It's Friday night, and teenage girls are full of excitement as they primp for a dance at the local Holiday Inn. But for this group of girls in Sioux Falls, S.D., the night's dream date is not a teenage boy.
"I'm going with my dad instead of a boyfriend," explains 15-year-old Angela Merkle.
She and her two sisters are about to be escorted by their father to what's called a Purity Ball.
The event shares all the hallmarks of a wedding: Vows are exchanged, a white cake is served and there is even a first dance. But at the beginning of the event instead of fathers giving away their daughters' hand, they're holding on tight.
The event's purpose is to celebrate father-daughter bonding, but the main focus of the evening is for the fathers and daughters to exchange pledges in an elaborate ceremony. Fathers vow to protect the girls' chastity until they marry, and the daughters promise to remain abstinent.
"[In] today's day and age, if the daughters are sexually active before they're married that ceremony really is meaningless because the father's not giving anyone away," says Angela's father, Bret Merkle.
"I'm going to stay pure until I'm married and I'm not going to date or kiss a boy," says 12-year-old Sarah Merkle.
"I saw so many young girls get hurt by the whole dating process," her father explains. "People are just chasing after instinct, chasing after their pleasures and desires and that's going to sting in the end."
Dance to a New Movement
Thousands of girls have taken purity vows at this kind of event since the first ball was thrown in 1998 by Generations of Light, a popular Christian ministry in Colorado Springs.
Last year, South Dakota's Abstinence Clearinghouse run by Leslee Unruh, a major association of the purity movement, received requests to send out 700 "Purity Ball Planner" booklets.
These balls are the latest trend in the national abstinence movement, which began in the 1980s as a grassroots effort from the Christian community in response to high rates of sexually transmitted diseases.
Young women and some young men sign virginity pledges at churches, rallies or programs sponsored by groups such as True Love Waits, and the movement is growing. This is partly fueled by government support. The current Bush administration's annual funding for abstinence initiatives has more than doubled to around $200 million.
But critics say if these girls are only learning abstinence, they're not being taught important information about STDs and condoms.
"I could see it winding up in more teenage pregnancies and that type of thing because they don't know everything that they need to know," comments Deanne Keegan, a South Dakota mother who counsels youth at her local church.
In fact, 88 percent of pledgers wind up breaking their pledge and having sex before marriage, according to a study by Peter Bearman, the chair of Columbia University's Department of Sociology, and Hannah Bruckner of Yale.
The study examined the sex lives of 12,000 adolescents and found teens who pledge to remain virgins until marriage have the same rates of sexually transmitted diseases as those who don't pledge abstinence.
But some fathers discount the studies, and think their relationship with their daughters will help them stay strong.
"We don't want them to be weird or to stand out in a bad way, but we believe with the right beliefs and attitudes … they can be different," Brett Merkle said. "There's lots of temptations in life and we're trying to teach our girls to be strong against those temptations and meet them with the appropriate behavior."