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There's nothing implicitly wrong with daughters promising their fathers that they will remain virgins until marriage, according to David Magnusson. When the Swedish photographer first embarked on a series of photographs depicting purity balls, however, he was under a very different assumption.
Purity balls are formal dances, a sort of prom for dads and their daughters. There, young girls pledge abstinence until they are wedded, and their fathers promise to enforce that pledge.
Magnusson photographed a number of father-daughter couples around the United States for this project, called Purity, which will be published in a forthcoming book by Bokförlaget Max Ström. "When I first heard about the purity balls," he writes, "I imagined angry American fathers terrified of anything that might hurt their daughters or their honor. But as I learnt more, I understood that the fathers, like all parents, simply wanted to protect the ones that they love – in the best way they know how."
There's been no small amount of criticism toward these events, which are often organized by religious groups. The Guardian's Jessica Valenti argues that Magnusson's photos "tell a distinctly American story – a story wherein a girl's virginity is held up as a moral ideal above all else, a story in which the most important characteristic of a young woman is whether or not she is sexually active. This narrative of good girls and bad girls, pure girls and dirty girls, is one that follows young women throughout their lives." She points out that at one recent ball, a police officer told girls that premarital sex would lead to rape, drug addiction, and prostitution.
For Magnusson, though, the project is about understanding cultural rites outside of his own experience. "To me, Purity is a project about trying to understand how we are shaped by the society we grow up in and how we interpret the world through the values we incorporate as our own."
The photographs are beautiful but haunting, powerful, and unsettling. Click through to see an excerpt from Purity.