Age of Consent and Age of Purity Pledging

Not old enough to give consent? No worries. Make a purity pledge!

I’m lucky enough to have been raised by a family that didn’t really push purity pledges until I was in high school, which, if you’re going to make one, isn’t horribly early for most people. The thing is, they also failed to give me adequate sex ed while I was homeschooled, so I didn’t learn about sex until I was 15, which, coincidentally, was after I’d already made a purity pledge a year earlier.

While consent is hard to define, and is often defined by the situations in which a person cannot give consent rather than the ones in which someone can, I suspect most people can agree that consent should be informed. That means that the people involved have to know what they’re agreeing to in order to say yes to it. I think that’s a fair requirement, since there can be lots of negative consequences to saying yes to things one doesn’t understand. Don’t understand how loans work? Don’t get one. Don’t understand sex? Don’t have it. Don’t understand the rules of the road? Don’t drive. (Please, please don’t. That one has the added problem of endangering others as well as yourself.)  

But then you have my situation. Can a student who doesn’t know how sex works truly make a binding promise to not do it for an extended period of time? Now, granted, it was a promise to myself and God, not a legal document or an agreement to have my genitalia mutilated. But I was 14. There are girls who make that pledge at age 9, or younger, at ages when they’re not able to fully understand what they’re agreeing to. They may be told they’re agreeing to be “pure,” which certainly sounds positive. And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with deciding to abstain from sex if that’s something that you think is a good idea for you. It’s certainly the safest option, but if you don’t understand it, is it fair to expect you to make that promise?

Then there’s the issue of the way many of these purity programs are run. If you’re put into a room with 100 girls, and told, “Here’s a piece of paper. Write down a promise to yourself to be pure” (which is basically what happened to me), you’d be very weird if you stood up and said, “No thanks.” So not only are you being encouraged to make this promise, you’re being pressured to do so by the crowd around you. To me, that seems less personal and less binding than a promise made to oneself based on an informed decision, and also made without outside influence. I’ve made multiple purity “pledges” in my life, and in the end, none of them was binding to me. When I became informed, and eventually met someone who was attractive and kind and with whom I was seriously considering having sex, I made a decision not to because I wasn’t ready. But when I eventually became emotionally capable of it, I decided to study my earlier pledges. Were they binding? The first one, the one I made at 14 without any information, was not. But the later ones? They were all made in a similar situation to the first:  on retreats where girls were taken into a room to write letters to themselves. That was nice, but there was considerable peer pressure involved. Sure, I could have written nonsense and signed Micky Mouse, but what if someone had noticed? I wasn’t a rebel back then. Even if I had objected to the pledge, I would have written it down, and signed it, just like everybody else. That peer pressure, to me, makes it no longer binding. You can argue that I’m rationalizing it, but it’s not a legal document, and the only person I promised besides myself is a divine being whom I no longer believe in, so at least in my case, the only person I’m disagreeing with is my younger self–and she and I would disagree on a lot of things, not just sex.

The whole peer pressure issue doesn’t just apply to sex in my opinion, and I may get some disagreement on this, but I’m not fond of marriage proposals made in crowded places, especially with any kind of camera or spotlight involved. Football games, Hockey games, Baseball, Basketball–I don’t care, I would be thoroughly pissed off if someone proposed to me at one. Just think about the pressure! All eyes in the packed stadium are on you, and if you say no,  what started as a sweet moment has ended with labeling yourself a cold bitch. The audience wants you to say yes! If you say no, you’ve disappointed them. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people say yes, and then say no when they’re in a private place. I’d say that sucks for the person who proposed, but he or she should have considered the large public pressure before deciding to propose in that place. Granted, there are some cases where the couple has already agreed to get married, and the public proposal is just their way of publicly declaring their engagement–that’s fine by me. But to do it in such a public way without any warning is extremely inconsiderate, and frankly, manipulative. It’s a big decision to make, and when you consider how easily people are influenced by what they think the people around them expect, it makes peer pressure all the more problematic.

I’ve come to the conclusion that if teens or young adults realize that they want to have sex, and decide to, they’re going to rationalize that decision. Don’t want to let them do that? Then encourage them to make a promise in a way that they feel is binding, not in a way that involves peer pressure, or pressure from adult authorities. In the end, the decision to remain pure is up to them, and while choosing to have sex is a big decision, choosing to avoid it is too.