A Real-Life Window Into How Virginity Obsession Hurts Teen Girls

The Lifetime reality series Preachers' Daughters shows what happens when families become fixated on "purity."
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Kolby Koloff goes shopping for a Halloween costume along with her sister Kendra and half-sisters Tawni and Teryn. (Lifetime)

The opening fade-in of the premiere episode of Preachers' Daughters features a pure white background with two Bible verses from 1 Thessalonians 4: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that you abstain from sexual immorality," and; "God has not called you to lead an unclean life but one of purity."

This passage it turns out, is the set-up for the entire series: How will three Christian families headed by pastors keep their teen daughters from having sex? When their religion places the girls' virginity above all else, how will these true believers navigate the hormonally charged waters of their daughters' coming of age?

The first teen we meet is Kolby, and she just wants to date. She is 16 and thinks it is high time. She runs this by her dad, Nikita, a former professional wrestler turned preacher over a "daddy-and-daughter lunch." Nikita with his shaved head and bulging muscles explains he doesn't think there is any need for Kolby to "experience" dating. He doesn't agree with the dating "lifestyle" but he doesn't entirely shut her down. He tells Kolby she has to run it by her mom, Victoria, who turns out to be the real challenge.

Victoria is a preacher just like Nikita. She also works at a Christian "crisis pregnancy center" and is a Christian radio talk show host. After a conversation between mother and daughter Victoria decides she will let Kolby date. Kolby is thrilled, as any 16-year-old would be. But Victoria has one condition: Kolby must sit through one of her "sex talks" at church.

The next scene presents us with a horrified Kolby smack in the front church pew as her mom excites a crowd of teenagers by exclaiming from the altar, "sex is great!"

Kids clap and giggle, Victoria giving dramatic pause, then says, "But only after you're married!" Victoria goes on to discuss "finger sex, backdoor sex, and oral sex," in her abstinence talk. Her daughter sits with eyes wide and turning red, her jaw on the floor.

This could all be laughable—Victoria's dirty talk, the kids shifting in their seats, light streaming through stained glass windows. But then, Kolby's 30-year-old sister Teryn drops a bomb. She reveals to the family that she was not a virgin when she got married. It is in this scene we glimpse how damaging this supposedly Biblically mandated purity pressure is on young Kolby.

She is devastated; she sits weeping uncontrollably at the dinner table her head down, wiping her eyes with her napkin. Everything she ever believed, she says, was ripped away when Teryn revealed her secret.

During Teryn's private, to-the-camera confessional she is clearly upset with the way her mother enforces her interpretation of Biblical law. Teryn says that this is what happens when you are raised within a "warped" Christian box. She and her sisters were taught a successful life was predicated on making it to marriage a virgin.

Taylor is the next of the series' daughters. She is 17 and adorable with a mouth full of braces. She readily admits being rebellious. She is the only African-American featured on the show.

It is clear from the first scene that Taylor will be portrayed as the sex-crazed teen in the group. At best just the luck of the casting draw—rebellious teens equal ratings. But at worst this portrayal of a normal black teen girl is a reinforcement of the Jezebel stereotype of the hyper sexualized African-American woman.

We meet Taylor standing in front of a mirror as she checks her look. She is wearing a cute bathing suit and cut-off shorts talking on the phone with her mom. She wants permission to go to a water park with some girlfriends. She doesn't tell her mom about the cute boy who might just happen to be there. Her mom says it would be all right but that Taylor should ask her dad. But knowing her preacher father will say no, she leaves without his ok.

In the next scene Taylor and her girlfriends lay in the sun, enjoying their freedom. Taylor muses about being a stripper if she can't afford college as she adjusts a purity ring on her finger. She also says she thinks about being a porn star because of the "freedom" they have. It is revealed to her parents later that Taylor had said this. This leads to handwringing, praying her preacher father sits with hands clasped praying to God, "Please don't let my baby girl be a porn star."

It is clear that Taylor was just chattering with girlfriends, joking around and not sketching out a plan to become the next Jenna Jameson. But taken to an illogical conclusion, her musing leads to more and more restrictions handed down from her father, the protector of her chastity.

Our last and oldest teen is Olivia. She is18 years old and has a beautiful baby daughter.

Despite having a baby, Olivia isn't married. She explains how she went through a drug-addled drunken phase "last summer" where she fell away from Jesus. It ended with a DWI and an unplanned pregnancy. She, like Taylor, wears a purity ring. She has reclaimed her virginity. Olivia has vowed to (now) stay pure until marriage. A commitment she made to her pastor father.

But Olivia has a horrible secret: She doesn't know who Eden's father is. There are two possible fathers. She shares this information with her two older sisters. One who wonders, disgusted, if her sister was known as the "slutty" girl? Her parents weep upon hearing the news. At one point during her pregnancy, Olivia must have considered abortion. She confides to the camera that her father told her she couldn't get an abortion because Olivia would be "killing his granddaughter."

Her family clearly loves her. Her dad is constantly laying hands on her to pray for her. The family cries a lot over their human failings, especially Olivia's. Despite wearing a purity ring, she is still looked on with suspicion.

The things each of these families is dealing with aren't unique. Raising teenagers can be a nightmare (Aside from having been a teen girl myself once, I have a 23-year-old daughter so, yes, I get it.) The way these young girls are affected by the expectations of their parents and the rigidity of their religion may seem unusual but in some Christian households it appears to be quite common.

According to a study by The PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life, 26 percent of religious Americans self-identify as Evangelical Christians. In comparison, 23 percent identify as Catholics and 18 percent as a mainline Christian. Importantly, the PEW study goes on to reveal 59 percent of self-identified Evangelicals say the Bible is not only the Word of God, but literally true "word for word."

Such is the case with the families on Preachers' Daughters. They are not an anomaly that reality TV discovered and seized onto but an accurate portrayal of a prevalent Evangelical belief system. Take the example of purity rings—each of the daughters wear one at points in the show. Remember the hoopla when the Jonas Brothers (and Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus) stopped wearing them ?

Christian companies like "Worth the Wait" sells purity rings, purity bracelets, purity t-shirts, purity pledge cards—you name it. The company boasts, "Many thousands of students around the world wear Worth the Wait Purity Rings." At least Kolby, Olivia and Taylor aren't alone in their sacred struggle.

So what will be the outcome? What can we expect in the season finale a few weeks from now? Reality TV is formulaic: there are winners and losers. Bachelorettes get their men, amazing races are won, or Teen Moms end up in rehab. For Preachers' Daughters and the Christian teen girls they represent,the stakes seem much higher.

Ultimately there are only two outcomes possible for the daughters: a kind of damnation or salvation. Evangelical Christianity doesn't allow much latitude in this area. And with virginity (or reclaimed virginity) set up as salvation in the series, chances are at least one of these teens will fall, in front of God and everybody.

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Andy Kopsa is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Ms., Religion Dispatches, and In These Times, among other publications.

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