NBC's Today Show Labels Purity Movement 'Controversial'

Is it “controversial” for parents to want their teenaged daughters to maintain their sexual purity? 

The concept of children remaining pure until they reach adulthood is apparently alien to the producers at NBC's Today Show.  On their March 16, 2007 broadcast, they slapped a graphic saying “Controversy” on a story about the Purity Ball movement, which encourages teenaged girls to wait for marriage.

As if signaling disapproval of the movement, host Matt Lauer teased the story by stating that six out of ten girls have sexual intercourse by the time they are 18. 

Purity Balls are father-daughter dances celebrating moral purity.  Abstinence until marriage is the focus for the girls, and living morally upright lives the focus for the dads.  According to the Today Show, the Purity Ball movement has moved beyond the evangelical Christian community and entered the American cultural mainstream.

For the most part, the Today Show treated the Purity Ball movement respectfully.  The reporter interviewed Leslee Unruh, founder of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, as well as a father who was escorting his two daughters to a Purity Ball.  The daughters were allowed to say what the event – and the pledge of purity – meant to them. 

However, the producers decided to provide “balance” by including a statement by Shelby Knox, a feminist critic of the movement who had made a purity pledge at age 15.  Knox described the movement as girls being told they are under their father's control until they are married, when they come under the control of their husbands.  The producers further challenged the Purity Ball movement by reporting that 88 percent of girls who make an abstinence vow will lose their virginity before they are married.

After running a taped feature on Purity Balls, the Today Show hosted a live exchange between Ms. Knox and Randy Wilson, father of five daughters and the founder of Father/Daughter Purity Balls in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  

Mr. Wilson contended that the Purity Balls were really designed to build the vital father-daughter relationship, with fathers taking leadership by guiding and informing their daughters' decisions throughout their lives.  He acknowledged that 88 percent of girls who take a purity pledge would fail to keep the pledge until marriage, but placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of fathers who neglect to guide their daughters in decisions about relationships.

Ms. Knox jumped on the word “fail,” and claimed that if a girl makes a “responsible,” “educated” choice to have premarital sex, she hasn't failed, and “everyone should respect that.” 

Graphics overlying the in-studio debate painted an encouraging picture, reporting that the total number of high schoolers who say they've had sex has dropped from 51 percent in 1991 to 47 percent in 2003.  The teenage birth rate is also down. 

Overall, the Today Show story treated traditional values fairly.  However, the producers' decision to cast the story as a “controversy” is puzzling, unless they believe that teens will have sex regardless, so that any call to live to a higher moral standard is, well, controversial.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute (www.cultureandmediainstitute.org), a division of the Media Research Center.