Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

The Rise and Fall of the Pop Star Purity Ring

Art by Chelsea Beck/GMG.
Art by Chelsea Beck/GMG.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“I just have one thing to say about promise rings,” said Jordin Sparks, then a newly-minted American Idol winner, as she took the stage in 2008 to present at the MTV VMAs. She was gearing up a response to host Russell Brand, who earlier in the night had made a dig at the band the Jonas Brothers for wearing the rings. “Not everybody, guy or girl, wants to be a slut!” Sparks continued. A brief wave of shouted approval followed from the audience. John Legend hung by awkwardly.

This moment happened on TV just 10 years ago, but the mainstream sentiment that the sexual choices for teenagers are either “pure virgin” or “slut,” seems absolutely ancient in 2018, when words like “slut-shaming” and “girl hate” have infiltrated the common vernacular. But if you were a teen in the 2000s, chances are you were inundated with specifically Evangelical Christian messages about how important it was to wait for sex and preserve your virginity. And you didn’t need to go to church to come into contact with these messages. Just paying attention to a VMAs red carpet was enough.

“I’m so lucky I didn’t lose my virginity in the back of a Jeep or something,” Jessica Simpson said, in 2003, about waiting until she was married to have sex for the first time. It was a moment that, just like the saga of Britney Spears’s virginity, was highly covered across tabloid magazines in the early ’00s. Teen pop stars like the Jonas Brothers, Demi Lovato, and Hilary Duff followed her lead, eager to profess how dedicated they were to saving sex for marriage. “I’m going to keep my promise to myself, to my family, and to God,” said Selena Gomez in 2008. “Even at my age, a lot of girls are starting to fall,” Miley Cyrus told People that same year. “And I think if [staying a virgin] is a commitment girls make, that’s great.” Almost all of them wore purity rings on their left ring fingers as a way to advertise their chastity—thin, unadorned silver bands sometimes inscribed with messages like “Love Waits,” the sales of which reportedly increased after Sparks’s VMAs comment.

But not for long. The purity class of the ’00s, once heavily concentrated at the teeny bopper palace of Disney, has long given up their rings. And pop culture for the most part has abandoned its voyeuristic obsession with chastity, at least for now. The real reason puritanical sex ed managed to infiltrate Top 40 radio for a bizarre moment in the aughts had less to do with the actual personal beliefs of its stars and far more to do with the conservative political climate that helped create them.

“The purity movement was about conservative evangelicals keeping access to political power,” says Sara Moslener, author of Virgin Nation and professor of religion at Central Michigan University. “And it was young people, sexually pure young people, who could best make that case.”

Moslener explains that to understand how the “purity panic” of the 1990s came to exist and influence pop culture, you have to return to the “sex panic” of the 1980s: the HIV/AIDS crisis and how it led to the institutionalization of sex education. At the time, the Reagan-appointed Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, a pro-life, Christian conservative, emerged from the AIDS crisis urging schools to teach comprehensive sex education. “We have to be as explicit as necessary to get the message across,” he said at the time. “You can’t talk of the dangers of snake poisoning and not mention snakes.” In the ’90s, sex education programs began to increase in schools across America, but at the same time evangelical Christian and old-school conservative groups like the Moral Majority were launching an opposition against it. Instead, they wanted teenagers to learn abstinence.

Purity, as a movement, began to make significant political and financial gains around that time. When President Clinton signed his 1996 welfare reform act (officially titled the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) a provision made Congress put aside $50 million per year to go towards abstinence-funded education to prevent “teen pregnancy and illegitimacy” starting in 1998. A 1999 study from the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that 86 percent of school districts with a sex ed policy required promotion of abstinence and that 51 percent of districts required abstinence be taught as the preferred method of birth control.

But it was President George W. Bush’s Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE), established in 2001, that actually brought federal funding to organizations like Silver Ring Thing, a virginity pledge program known for its purity rings. Established in 1995, Silver Ring Thing (which declined to be interviewed for this piece) would receive over $1 million in federal funding over three years—all because it met the criteria of CBAE as a faith-based, pro-abstinence organization.

But while Silver Ring Thing did profit from merchandise, it did not make the bulk of its money from selling the rings, with most selling under $20. According to the company’s federal tax returns, most of Silver Ring Thing’s revenue has come from gifts, grants, contributions, and membership fees, not specifically from merchandise sales or admissions to SRT events. In 2003 when SRT began to receive government money the organization reported a total revenue of $1,234,543, but over half of that came from government contributions.

Just as sex education in America was undergoing a massive, moral transformation, so was Disney Music Group. While pop stars like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake got their start at Disney in a startlingly talented class of the Mickey Mouse Club, their professional pop music careers didn’t actually begin with the company. Spears, Aguilera, and Timberlake’s debut albums were all released in the early 2000s through RCA, moving steadily into sexy, mainstream pop as they distanced themselves from their Disney beginnings.

In retrospect, letting these stars leave the brand was a major failure on Disney’s part. They had, at one point, the talent of three of the biggest pop stars of the early 2000s, but they didn’t know what do with them. And at the time Disney did have a few record labels housed under the Disney Music Group: Walt Disney Records, which mainly released their animated musical soundtracks; the Buena Vista Group, for live action soundtracks; and Hollywood Records, a somewhat stagnant label that released music largely removed from the Disney brand.

But while Walt Disney Records’ most profitable releases were their soundtracks, the label began to hit a wall. “We were kind of running on fumes and I was trying to figure out a way to remedy the situation and to become a profit center,” says Jay Landers, head of A&R for Walt Disney Records from 2000 to 2005. “The catalog had been reissued so many times that it had kind of flatlined in terms of sales, and we weren’t getting any new soundtracks to speak of.”

But Landers knew there was money in teen pop music and Disney conveniently had a stable of cute, magnetic teenagers at the ready. “I thought, why don’t I go to the Disney Channel, go to the most popular stars in that particular period of time, and see if I could turn those kids into recording artists,” he says. “This idea was soundly rejected by every single person that I tried to convince to do it.” The Disney Channel didn’t want to sour their successful teen stars with the company’s failing music division.

Selena Gomez in 2008. Image via AP.
Selena Gomez in 2008. Image via AP.

Eventually, Landers got to at least experiment with the idea, making a record with Hilary Duff, star of The Lizzie McGuire Show. The album, Metamorphosis, was released on the flailing Buena Vista Records in 2003. It would enter the Billboard 200 at Number 2 and ultimately give the label its first Number 1 record since the Mary Poppins soundtrack in 1965. The future of Disney as a producer for legitimate mainstream pop music was set.

But as eager as Disney was to break into mainstream pop music, there was one problem. The kind of successful pop that teenagers listened to in the early ’00s (“I’m a Slave 4 U,” “Say My Name”) was far too grown-up for family-friendly Disney. Stars like Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake, who were talking openly in the press about their sex lives, made teen pop an inherently inappropriate sphere. In 2000, a group of Christian private school students were suspended from school just for seeing the Backstreet Boys in concert.

“My goal was to make really credible pop music albums—not just junk that put their picture on the cover, but actually really good pop music,” Landers says. “I was careful not to put words into the mouths of these kids that would be in any way offensive, but it still had to be relevant enough so that it didn’t sound like children’s music.” It made sense, then, that Disney’s first experimentations with the teen pop formula would be with stars who were vocally chaste. By entering the typically lascivious world of teen pop music via innocent, white teenagers parents could get behind, Disney had its cake and ate it too.

“Disney was identifying this important demographic, developing a music format that really worked for them, and then making that so big that it was unavoidable in the rest of the music industry,” says Tyler Bickford, author of Schooling New Media: Music, Language, and Technology in Children’s Culture and University of Pittsburgh professor. “But then if you’re going to have Radio Disney be the basis of what you’re producing, then you have to really double down on things like sexual immaturity, right? And you do that with these explicit markers like purity rings and professions of chastity.”

For a record label that was just beginning to define itself, cultivating a roster that shared this common identity was simply a great marketing move. Despite its conservatism, Disney wasn’t exactly pushing heavily religious themes in the music or on the television shows that accompanied their stars (don’t forget that Selena Gomez played a witch.) And even if someone found the purity ring thing shocking, the controversy itself was great publicity too.

“Things like these moments with Russell Brand on national TV, in front of the whole music industry rather than just your little niche demographic, you’re getting criticized and that actually makes you worth talking about and worth thinking about,” Bickford says.

“To hear those individual stars talk about it, like the Jonas Brothers will talk about their religious upbringing, [their parents] suggesting or asking them if they want to adopt this pledge and wear purity rings, it’s easy to see a similar thing would happen for Miley Cyrus,” says Morgan Genevieve Blue, scholar and author of Girlhood on Disney Channel: Branding, Celebrity, and Femininity. Though not every Disney Channel star at the time was making public declarations of purity (Shia LaBeouf, Raven-Symoné, Raviv Ullman for example, did not) most who had music careers with Disney were wearing the rings. “It’s also interesting to think about what happens when one Disney star in the cohort wears a purity ring and talks about it publicly and the others rising to fame around her or him don’t, because it creates such a stark contrast,” Blue says.

The Jonas Brothers on TRL, 2006. Image via Getty.
The Jonas Brothers on TRL, 2006. Image via Getty.

But while Disney pop stars continued to be the famous faces of the chastity movement, ideas of religious devotion and purity in general were taking root in other stars’ PG-13 careers at the same time. Justin Bieber, just barely a teenager when he first began releasing music in 2008, was and still is a devout Christian. Taylor Swift, while never transparent about her religious faith, launched her career in 2006 with such a strong messages to girls about sexual purity that even now as an adult her sex life is still newsworthy. Paramore, while they looked and sounded the part of a pop punk band, were openly Christian and their breakout hit lambasted the kind of “sluts” Jordin Sparks seemed to be calling out in her VMAs episode.

Disney’s pursuit of artists who preached chastity grew more aggressive in the mid-’00s with signees like Aly & AJ, The Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, and Selena Gomez, and the increase may also have been a reaction to the shadow Britney Spears cast on not just teen pop but teen girl culture in general. Tabloid covers wondered if she had grown up too sexy, too fast, news outlets contended with the fact that pre-teens were wearing crop-tops and mini-skirts.

“There’s a real fear of female sexuality, female desire and I think it makes perfect sense for [Disney] to want to encourage stars to talk about things that happen to also intersect with tenets of popular Christianity,” Blue says. “Family values, Christian morality—it’s especially useful for parents who are attempting to control what their children consume, media- and merchandise-wise.”

The irony was that eventually all of these stars would, one by one, take off their rings. “I got it when I was 13 and I respect so much what it represented, but it isn’t for everyone,” Selena Gomez admitted in 2015, when asked about taking it off. “It was such a strange thing to a lot of people to wear these purity rings, especially as young men in a pop boy band,” Nick Jonas said in 2016. “But I think when I’m looking back on it, although it was challenging to live with that, to be seen and have that attached to our name was very tough.” The ring removals occurred quietly and coincided with public relationships (Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, Joe Jonas and Twilight’s Ashley Greene) as well as unpredictable attempts to assume a more adult image. And aside from some hand-wringing from the Christian media, teenage fans, who were growing up with the stars as well, stayed on board.

Miley Cyrus, 2007. Image via Getty.
Miley Cyrus, 2007. Image via Getty.

But despite the fact that Disney had cultivated such a strong alliance with the purity movement, as its stars moved on into young adulthood there seemed to be little to no effort to continue the image of chastity. Disney’s next class of teen artists like Zendaya, Bella Thorne, and Rowan Blanchard are not only quiet on issues of religion, they have progressive, liberal views on sex: Zendaya advocates for casual sex as long as you get “tested periodically,” Thorne identifies as bisexual, and Blanchard is frequently outspoken about feminism. And while there are still remnants of that 2000s-purity explosion (Justin Bieber is perhaps more religious than ever, and Miley Cyrus returned to a version of herself who she openly admits is more palatable to Trump’s America), the intense, moral messages of the moment were no longer gaining credibility with young audiences. So what happened?

Towards the end of the 2000s the mainstream pop purity movement as teenagers knew it would begin to sour. In 2005 the ACLU hit the federal government with a lawsuit regarding its funding of Silver Ring Thing, and the Bush administration suspended the organization’s grant. Studies found that teenagers taking virginity pledges were just as likely to contract STIs as teenagers who didn’t. Abstinence-centric education, according to a 2007 study authorized by Congress, was not keeping teenagers from having sex despite the fact that the government was spending millions of dollars a year on the programs.

So when President Barack Obama entered office he began to roll back on funding for the abstinence programs that had defined sex education for over a decade. His 2010 budget eliminated federal funding for abstinence-only sex education, only giving funding to programs that were actually proven to be effective. And in the final budget for his administration he elected to eliminate abstinence-only program funding completely.

“I hate to reduce it all to being like, well, there was money,” Moslener says. “There was this tight cultural moment and then in 2008 it completely shifted... it’s no coincidence that when those young people were really kind of making their mark [it] was during the Bush administration, and then things really shifted with Obama.”

There was also a growing awareness of the fact that while their virginities may have been a central marketing point for these young stars, it also ended up sexualizing them further, and Disney was essentially using that to make a profit. Whenever a star did do something relatively normal for a teenager, like take sexy photos, they were more intensely scrutinized.

“I think too about that moment at the VMAs in 2008 and the public slut shaming that came from it, and I wonder did something change in that moment?” Moslener says. “When I was doing my research I talked to people about how there is this shaming thing that happens within churches or youth groups or Christians and it really turns people off, I’ve talked to people who say, yeah this is a commitment I have but I don’t want to be part of this movement, there’s so much shame in it.”

“[The stars] sort of had that Disney innocence to fall back on, and they weren’t just thrust into mainstream pop-stardom,” Blue says. “On the other hand, then that creates this other discourse when they’re constantly being compared to their so-called Disney innocent girlhood, which isn’t actually real.”

But an Evangelical influence on government has far from disappeared, especially under Trump, who actively courted the demographic during his 2016 campaign. Last year Donald Trump’s budget proposal allotted $277 million towards promoting abstinence and cut millions of dollars going to teen pregnancy prevention programs without warning or any explanation. “The purity movement came into power because there was federal funding that allowed that to happen and political support that allowed that to happen,” Moslener says. And for a brief moment in time, so did teen pop music.