Sept. 29, 2008 — -- For Keith Dorscht, escorting his daughters to the annual "purity ball" is about chivalry, not chastity. For his five girls -- ages 10 years to 9 months -- it's a fairy tale night filled with ball gowns, swirling ballerinas and dancing past midnight.
This year, it's 6-year-old Glori's turn to walk down the aisle with her father at the famous Broadmore Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colo. He dressed like a prince, and she, in a flowing white dress, his princess.
At this highly ritualized event, Dorscht walks through an arch of swords, as she lays a rose -- the symbol of purity -- on a Christian cross and he signs a covenant pledging to serve as her protector.
"We don't even go close to the topic of virginity," the Canadian-born counselor told ABCNews.com. "It's just a father-daughter ball, and they are thinking 'Cinderella.'"
"At a later age, we will bring up sexuality," said Dorscht. "But this is something that leaves a prescription of love and commitment and invests in their lives. It helps me get into their hearts when they are young."
Dorscht and other evangelical parents view the purity ball as a "fatherhood event," which helps their daughters build self-esteem and inner beauty . The girls do not sign the covenant right away, but many will later make "purity pledges" vowing to refrain from sex before marriage.
One of them was Laura Black, whose father, Randy Wilson, founded the Colorado Springs Purity Ball in 1998 and who made a commitment when she was only 13 not to have sex -- or even kiss -- until marriage.
Today, she is 23 and happily married, and both her sisters, Khrystian, 21, and Jordan, 19, are doing the same. "When you make a choice to remain pure on your wedding day, it's forever, there are no regrets," Black told ABCNews.com.
Are Girls Naive or Empowered?
Against the backdrop of a sex-infused American culture, pledges like these seem naive and anachronistic to many. But teens in the program say a purity pledge makes them feel empowered, and experts -- both religious and secular -- say these ritual promises can play a role in keeping teens from engaging in risky sex or early pregnancy.
Teen pregnancy rates have steadily declined since the 1990s but the United States still ranks higher than any of the industrialized countries. Last year, 48 percent of high school students reported they had engaged in sexual intercourse; 15 percent said they had four or more sex partners during their life.
Most recent studies suggest those chastity programs aren't deterring young people from having sex. In 2005, teen pregnancy rates jumped for the first time since 1991, according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics.
Some reports show as many as one in six American girls between the ages of 12 and 18 take some kind of purity pledge, part of a growing movement that has been buoyed by evangelical fervor and wholesome music idols like Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, who fuel the notion that teens can be both cool and celibate.
The Internet is filled with offers for customized rings to symbolize that commitment to chastity, as are purity pledge forms for fathers, virgins and even for "secondary virgins" -- those who have engaged in "promiscuous behavior" but recommit to purity.
"In principle, for certain groups of kids, it can work," said Judy Kuriansky, a Columbia University sex therapist. "Psychologically, when you make a public statement, you are held more accountable. You have to face the music."
A June RAND Corp. study showed that virginity pledges may help some young people postpone the start of sexual activity. Still, there is conflicting evidence. Last year, a Marie Claire magazine survey showed that 90 percent of girls who pledge abstinence don't keep that promise.
"Britney Spears claimed that she was a virgin publicly, and then her mom said she was having sex when she was 14," said Kuriansky. "For anyone it's difficult."
"Everything is multiplied by saying something, wearing something, doing or signing something," she said. "But if it's foisted upon kids who are not psychologically prepared for what it means or if they are forced into a ritual they don't understand, then there can be negative outcomes."
First Kiss Comes at the Altar
Black, now a photographer living with her husband of little more than a year in Texas, insists she made the decision herself. She refused to date throughout high school and savored her first kiss on the altar.
"I see my choices as very liberating. I'm not bound by disappointment or the broken heart of past lovers," she said.
To those who wonder how good sex could be without previous experience, Black's sister Khrystian Wilson, who is now engaged and has also never been kissed, said, "I stood next to her at the wedding and it was electric."
The largest movement to spread the chastity is called True Love Waits, started by Richard Ross, now a professor of student ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He led a Tennessee youth group in the 1990s, just as the national rates of teen sexual activity were peaking.
Since then, those rates have dropped, which Ross calls, "an interesting correlation." But he argues that in secular settings, where there is no religious imperative and little parental and community support, many teens pledges fail.
"These programs are more limited in their ability to shape student decisions," Ross told ABCNews.com. "The massive difference is making the promise in a faith community, surrounded by the entire youth group."
Today, at his former youth ministry at Tulip Baptist Church in Old Hickory, students begin discussion of "the promise" in Sunday school and at weekend retreats in January. Just before Valentine's Day, those who pledge to virginity attend a special ceremony with their parents, who give their teen a special "promise ring."
"It helps them believe that this is a big deal and it matters to my church, my family and all my friends in the youth group," said Ross. "It's a concept, an idea, a promise to God. We acknowledge it's tough, but we also say one wonderful thing about being a human being you get to choose."
Alec Cort, who now serves as a student minister, said about 75 percent of the youth group takes "the promise." "It's not a cure-all," he told ABCNews.com. "But for the most part it instills values of God, and its utmost importance takes root."
Nathan David House, one of his students, pledged in seventh grade, on the heels of two older sisters.
"I think it's an excellent thing to do at such a young age," he said. "The basic principle of abstinence resonates a lot better. You are not tempted and you are more open to hear about things, more of a blank tablet."
"There's a great mindset in this country to follow your heart," said House, 17. "We are given two organs: The heart is for emotions, but our brains are to make decisions."
Purity Promises: Saving Sex for Marriage
His friend Brook Jefcoat, 17, also made the commitment. "My parents back me 100 percent," she said. "You see the stuff on the news about girls getting pregnant and not caring want they are doing. I didn't want to have sex with any guy except the person I love. It's a sacred thing for a husband."
When promises get broken, Cort reassures they can start anew. "We don't want to alleviate the guilt entirely -- to some extent it's a healthy factor," he said. "But we don't want them to feel like it's an unpardonable sin."
When students go off to college, it's hard to know whether those who pledged remain virginal. "They could be pulling the wool over our eyes," said Cort, "but based on the character they have displayed, most keep the commitment."
Even Wilson, whose three oldest daughters are committed to purity, understands that his two youngest daughters might not choose the same path, even though the Colorado Springs Purity Ball has been a ritual in their lives for more than a decade.
And if, like other more public Christian families, a daughter were to get pregnant, Wilson said it wouldn't shake his faith.
"We'd move in and love her and lavish her," he said. "Look at the Palins. What did they do with their daughter? They didn't throw her out. They built relations with the young man and encouraged the growth of life and the choices before them. We are about the success of our children."
Meanwhile, as the Dorscht family helps their five daughters fight the pressures to conform to an increasingly sexualized childhood, they say the annual purity ball is a way to set them on the right path.
"Every girl wants to be a princess," said Nancy Dorscht. "Society tells us that we don't measure up all the time, so it's really precious to put the beauty in them."
As for purity, "what is on the outside, follows on the inside," said Dorscht, who isn't worried about whether her girls make future virginity pledges.
"It's not for us to make that commitment for them," she said. "We want to walk with them through everything with openness and honesty and establish some of the major fundamentals. My husband is committing to the girls to really care for them so they don't have to look somewhere else."
ABC News researcher Nancy Quade contributed to this report.