Every now and then a story pops up about purity rings (AKA chastity rings) – the most recent one that comes to mind is the English girl who wasn’t allowed to wear one at school and brought suit, saying it was a religious article (she lost). Different stories about the rings emphasize different aspects of them – since they’re not an “official” religious item by any means, the way they’re used seems to be fairly fragmented. Some girls buy them for themselves, some have them given to them by their parents, some receive them at creepily-overtoned father-daughter purity balls which got a lot of press a few years ago. How common the latter actually are, I have no idea, but somebody’s buying the rings – looking around various religious jewelry sites turn up a lot of designs, from the reasonable enough miniature cross to the metaphorically unfortunate heart wrapped in a ribbon. Many of them are accompanied by verses promoting purity which can only be described as dire, and they’re easy to rib. So easy, in fact, that I’m not going to talk about that angle of it.
What has made me curious about purity rings for a while is the conflicting symbolism they contain. According to Wikipedia (I can’t find much else in the way of historical sources, even in the U’s journals – obviously this is a master’s thesis just waiting to be written) they were invented in the early 1990s, as a visible reminder to teenagers – mostly female, but some male – who had taken a virginity pledge. The word “chaste” is used interchangeably with “pure” and both seem to mean retaining one’s virginity, though technically speaking chastity does not imply virginity; it just means that you’re married to the person you’re sleeping with. The inventors were obviously drawing a parallel with wedding and engagement rings, but if you look at the symbolism and the way such rings have been used, purity rings are actually a unique and odd category. If you look at the way rings have been used both maritally and in religious life, one thing they all have in common is that they are intended to symbolize a permanent state of being wedded to someone or something. Engagement rings are the outlier here, but not much of one; an engagement ring is a promise of future permanence, and there’s nothing about its purpose which conflicts with the symbolism of the wedding ring which comes later. Both of them are points on the same road, and are symbolic of binding yourself to someone for good, or bad. The fact that things don’t always work out that way doesn’t detract from the symbolism; permanence is intended, if not always carried out.
Standard wedding rings aren’t the only ones out there; they’ve also been used in Catholic religious life for more than a thousand years. (I don’t say Christian in general because very, very few non-Catholic denominations have orders of religious – I’m talking about the west here, obviously!) It was, and in many orders still is, customary to give a nun a ring at her final profession, the one in which she binds herself permanently. The ring is a symbol of her union with Christ in the way a standard wedding ring is a symbol of someone’s union with a spouse. Bishops wear rings as well (as do a lot of priests, though I’m not sure if that’s a standard rule or not) which symbolizes union with the church. And in a rather uncommon category, consecrated virgins also wear wedding rings. These seem initially to have more in common with purity rings because all of these people are, functionally speaking, single. But the analogy falls down at the permanence of it. Nuns don’t get rings when they first enter, they have to go through postulancy, novitiate and simple vows first to make sure they really belong there (some orders don’t have final vows – they just get renewed from time to time). Consecrated virgins do not de-consecrate after meeting someone; they intend to stay that way for life.
Analyzing the symbolism behind purity rings is a little confusing. They seem to be the only rings which are designed to have an expiration date which doesn’t coincide with your own. They’re good until you get married, and then – what? Do you put them in the back drawer? Wear them on another hand? Convert them into wedding rings? They’d still work as symbols of chastity. But the emphasis on “purity” is where the whole things falls down; intentional or not, the emphasis on “True Love Waits” and the ribbon-wrapped heart seem to send a pretty strong message that the ring is shorthand for telling people that you’ve got an intact hymen. And, as Miss Manners once advised a questioner, it’s impossible to advertise that fact in public and be remotely polite in doing so. Being thoroughly modest would have to entail leaving the ring off, and then what’s the point of it, in the end?
-posted by sonetka