothers' pledges to abstain until marriage. The jokes went over without dispute until later that evening, when singer Jordin Sparks shot back, saying "it's not bad to wear a promise ring because not everybody, guy or girl, wants to be a slut." Brand quickly apologized. Two days later, MTV news reported purity ring sales were up significantly at a number of different online retailers.
"It's not just what happened on Sunday, but we've seen an uptick in general in the past couple of months," John Cabouch, director of e-commerce operations for PurityRingsOvernight.com, told MTV news two days after the VMAs. "There seems to be a growing interest in this type of ring, and from what we've gleaned, it's just being talked about more in social circles, especially among young people."
In the case of the promise ring, even the act of abstinence, of not doing something, becomes a consumer activity. Due to the marketing efforts of Disney and various faith-based abstinence programs, there are rings to buy and events to attend. Sterling silver and "One Life One Love" t-shirts don't grow on trees. Virginity, like pop-music and family sitcoms, is now a Disney-exported commodity. "Sex Sells" has been turned on its head and now chastity can be yours for the low price of $29.99 on purityrings.com. You, too, can be among the growing masses to wear un-bloomed roses, rhinestone-encrusted crucifixes, gift-wrapped hearts and "True Love Waits" inscriptions on your left ring finger. While nothing about chastity is explicitly Christian, the majority of purity rings sold online bear Christian imagery or Bible verses.
Along with increased sales of chastity paraphernalia, purity rings sell an image of innocence that masks the desire of pop culture critics and consumers to discuss teen sexuality. Without purity rings, the sexuality of a 15-year old pop star would feel off-limits. Slap a ring on Demi Lovatos's jailbait finger and you've got free reign to discuss her sexuality in a way that is both secretly titillating and socially acceptable.
While the social relevance of abstinence is enduring, its largest and most influential contemporary champions began organizing around 1993. True Love Waits, the Christian sex education program (which only came to my attention after Miley Cyrus was photographed prancing down Robertson Boulevard with their name stitched across the back of her yoga pants) actually held their first meeting on January 13, 1993, incidentally the same day Bobby Brown got arrested in Atlanta for simulating a sex act on stage. As mainstream American teenagers sat around in flannel, ogling Alicia Silverstone and watching Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog take the rap world by storm, True Love Waits developed abstinence-only sex education curricula and new ways to reach American teens. The so-called "culture wars" that came to define the 1990s enveloped a new generation and made them foot soldiers in the fight over birth control, sex education and abortion.
As a subsidiary of LifeWay Christian Recourses, a private, for-profit business, True Love Waits is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, although the company owns convention centers, stores and summer camps around the country, in addition to a comprehensive website and a toll-free number, 1-800-LUV-WAIT.
Today, True Love Waits creates abstinence literature and provides counseling to teens questioning their faith or sexuality, but the central function of their program is the 'commitment service' in which they encourage their core demographic to participate. After hymns and a sermon called "Escaping Satan's Web of Deception," students pledge in the form of a responsive reading that delineates the role of parents and ministers, as well as both male and female teens. It ends with a warning from the officiating minister that "sex is an incredible gift within the marriage covenant but it destroys the lives of those outside God's plan."
Riding on the recent success of True Love Waits, purity rings rose to prominence a few years later though the efforts of an initiative called the Silver Ring Thing, started by a minister and his wife in Yuma, Arizona to combat what they saw as a teen sex epidemic in their home town. A far cry from the stern, somber True Love Waits commitment ceremonies, Silver Ring Thing used both private and federal funding to offer roughly the same message through flashy, expensive concerts and festivals targeted at middle school and high school-aged students. This, founder Denny Pattyn asserted, is "the way to reverse the moral decay of youth culture."
They dance and sing, engulfed by club-style sound and laser displays for hours, culminating in a pledge and a purchase: teens must commit to buying a $15 silver ring to remind them each day of the pact they have entered. True to their Evangelical message, Silver Ring Thing's products are inscribed with 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4, which states "God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of all sexual sin. Then each of you will control your body and live in holiness and honor."
On September 9, 2008, Silver Ring Thing drew media attention after the organization's founder gave Meghan McCain, daughter of presidential hopeful John McCain, a ring he hoped she would pass onto Sarah Palin's expectant daughter, 17-year old Bristol, to "let her know we're supporting her and praying for her." Though Bristol's emerging bump is clearly not a product of immaculate conception, it may be the product of her mother's assertion that "explicit sex-ed programs will not find (her) support." Staring down the barrel of a potential McCain-Palin administration, increased funding for family planning seems about as likely as Russell Brand earnestly wearing his own purity ring. In the past, McCain has voted to increase abstinence-only funding, terminate the federal family planning program and cut funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs.
Regardless of the overtly religious messages of many abstinence programs, the federal government has allocated over $1 billion in the past decade to support such groups. Even after studies found abstinence-only programs to be largely unhelpful in decreasing teen pregnancy and rates of sexually transmitted infections, government funding for faith-based abstinence programs has persisted.
After the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Department of Heath and Human Services in 2006, citing that Silver Ring Thing violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, the organization elected to fund its programs entirely through private means. Regardless, the organization is still the fastest growing teen abstinence program in the United States and purity rings and virginity pledges are more common and more discussed than ever.
Seductive, isn't it? In a world where even our child stars and political daughters can be teen moms, we can just buy a young adult's health and morality. Just as Walmart ads this past August assured mothers that buying their clothing could save their young daughter's social life, purity rings can salvage her reputation and soul. After a new car and thousands of dollars worth of orthodontia, what's 15 bucks to save her future? This same sentiment is shared by one of the most influential moralists of our time: "I want to follow what the Bible says," Miley Cyrus told her mother at age 12, "Would you buy me this ring?"
My best friend Leslie says, "She's just bein' MARISA CALLEJA B'10."