CLEARWATER — Wearing a long, white dress, 15-year-old Jasmin Latta walked down the aisle of St. John Primitive Baptist Church in North Greenwood and promised to not have sex until she's married.
Lance Latta called his daughter's vow "one of my greatest accomplishments.''
"It's the fact that she understands the ramification of what can happen when you have premarital sex and that your body should be a treasure that you don't just give to everybody," said Latta, 42, who wore a black tuxedo.
Eight other girls, ages 13 to 17, participated in the first-ever Purity Ball at the church on July 17. All the girls wore white dresses and, with their fathers or father-figure by their sides, made the same pledge of abstinence.
The fathers then presented their daughters with a "pure heart ring." The silver ring has a cross on each side and a heart surrounded by small diamonds in the middle. The girls and their fathers then headed to a ball at the nearby Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center.
"I want to be clean," said Camille Adams, 14. "I want to be a role model to other girls to let them know they should respect and protect their bodies."
"What's most amazing is that they came up with this themselves," said the Rev. Benjamin Adams, Camille's uncle, who has been the pastor at St. John Primitive Baptist for 13 years.
"They paid attention to what happens with girls they go to school with and concluded they didn't want to be a statistic and made this vow to God that they will save themselves until marriage. That's something I have to support both biblically and morally."
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According to a January study by the Guttmacher Institute, 46 percent of all 15- to 19-year-olds in the United States have had sex at least once.
The same study concluded that black and Hispanic women have the highest teen pregnancy rates and non-Hispanic whites the lowest .
"I see girls at my school just having sex and they feel bad about it," said Lorielle Wright, 16 and a rising junior at St. Petersburg's Gibbs High School. "But what gets me is, they tell other girls to do it. And they keep doing it and make a mess of themselves, and I did not want to end up like that."
Errika Townes, 14 and a rising freshman at Gibbs, said she didn't want to be like everybody else.
"Besides," she said, "you can end up pregnant."
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The idea for the Purity Ball started with Courtney Floyd. The rising Pinellas Park High senior was talking with a friend when the topic of sex and abstinence came up.
"A friend told me she was doing it (abstaining from sex until marriage) and I thought about it for a couple of months and I brought it to my friends," Courtney, 17, said. "It's a good feeling because I didn't think we would have eight other people. Now, that's eight other people that's not going to be out there having sex for no reason."
There is a lot of pressure to become sexually active, said Jasmine Jackson, 16, and a rising senior at Dunedin High School.
"But you don't have to do it now," Jasmine said. "What's the rush? When people talk about sex, it's not a good thing. So, I can wait."
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Purity Balls are not new.
Randy and Lisa Wilson of Colorado Springs, Colo., held the first Purity Ball in 1998. Randy Wilson is now the national director for the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council. He said the first event was simply a way to connect with his oldest daughter, who was turning 13 at the time. Purity Balls are now held in churches and communities all over the country.
"I had no idea (Purity Balls would become so popular)," Wilson said during a phone interview from Colorado Springs. "Looking at research, we were trying to understand our children, and one of the important pieces is a solid, growing and strong relationship with her father. One of the things that we came up with was the Purity Ball and it helped build my relationship with my daughter."
Wilson said the Purity Ball is just as much about the father figure's relationship with his daughter as it is the commitment to avoid premarital sex. Wilson pointed to Dr. Meg Meeker's 2006 book, Strong Fathers and Strong Daughters. The book, he said, concludes that if a daughter has a close relationship with her father, she is less likely to have sex early and to become a teenage parent.
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Latta was a teenage parent himself, something that he doesn't want for his children.
"Being open with her about the mistakes that I made allowed me to show her how hard it is being a teenage parent," Latta said. "You have to give up your goals. Your life is never alone anymore because there's another life that you have to look out for."
Jasmin Latta is pleased with her vow.
"I'm definitely not embarrassed about it," she said. "I think people will look at me different but hopefully, it's in a good way."
News researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this article. Contact Demorris A. Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4174.