Christian Kitsch #2: Purity Rings
I admit that I struggled over what kind of Christian kitsch to examine after my inaugural post on Archie’s Sonshine went so well. There is such a grotesque excess of these objects in existence that deciding on a second post proved more difficult than I imagined. Spending some time contemplating Christian kitsch with less innate humor, however, has proved productive since it requires more delicacy and care in the composition and editing processes. I relish a challenge, and thus elected purity rings as my next subject. The practice of wearing purity rings originated in the 1990s among evangelical circles. In my estimation, it’s another outgrowth both of Christian right social “values” policing and their growing obsession with youth. People in their teens have been having sex since ancient times, but through most of history were usually married by the onset of sexual maturity, especially women. Youthful marriages are, of course, not just an ancient relic but a living reality today. In Western countries and others that have reached an advanced stage of consumer capitalism, however, marriage tends to be delayed if it is ever enacted. Marriage has become a status symbol for middle class economic stability in the United States, and that means people are waiting until they have completed their educations and attained stable career jobs before marrying. By implication, this means that many people in the working classes are not marrying at all, contributing to higher rates of single parenthood and births in non-married relationships. These are neither good nor bad social shifts, but they are indications of a society that seemingly cannot conceive of marriage and family apart from class and economic achievement.
The upshot of this is that young people are going through their lives without marrying until their late 20s and even early 30s. The average age of marriage in the United States is now 29 for men and 27 for women. Puberty now begins in girls and boys sometimes before they reach double-digit ages. That means young adults are living as sexually mature bodies for over a decade or even two before they get married. In a conservative community where [heterosexual] marriage is seen as the only proper sanction for sexual relations, this presents a conundrum. Young Christians have to deal with “temptations” for a far, far longer time than their parents and especially their grandparents did. One way of coping with this social evolution is the abstinence pledge, which is essentially a vow of celibacy until your future spouse and you are married. Unsurprisingly, these pledges, and the kitsch rings people wear as a sign of them, are only marginally effective at delaying vaginal intercourse and not at all effective at stemming sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies. It’s well-known that abstinence-only education is utterly useless and those states in America which practice it also have the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancies. However, people continue to buy them, and there are numerous apparently thriving markets for them on the Internet.
As a tiger, it would seem the solution would be to recognize that prohibitions on sexual relations before marriage originated because they had detrimental consequences for mother and child, and now that these can be easily avoided with birth control it should be reevaluated and probably dropped altogether. Not teaching people about effective means of birth control only compounds the problem of unwanted and damaging pregnancies, and marriage is neither necessary nor sufficient in my eyes for moral sexual expressions, though it can certainly be helpful. Sermon over.
Because purity rings can serve as a worn symbol of a (purportedly) sincere religious vow of chastity, their status as kitsch might at first seem ambiguous at best. Just because something is a purchasable commodity does not, in itself, designate it as kitsch. Communion wafers used in Catholic Eucharist are not kitsch, though companies undoubtedly profit from supplying them to the Roman Church. With that noted, however, I believe that purity rings qualify under my general criteria for kitsch. They do not in any way resist easy consumption, serve as markers of an identity, and serve as an uncritical and self-assuring reminder of one’ belonging in a certain community without challenging any norms of the people around them. One could argue back that a Christian abstinence pledge can generate conflict and challenges some aspect of the status quo, but my suspicion is that those who purchase these rings have children who are involved in some kind of church community. Since I suspect it is largely parents to whom these rings are marketed and sold, I believe that these are also prime gift items, especially for sixteenth birthdays and other cultural “coming-of-age” occasions. So here we have items that are purchasable commodities, heavily marketed and stylized, replace secular jewelry products, and broadcast a compressed “Christian” identity marker (abstinence) without requiring a real commitment. Therefore: kitsch.
Another notable aspect of purity rings is their totemic quality. Their function is at least in part analogous to that served by lucky rabbits’ feet and horseshoes. The ring is not purchased so much for its beauty or intrinsic or economic value but rather for a certain symbolic and even magical value they are supposed to have. Protecting (largely) young women from perceived sexual temptation is a primary motivation for many people to buy them. The ring is meant to be an easily-worn, relatively inexpensive symbol of God’s omniscience. Big Brother God is watching you from heaven, dear one, so you had better keep in line. It’s a form of indirect divine, and parental, supervision. Now, if the rings could actually give you an electric shock, they would be practical. And if you’re that worried about the status and position of your offspring’s genitals, you should find a solid chastity belt with a GPS attached. It would at least let your children know how much you care.
Purity rings are fairly unremarkable as objects. They tend to be inexpensive–around $20-$30–and relatively inconspicuous, so the only way most people are going to know what they are is if the wearer lets them in on it. Sterling silver is a popular material, and engravings tend to be pro-abstinence slogans like references to Bible verses or pithy phrases like “true love waits.” Other popular engravings include flower buds and more generic Christian symbols like the ICHTHYS fish, crosses, and hearts. They are sold to both genders, and reflect their intended gender rather directly. You won’t find floral inscriptions on guys’ rings, and the male rings tend to be simpler, lack stones, and emphasize black. Rings for men often feature phrases that include references to the “armor of God” or war and conflict. Women’s rings emphasize patient endurance and a more passive posture, which is unsurprising given the regressive sexuality and gender norms at work in the entire idea of a purity ring. Even worse, organizations that distribute these products, such as the Silver Ring Thing (which got federal money to promote its message), promote the idea of abstinence until marriage with promises that sex after tying the knot will be so perfect the Marquis de Sade would be blinded by the sheer heavenly radiance of its pleasures. Of course, this is nonsense, but as we discussed earlier, part of the culture that produces Christian kitsch is its willingness to say anything to promote its message and sell product. If someone doesn’t want to have sex until marriage, they should not be subject to undue pressure. Making it an iron moral requirement for “purity” seems a recipe for personal disaster, however, and creating a market around exploiting paranoid Christian parents’ worries about their daughters’ vaginas is especially pernicious.
Next time, we’ll be covering something slightly less depressing: Christian parody T-shirts. More jokes incoming, I promise.
Links for more on purity culture: