When you hear the phrase “purity ball,” you may envision scores of platinum blonde prom queens in Savannah, Georgia, or Shreveport, Louisiana, giddily promising undying loyalty. Not to their football-hero counterparts, but to Jesus, by way of their fathers, who ceremonially present them with purity rings designed to keep them chaste.
That scene was nowhere in evidence on an overcast Saturday morning in late January at the local civic center in Crockett, Texas, a small town just less than two hours north of Houston. (That is, if you drive fast, without stopping for even a single gas station bag of Buc-ee’s Beaver Nuggets.) The second annual Purity & Promises Girls Conference, which seeks to bring local girls ages seven through 18 together with their mothers—“or guardians,” the Eventbrite invitation noted—for a day of bonding, is about to commence in a balloon-bedecked conference room.
Inside the building, a chagrined-looking teen confides in conference volunteer and local minister Charlana Kelly about a personal matter that requires her immediate presence. Kelly listens patiently before sending the teen off with a hug and a prayer, telling me jovially, “We don’t do anything without praying here.” As cars full of mothers and daughters descend upon the parking lot, some of Crockett’s best-known local figures—including its current mayor, Ianthia Fisher, the first black woman elected to the office—mingle outside.
When we step into an empty office to talk, Fisher brings up Crockett’s complex racial history almost immediately. Founded in 1837, the city was used as a training center for Confederate conscripts during the Civil War. Today, Crockett has just more than 6,500 citizens, about 45% of whom are black, and even Fisher’s groundbreaking election last May couldn’t soothe the long-present racial friction that was brought to a head, Fisher says, by the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
In 2018, Crockett resident and City Council member Darrell Jones, who is black, called Fisher’s predecessor, a white woman named Joni Clonts, “a racist” at a public City Council meeting—she denied it—and in turn received racist hate mail himself. “We were in the midst of a lot of racial tension at the beginning of last year,” Fisher says matter-of-factly. “From the outside, I know it looks ugly, but this is my home,” says Fisher, adding, “I spent 31 years in public education in this town, so I know these people. It’s not what it appears to be.”
Some of Crockett’s racial unrest stems from its economic inequities: The city ranked among the U.S.’s 20 poorest in 2018, and the unemployment rate for black residents is nearly triple that of white residents. All this adds up to few employment opportunities or publicly funded after-school programs for young women of color in Crockett, which might help to explain why the Purity & Promises Girls Conference drew so many of them and their mothers—not to mention the mayor—to the civic center on a Saturday.
Another, more immediate other draw of the conference was its organizer, 32-year-old Jessica James, founder of the faith-based nonprofit Girls With Purpose. Raised in Crockett and personally mentored by Fisher, James now lives in Houston but maintains relationships with what appeared to be half of the local mothers and daughters filling the conference room. Crockett is a formative part of her identity—“I’ve traveled in my life, but every time I drive in on Highway 19, I take a deep breath and I feel calm,” she tells me—and she, in turn, has become an inextricable part of the city’s DNA.
Everyone I speak to this Saturday has a “Jessica story,” from a mother who tells me they attended grade school together to a pair of teen girls who recount how James helped them find therapy options. One 17-year-old, who was at the conference with her mother selling handmade shirts emblazoned with empowerment slogans, including “I AM...Incredible,” says James’s event was “not just about being Christian: It’s about purity as a way of life that can help you escape from peer pressure.”
James herself is everywhere the day of the conference: at the podium, helping local vendors set up, corralling young children and welcoming their mothers in the same breath. James is a proudly religious woman, but she’s quick to note that her event—which is aimed at and attended almost entirely by young women of color—was, according to James and the vendors present, 80% community-funded by local donors and received no money from any federal source.
The local specificity of the conference is clear from its kickoff, which features a proclamation dedicated to Maleah Davis, a four-year-old black girl from Houston who was killed over the summer. Some of the smallest attendees, younger even than Davis had been, chirp from their mothers’ arms during the moment of silence, but older girls honor it without a trace of teenage irony.
The irony comes back in full force, though, when James divides the attendees by age, separating girls ages 7 to 12 from girls 13 and older, while, in another room, their mothers hear from local experts—including Houston County Attorney Daphne Lynette Session—about how to keep their daughters safe from the dangers of sexting and teen dating violence. “Who among us made good decisions when we were 17?” asks Session, to general laughter and nodding.
For the mothers of girls younger than 13, the day served primarily as an opportunity for bonding and confidence-building. One young mother who had attended the inaugural conference the previous year, says the experience made it easier to talk to her 11-year-old daughter in general, not just about sex: “She becomes even more open: ‘Mom, let me tell you what happened today!’”
Back in the main conference room, the first speaker for the over-13 set is a representative from the Christian nonprofit Abstinence Inspires Millions, whose youth-culture references include asking the girls, “Do Cardi B’s songs represent purity? No,” and telling them to say no to sex “even if a guy looks like Drake.” When James takes the stage, though, things change. She speaks about the importance of “mental purity,” which she explains as asking for help when you need it and not relying too much on social media; and “purity of diet”: eating healthy foods that help you grow.
When a question finally comes from the audience about sexual purity, Jessica is firm: “We are not forcing, nor are we trying to make you, abstain from sex, because that’s not everybody’s story in this room. I want to make that clear to everyone here, and to our mothers. Taking that vow is an option, and you don’t have to publicly say it. It’s between you and God.”
For all its potential benefits, it can’t be avoided that the purity model is a complicated one, all the more so for communities of color. What we today call purity culture is a movement that grew out of white evangelical churches in the 1990s: Pure memoirist Linda Kay Klein describes purity culture as being “all about how [a woman] needed to be a good Christian by protecting [boys] from the threat that is you—the threat that is your body. The threat that is your sexuality."
“Purity culture wasn’t designed with us in mind, but we still feel responsible for upholding it,” says Laura P., the founder of the No Shame Movement, which describes itself as “a platform for sharing stories of leaving behind conservative Christian beliefs about sexuality.” Laura P., who grew up in a largely white Southern evangelical community and chooses not to disclose her last name for professional reasons, says her interest in undoing the effects of purity culture among black women in particular was sparked by her own experiences, while reading bell hooks’s Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism gave her an added framework for understanding how that group of women are affected.
“Black women have a history of being hypersexualized in media, with the stereotype of the Jezebel and so on, and when I started looking into black women talking about purity, I realized it was sort of a counternarrative to the one that’s been foisted on us,” Laura P. says. “For Latinx women, there’s the ‘spicy Latina’ trope; for Asian women it’s ‘ice queen.’ The stereotype manifests in different ways, but in general, women of color are still sexualized while being held to an unrealistic standard of purity.”
“For many black people, a lot of this purity debate is tied in with respectability,” Laura P. notes, adding that growing up black and middle-class gave her an unique understanding how personal the matter was: “For a lot of women who follow the church’s purity teachings, there’s a sense of ‘It has to be true, because otherwise, what was all of this for?’”
“A lot of purity culture is about confinement and containment versus exploration,” says mental health expert Indhira Udofia. “It creates a passive sexuality for women.” Udofia herself was raised attending a True Love Waits program in North Carolina, and says her work interrogates the ways in which that education, specifically within black church spaces, suppressed what she now recognizes as her queer identity. “But what if it’s two women looking for each other without a man involved?” Udofia asks. “The onus of sexual responsibility falls on a woman, but is also taken from her: She can’t pursue someone, because she’s considered ‘fast’ or ‘acting grown’ or trying to emasculate a man.”
Although many traditional purity-culture events take a hard line on abstinence before marriage, the attitude around premarital sex at the Purity & Promises conference seems more aspirational than anything else. Fisher, a mother herself, sums up what appears to be the community’s pragmatic outlook: We don’t want you to get pregnant, but if you do, we’ll help raise those babies. “The desire is that I wish you wouldn’t [get pregnant],” Fisher said, adding, “If you do? Hey, Nana got this.”
Despite the strictures of her faith, James herself looks at purity as more of a choice than an imperative, one based on options she wishes had been available to her when she was young. “I was 13 years old and having sex, and I didn’t have a mentor or anyone in my corner saying, ‘Don’t do this; don’t do that.’ Y’all don’t wanna hear that, and neither did I,” she tells the over-13 audience ruefully, adding, “I wish I would have had someone there to just give me the real.”
The young women I spoke to seemed to share that opinion. “We need stuff like this,” says one 17-year-old, who adds, “This one day is great, but I wish there was a building or something that we could go in and out of to talk about this stuff.” (James shares this dream, hoping eventually to establish a community or multipurpose center that would offer classes, activities, and employment for local youth.) Another 15-year-old was excited about the all-female aspect of the conference, which makes sense in a town where football is the primary entertainment: “My brother tried to come and I was like, ‘No.’”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that these young women were excited to participate in a day designed around them and their mothers, particularly since it openly addressed the often taboo subject of sex. In accordance with Texas’s state curriculum, the girls of Crockett are required to learn about abstinence and “the importance of sex only within marriage” in school. And with the nearest Planned Parenthood over 80 miles away in Tyler, and the liberal hub of Austin at least three hours away by car, it’s not easy for a young girl in Crockett to provide herself with a counternarrative to purity culture.
For James, though, the event and her work in general are themselves an alternative to the sexual scripts that her attendees are inundated with daily on Instagram, TikTok, and countless other social media platforms. “We’re a small town with limited resources where there’s not much to do, and sex sells,” James told me on a call a few weeks after the conference, adding, “I want the girls to know: You’re not going to hell because you had sex one time, but you have other choices.”
One of the central problems with mainstream purity culture that Laura P., Udofia, and other experts note is the way in which it can apply the same standards to people of wildly different lived experiences, superimposing values onto communities whose specific needs it isn’t best-placed to understand. The conference’s climactic ring exchange, though, was the epitome of a hometown event, as the mothers and daughters—separated throughout most of the day—bounded toward one another beaming, rings proffered as a gesture of connection and support.
James is giving purity culture a face in her community, and in doing so, creating opportunities for girls who have few, but ultimately, is the restriction worth the reward? “I started this conference because Crockett’s young girls of color are limited in terms of examples: Everybody talks about them, but nobody talks to them,” James told me. For the moment, at least, they appear to be listening.
Originally Appeared on Vogue