On Sunday’s Real Housewives of Atlanta, the plot for "Tardy for the Party" singer and wig designer Kim Zolciak revolved around purchasing an "abstinence ring" for her 13 year old daughter Brielle. Brielle requested the ring after learning about STDs and HIV in school. Off to the jeweler they went, half-joking about whether Brielle would remain abstinent until 18 or 20. (Eighteen, they determined: "Because, you know, college.") With they jeweler they selected a $3k diamond ring which, the jeweler observed, "really says abstinence." Brielle proudly showed off the ring to family and friends, who all commended her decision to remain abstinent until college.
Kim is an easy, easy target for mockery, but I think there is some nuance that deserves discussion.
The "purity ring" idea is pretty new, originating in the 1990s. It is a prominent part of some abstinence-only programs, especially Silver Ring Thing, a company which has received over $1 million in grants from the federal government. It goes with a "virginity pledge," another aspect of many abstinence-only programs, including ones which have received funding under the President’s new teen pregnancy prevention initiative, like the "Choosing the Best" program. Pledgers promise to remain virgins until heterosexual marriage; their parents often co-sign their pledge; and then purity rings are distributed as a symbol of the promise. Some girls receive rings at a "Purity Ball" they attend with their father.
Of course, one noteworthy thing about virginity pledges is that they don’t work and lead to risky behavior among young people ; 88% of pledgers break the pledge. Whether it is appropriate for a young person to pledge to a school official that they won’t have sex is another question often raised about virginity pledge programs.
But Brielle Zolciak doesn’t seem to be in Silver Ring Thing, and there has been no mention of school or church involvement in her decision to ask for an "abstinence ring." What has happened here is: the idea of abstinence rings has simply trickled in from the culture. Between the Jonas Brothers, Jordin Sparks, and other now-semi-forgotten pop stars, the rings were getting a lot of attention in 2008. Jewelers and abstinence-peddlers alike saw the money-making potential as the rings gained fame. And now, 13-year-old Brielle Zoliciak has an "abstinence ring" of her very own.
Notably missing from the Zolciak abstinence ring project were:
1) Any mention of marriage
2) Any mention of purity, chastity, or
3) Any mention of religion.
Popular culture, time, and let’s say a certain lack of initiative for moralizing on Kim’s part mean that Brielle’s abstinence ring means "abstinence for the next five years, give or take."
Frankly, I see this lackadaisical approach as a plus. Brielle isn’t getting that ring because parents, church or school told her sex is "immoral" outside marriage. She’s getting it because she’s heard sex leads to pregnancy, HIV and STDs. She’s asserting her own desire not to have sex until she’s older, both because she’s not ready, and to avoid these outcomes. In her case the ring purchase is more like "And let’s get a ring to celebrate my smarts!" than a solemn promise to remain "pure." Surely that’s progress?
I’m not saying it’s ideal. For one, announcing to everyone your intentions about such a private, personal, and situational decision still feels really strange to me. For another, a simple "abstinence good/sex bad" approach is a barrier to open discussion about healthy sexuality. Finally, it’s not entirely clear what abstinence means to Kim or Brielle; do they have the same idea of what it means? (One other finding about virginity pledgers was that they were MORE likely than non-pledgers to have oral and/or anal intercourse.)
But worst of all, it’s a huge missed opportunity for Kim to talk to Brielle about contraception and safer sex. So many women experience unplanned pregnancy – including every one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta. Every single one. In the first season of the show one cast member (Khandi) described teen pregnancy as a multi-generational plague that had affected everyone in her family. And in Sunday’s episode, fellow Housewife Nene found the flaw in the abstinence-ring plan within seconds of walking in the house; she said: "Congratulations! You know, I waited until I was 19. I was a freshman in college." Kim gaped, because Nene’s story of unintended pregnancy is well known. But Nene didn’t "start" at a very young age; she lost her virginity at the very life period when Brielle’s abstinence pledge expires. Surely that should be the wake-up call Kim needs to have an honest talk with Brielle about abstinence AND contraception – as well as healthy relationships and the importance of good communication.
Research has shown that skills building is what teens need to help them prevent STDs, HIV, and pregnancy. That includes giving them complete knowledge about protection options, including abstinence, AND the skills and confidence to discuss these options with potential partners, make mutual decisions, and stick to those decisions. That ring was pretty enough, but it is not going to help Brielle make complex decisions within a sex-obsessed culture or grow into a sexually healthy woman.