Lauren Wilson Black, 22, is the kind of kitten-faced, minx-bodied all-American beauty who could break a dozen hearts with one bat of her silky lashes. But until last winter, Lauren had never seduced a boy into misery delicto — or even flirted. She'd never had a lover, made out in a guy's car, pressed against a boy during a slow dance at the high-school prom, or even been to a prom. Call her the anti-Lindsay/Paris/ Britney. She was a super-virgin. While the rest of us spent our youthful years pushing the limits of what could be done in backseats and bar bathrooms, Lauren stayed home. Weird, you say?
Actually, not really. Six years ago, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that one in six Americans between the ages of 12 and 18 had taken a purity pledge. That is, they vowed to remain virgins until marriage.
Among those virginity pledgers, courtship has become the trend du jour. The brainchild of Josh Harris, a 33-year-old Christian evangelical and author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, courtship is the antihookup. No nooky. No commitment flake-outs. No playing the field. You see a stranger at the local mall or church barbecue, and then — if you both feel that certain spark — he asks your father if he can "court" you. Lauren's parents, Randy and Lisa, are on board, to say the least. In 1998, they founded the Father Daughter Purity Ball (think prom meets wedding reception). The formal event is attended by hundreds of teenage girls and their dads. After dinner and before dancing, the fathers sign an agreement — as the "high priests of the home" — to be their daughters' "authority and protector in the area of purity." In 2006, Purity Balls took place in 48 states; next April, the Wilsons will host New York City's first-ever Purity Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria.
I met the Wilsons while covering the Colorado Springs Father Daughter Purity Ball, which takes place at the city's five-star Broadmoor Hotel. To put it plainly, I was fully prepared for Randy, Lisa, and their children to be the biggest freaks I ever met. The concept of premarital virginity seemed archaic enough; the image of a father monitoring his daughter's sex life was fairly revolting. So I was nothing short of astonished to find the Wilsons likable.
It was through my conversations with Randy and Lisa about their Purity Balls that I developed a fascination with Lauren. Homeschooled since kindergarten and absent a college degree, Lauren experienced joys (feeling popular) and woes (being ostracized by friends whom she introduced!) that were nevertheless extraordinarily similar to those of my own — or, for that matter, most people's — adolescence. Still, when she was 13, Lauren decided to do something I could never fathom doing: give her heart to her dad so he could "save" it for her husband.
"I was just like, Why hang out with a guy, break your heart, hang out with the next guy, break your heart again?" Lauren says, when I ask her what she was thinking the day she told her dad she wanted to be a virgin until marriage. Randy is a sinewy man, who, in his khakis and polos, dresses the part of laid-back Westerner. But his grave blue eyes and careful, sonorous speech bespeak unstinting seriousness. The day of her announcement, he penned this letter:
By the time you sit down and read this, your wedding day will have passed . . . I know we have had long talks about Lauren, but let me write them down . . . Lauren's heart is overflowing with love and care for others. She is unselfish almost to a fault. She waits for your leadership and will respond to you accordingly. Lauren has great inner strength and physical stamina, but she will need your God-given strength to function. She wants to please you like no other. Most importantly, Lauren needs your spiritual leadership. She needs you to take her to the throne of God...
Love, Your Father-in-Law
For the next seven years, Lauren avoided boys altogether. Then, in February 2006, the Wilsons paid a visit to the Air Force Academy, which Lauren's brother Colten was considering attending. Accompanying the family on the tour was 23-year-old Brett Black, a blond-haired cadet. Lauren had met him before through church, but "from that moment on," Lauren sighs, "I was just, like, head over heels."
She returned home that evening and asked God if Brett was the one for her. "I set aside 40 days to really pray hard and ask for direction," she remembers. Meanwhile, Brett also decided that Lauren and her two teenage sisters were "gorgeous." The idea of a permanent commitment entered his mind.
"I thought, Am I crazy? I'm graduating in three months and possibly moving away," he says. "But I could see myself marrying one of those girls!" Brett, too, began to pray. The future pilot soon found himself being "guided toward Lauren." Two months later, he arranged to meet Randy at a coffee shop. There Brett said, "I'd like to start a relationship with one of your daughters." He thinks he specified Lauren. Randy invited him to dinner. After the meal, Lauren and Brett were left alone. "I've noticed your character and I'd like to hang out with you. I hope I don't sound stupid," he said. "It would be an honor," she said.
Over cappuccinos at the local Starbucks, Randy and Lisa share their theories about the success of Lauren's courtship. "I'm the one who knows Lauren," Randy explains, describing how he met with Brett every few weeks after their initial conversation for what amounted to marital coaching. "Brett doesn't know anything about Lauren. So I can help them be a success."
As much as I respect Randy's sincerity, I find his involvement in Lauren's relationship medieval. And if he doesn't appreciate that, surely Lisa — woman to woman — can see the peculiarity of this arrangement?
Lisa, a voluptuous, emotive blonde who will spend 31 years (1990 to 2021) homeschooling her seven children, sees no such thing. Her own father walked out on her family when she was 2. "I felt like he threw my heart on the ground and said, 'Deal with it,'" says Lisa, bursting into tears. I pass her a napkin.
And Randy's father? "He was good at providing, poor at relationships," he says. Absent any examples, Randy and Lisa wrote their own rules.
After meeting at Ohio's Cedarville University, Randy and Lisa married in 1982. That year, they moved to Austin, TX, where Randy started a roofing company. It dissolved in the mid-'80s, by which time the Wilsons had four small children. When Randy got a job offer in construction in Colorado, the family moved there, but soon after, the job evaporated.
"He pounded the pavement eight hours a day and couldn't get a job flipping burgers," says Lisa, who remained at home, caring for their children. After months of looking, Randy landed a position as a salesman for a print-media company — not exactly a financial coup.
In such difficult times, other men — and let's face it, women, too — might have taken to drinking, crime, or promiscuity. Some would have just taken off. Randy, however, took to the Lord.
After coffee with Randy and Lisa, I spend the evening trying to put Lauren's relationship into a context I can understand. I imagine my own husband receiving marital advice from members of my immediate family. ("Amanda can be bitchy, but if you bring her a bottle of chardonnay she cheers up considerably.") Depending on his mood, my husband would have burst out laughing or run screaming from my entire clan.
At a meeting with Brett in the spring of 2006, Randy raised the issue of displaying affection and how it can lead to sexual temptation. "From what I experience as a guy, the physical aspect of things just opens all kinds of doors for hormones," Randy told him. "Why open those doors now? It's a distraction from getting to know Lauren." Indeed. Lauren would later tell me that during their courtship — which included dinners alone, a skiing excursion, and a seven-day trip to Japan as part of a church missionary group — she and Brett never exchanged a kiss, or even so much as held hands.
Didn't she wonder what kissing and sex would be like? Lauren and I are spending a winter afternoon at the local salon getting pedicures (I want "Femme Fatale Red"; she wants something softer), and I can't help but use our time alone to press for more intimate details. "Of course," she says, "but it was just really hard to imagine, so I tried to focus on other things."
Did that work?
Did she masturbate?
Lauren suddenly looks like a Barbie doll — amiably expressionless. "I'm not going to answer that," she says.
"I wouldn't either," I say.
"Good," she says.
What she will say is that her courtship with Brett was emotionally hot. "We talked a lot," she says. "We asked each other intense questions like 'What's the saddest thing that's ever happened to you?' and 'What's the hardest thing you've been through?'"
Seven weeks into their relationship, Brett asked Randy if he could propose to Lauren. Randy said yes. Lauren and Brett become official partners on December 29, 2006, smack in the middle of a whiteout blizzard. I'm invited to the big event, and I'm determined to be there — despite it taking more than an hour to drive eight miles from my hotel to the Mountain Springs Church. Inside, the decor is simple: white candles, white-fabric columns framing the altar, a string quartet playing Bach. About 250 people sit smiling; a serene pregnant woman next to me whispers that at least another 100 can't make it due to the storm.
At exactly 5:10 p.m., seven trim, tuxedoed groomsmen enter and line up, perfectly spaced, followed by seven bridesmaids in black spaghetti-strapped sheaths, delicately picking their way up the aisle.
And finally, a radiant Lauren emerges in a tight-bodice, low-back, full-skirt gown (think Penélope Cruz in Atelier Versace at the 79th Academy Awards). Randy, who is officiating, takes his place at the altar. In his homily, he praises "the power and the beauty" of Lauren and Brett's choices. "To walk in purity in your relationship and engagement . . . has brought great honor to the throne of God and to your parents," he says. "Brett . . . I walked [you] through what Lauren's heart looked like. We talked of her incredible fragileness and the place that you must occupy for her to continue to grow into the fullness of all that God has created in her."
Everyone but me is smiling.
Soon enough, it's time for the inevitable. Randy seems to be stalling. "You know," he hems, "as soon as I do this next part, I lose all control." Finally, with tears standing in his eyes, he pronounces his daughter another man's wife. With that, Brett lifts Lauren's veil and kisses her. Lauren had told me she was afraid she'd faint when Brett's lips touched hers. I try to imagine what it would be like to experience my first-ever smooch in front of an audience of hundreds, but Lauren is fine. And her first kiss with Brett makes me teary, too — on the one hand because she looks so happy, on the other because she'll never know the sublime joy of kissing a beautiful-but-stupid jock, who, in your worst nightmare, you would never, ever marry.
"It awakened everything in me," Lauren says later of her first kiss. "It was beyond. I was just like, Wow!" "Wow" is also how she describes her first night with Brett after their wedding reception, when they checked in to the Broadmoor Hotel. An explicit promise of the virginity-until- marriage movement is that if you wait for the big day to have intercourse, the sex will be mind-blowing. (A popular public-school sex-ed curriculum in Colorado is called "Wait Training: Learn How to Have the Best Sex — By Waiting Until Marriage!") In their hotel room, the first thing Lauren did was get a basin and water pitcher and wash Brett's feet.
"My spiritual gift is serving," she explains. "And I wanted to show Brett, 'I'm here to love you, follow you, and serve you.'"
After drying her new husband's feet, the night only got better. "It was incredible," Lauren says of losing her virginity.
I push for details.
She sticks to "incredible."
I describe the first time I had sex. I was 17, and my boyfriend's parents were out of town. My boyfriend (Bob), his buddy, my best friend (Jen), and I were at his house fooling around, and Jen came into Bob's bedroom and said, "I'll do it if you do it." We all did it. In Bob's bedroom there was some confusion about mechanics (hips synchronized or in opposition?), a bit of discomfort on my part, and a little performance anxiety on his. Afterward, Jen and I confabbed and decided that sex had "potential." Lauren nods and smiles.
I flat-out ask if she has orgasms. She defers with an "it's amazing."
Three weeks after their wedding, I visit Lauren at their apartment near Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where Brett is temporarily stationed. She looks the same — smiling, doll-like. When we sit down to talk, Lauren tells me about a 17-year-old girl she met in the computer room of her new apartment complex. Crying, the girl told Lauren, "I think my fiancé's cheating on me, and I'm trying to figure out what to do because I'm pregnant with his kid."
"And I thought, Oh, that's really interesting," says Lauren. "She's had sex with him, and now she's opened the door to fear and rejection. What's she going to do if he leaves? She's got his child, she's only 17, she didn't graduate high school. Now what?"
Lauren thinks the trouble began when the couple had sex. I think the trouble began when that girl didn't use birth control. Before I've put these thoughts into words, Lauren continues. "For me," she says, "I'm stronger as a woman because I came into marriage as a virgin. I'm whole."
Despite my past lovers, I feel remarkably whole, too, and tell Lauren so.
"But when you've saved yourselves for only each other, there's trust," she says. "Now I'm able to give Brett everything. I know that I'm the only one who knows him intimately. I'm not afraid of, 'When is he going to ditch me?' or 'Will he cheat on me?'"
I hold the opposite view. It's kind of like dieting: Limit me to vanilla wafers, and I'll be craving a bakery. And while I sampled many cookies before getting hitched, I never worry that either of us is going to stray.
That night in Arizona, Lauren, Brett, and I dine at a restaurant across from Wal-Mart called Mimi's. She wears a beaded gauzy top, he wears a T-shirt that shows off his admirable muscles. They sit side by side and share shy smiles, looking and acting like a couple who just met — which, in many ways, is what they are. Unlike my husband and me after we married, Lauren doesn't automatically know what Brett will order. He stares intently at Lauren when I ask her a question — not sure what she'll answer. He's amused to learn that Lauren feels like they are playing house; she's surprised that Brett feels guilty when he lingers at the base after work. They are great mysteries to each other, but even so — or maybe because of that — the sexual heat between them is palpable.
Lauren says she embraces her new life as a stay-at-home wife, spending her days cleaning, grocery shopping, decorating, e-mailing, "then waiting for Brett to get home." Though she misses her family, she's determined to succeed in her new role. "I see my life as helping Brett," she says. I tell her it sounds like she's giving up her personal freedom. She disagrees.
"Freedom," she says, "comes from living within boundaries. It's like driving. There are lanes and signs — which some might find constraining — but if they weren't there, it would be chaos." Stay in your lane, though, and it's easy to get where you want to go. Before I catch a plane back to New York, Lauren and I visit the mall to get our eyes done at a MAC cosmetics counter. Lauren looks modelesque in a range of plums; I look like a large leprechaun in a trio of lime greens. As we laugh together over that girly universal, eyeshadow, you'd never know that Lauren fears for my marriage and maybe my soul, and I fear that she — a bright, passionate girl — is living a subjugated life.
I rub the green grub from my eyelids and mutter obscenities about evil makeup pushers as we leave the store. Lauren giggles, and we step out into the blinding Arizona sun. We agree — oddly, in a way only two women who have shared a beauty ritual can — that perhaps subjugation depends on your point of view. Consider Randy. Consider Lindsay, Paris, and Britney. Consider the thousands of American high-school students taking a sex-ed class that suggests the only thing you need to know about sex is how not to have it. For now, ours is a confused culture in a free country. Lauren and I find our car and, burning our fingertips on the hot metal, unlock it. Soon, to the tune of the Kelly Clarkson song, I mentally sing, "Go forth and search for love any way you can."