To VH1, Teen Purity Is a Short-lived Marketing Trend

January 19th, 2010 12:17 PM

Whether you have children or not, you've probably heard of Hannah Montana (or perhaps Miley Cyrus); Selena Gomez from Disney's "Wizards of Waverly Place"; or the Jonas Brothers, the boy band that elicits ear-splitting screams from their female teeny-bopper fans.They're big names in the entertainment industry, even though the oldest of the bunch is only 23.

What you may not know, however, is that each of them has taken a pledge of purity. That's not something you normally hear from the morally bankrupt land of Hollywood where anything goes ... and usually does.

Of course that doesn't mean these purity-ring-wearing Disney stars haven't been hit with criticism about their own "morals," especially Miley Cyrus and her provocative picture in Vanity Fair. On the other hand, at least the notion of abstinence has crossed their minds and, to varying degrees, their lips. And that may, perhaps, positively influence their young fans (even if it's tossed to the wayside in their own lives). Not everyone thinks that's cheer-worthy, though.

On Jan. 17, VH1 ran a piece called "New Virginity" that warned these young starlets that their virginal ways will tank their future careers. According to the network, virginity may sell when you're a teen, but sex sells when you're an adult.

"[The virginity movement] appeals to parents who feel that their kids should only buy books, TV shows, movies, or CDs from stars who have good morals," blogger Julia Allison said.

Miley Cyrus, for example, certainly has reaped the benefits. Last year she earned a whopping $25 million and was listed on Forbes 2009 Highest Earners List.

"She's this new sort of virgin pop princess," Jared Shapiro from Life & Style said of Cyrus. "There was several hundreds of millions of dollars in sales waiting to be sold to children all across America and all you had to say was ‘virgin.'"

That's an interesting point, and one that VH1 might have explored in some depth. After all, Shapiro's statement is an implicit acknowledgement that there is a huge, underserved market for more wholesome entertainment. But instead of examining the reasons for the preponderance of lewd and crass products aimed at the youth demographic, the network chose to remind viewers that that innocent bliss won't last forever, and if they want to keep selling, Cyrus et al better get sexy.

As In Touch Weekly's Michelle Lee put it, there must be a "transition from being a young, virginal, Disney star to being a grown-up star."

And who is VH1's perfect example of such a smooth transition?

Britney Spears, of course.

"Britney knew what she was doing," said Lee. "By presenting herself as this young, sexual being, [it] really let everyone know, I'm not the same girl anymore."

Spears was the "the prototype for how to transition from a virginal, childlike star into an adult sex symbol," blogger Jordan Reid agreed. "Now we have a blueprint for how to transition from these teens stars into successful adult stars."

Let's review that blueprint: Spears went through two marriages within three years, went through multiple stints in drug rehab, lost custody of her children, was charged with a hit-and-run, and was placed under psychiatric surveillance - all on the front pages of the tabloids.

To VH1's commentators, Spears' public train-wreck isn't a cautionary tale. It's a marketing strategy. Only the numbers matter and the way to those big numbers is through sexuality.

"Once Britney started to wear more seductive clothing," said author and radio host Cooper Lawrence, "and they saw the record sales correlate, Christina [Aguilera], her skirts started getting shorter - and even Jessica Simpson, who started out very virginal, she also played into that ‘I'm a sexual being' because it's money, baby."

Sexuality, not virginity, VH1 said, is the key to success for these soon-to-be adult stars like Cyrus and Gomez.

If purity rings and pledges aren't practical for long-term Hollywood success, VH1 wasn't any more positive about their value to even normal teens. If abstinence isn't going to sell records or land you a TV show, don't bother taking purity pledges, since they create "unrealistic expectations." 

"There's now an iPhone application," said Jessica Valenti, author of "The Purity Myth," "that's a purity ring that you can have on your phone to show that you're a virgin. I guess it's actually kind of useful because once you lose your virginity - like most kids who take virginity pledges do - you can just trash it."

Since teenagers can't control themselves, Valenti said that "sexual education," not abstinence, should be the focal point.

"Thirty-three percent of kids that take the pledge are more likely to initiate sex," she said, "yet very few of them know anything about protection, so they're less likely to actually use a condom and more likely to get an STD or get pregnant."

That's one way to read the statistics. Another way would be to note that the 33 percent is 8.8 percent less than the 42.4 percent of non-pledgers who initiate. And that pledgers are no less likely to use a condom when they do have sex.

Valenti concluded that even though "the virginity movement" is "trendy" right now, "at the end of the day ... the reality of young people's lives is going to win over. "

Blogger Julia Allison echoed Valenti's opinion and particularly criticized purity balls, which are father-daughter dances where the fathers promise to set a chaste example for their daughters and the daughters in return pledge their chastity.

"These fathers," Allison said, referring to those who attend purity balls, "place such a disproportionate value on their daughters' chastity. But what they should be doing instead is equipping them with the proper tools to navigate a world that's extremely sexual."

According to Allison, "biology dictates that you want to have sex."

"It doesn't matter," she said, "how many purity balls you've been to, how many purity rings you have, how many purity pledges you've made, you want to have sex."

The forgotten virtue of self control aside, Allison's right in a way. It doesn't matter how many times you say something unless you're heart's in it. And that's where she doesn't get it. Many of these teens aren't just trying to do something difficult to see if it can be done. They're pledging purity because it's something they believe in - the fact that it's difficult is simply a side effect, not the goal. So, Miss Allison and your fellow colleagues, how about giving them some props and a fighting chance?