Why Nearly Every 2000s Disney Channel Star Wore a Purity Ring
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article contains descriptions of rape and sexual assault. If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out to the RAINN hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
In the late 2000s, a purity ring was the must-have accessory for every teen pop star. A trend seemingly sparked by Jessica Simpson, who famously waited until after she married Nick Lachey to have sex (and also apparently question whether “Chicken of the Sea” was fish or chicken), and on a broader scale, Hillary Duff, who proved Disney Channel stars could translate into profitable pop acts, many of the late aughts' teen idols had one uniting feature – their outspoken commitment to chastity. A promise physically represented by silver purity rings, many of which read “true love waits,” nearly all of Disney Channel's stars spent a good chunk of the late aughts discussing their dedication to waiting until marriage to have sex, some even encouraging fans to do the same.
“I like to think of myself as the girl that no one can get, that no one can keep in their hand,” a teenage Miley Cyrus told TV Guide in 2008, roughly two years into Hannah Montana's run. “Even at my age, a lot of girls are starting to fall,” she continued. "And I think if is a commitment girls make, that’s great."
Selena Gomez, the star of Disney Channel's Wizards of Waverly Place also sported a purity ring, speaking candidly about her decision in a 2008 interview with Extra. “I said, ‘Dad, I want a promise ring,'” the then 18-year-old actress recalled. “He went to the church and got it blessed. He actually used me as an example for other kids,” she continued. "I’m going to keep my promise to myself, to my family, and to God."
Although she may have been used as an example in her community – and later in the eyes of the entire world – Gomez seemingly adopted a more private approach to this promise later in her life, telling Daily Mail in 2010 that she'd “rather not” publicly address her choice. “I never want to put any pressure on my fans," she said, adding that “the ring is not important for anyone else but myself."
But it wasn't just the girls. The Jonas Brothers particularly embodied this new brand of chaste pop star, receiving perhaps the most press – and scrutiny – for their devotion to purity. Growing up as the children of a Pentecostal pastor in Wyckoff, New Jersey, Kevin and Joe Jonas – the eldest two siblings – began sporting rings long before they stepped into the limelight.
“It started when I was really young,” Joe recalled in a 2013 personal essay he penned for Vulture. “I must have been 10 or 11. There’s a program people do in some churches called True Love Waits, where you wait for marriage to have sex. Kevin and I decided to join—Nick tried it later," he explained, referencing his younger brother who was also in the band. "Fast-forward a few years, we’ve started playing music and we’re working with Disney and we have these rings.”
Considering their status as Disney Channel icons with millions of adoring teen fans, the Jonas Brothers' dedication to abstinence often dominated interviews. The siblings even played a brief game of purity ring show-and-tell with Details magazine while backstage at Madison Square Garden in 2008.
"It actually ripped apart a little bit, just on the bottom, here, but I didn't want to get a new one, because this one means so much to me," Joe said of his silver band, which he said represented "promises to ourselves and to God that we'll stay pure till marriage."
“I got mine made at Disney World,” Nick chimed in, showing off his ring. "It's pretty awesome."
With this horde of teen idols proudly proclaiming their chastity, Disney and the broader pop culture lexicon had managed to capitalize on the old adage of “sex sells,” but with a new, parent-approved twist – quite literally commodifying virginity. Swapping out young celebrities deemed “too sexy” by the press and concerned moms – namely Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake – for a new generation of virginal stars who wore their chastity on their finger, it became clear that sexual “purity” could serve as a key element in creating a new genre of profitable teen pop sensations.
“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,” Tyler Bickford, a University of Pittsburgh professor who penned Schooling New Media: Music, Language, and Technology in Children’s Culture told Jezebel back in 2018. “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.”
But instead of slashing inappropriate interest surrounding the sex lives of teen celebrities, this approach seemingly backfired. An aggressive departure from Spears, Aguilera, and Timberlake, who sparked outrage after incorporating some adult themes into their music shortly after leaving Disney, the move towards purity seemingly only fueled this creepy fascination – perhaps by design. Serving as a topic of discussion in nearly every interview and the butt of an entire South Park episode, Nick Jonas, the Jonas Brothers youngest member, says he felt uncomfortable with his pre-teen virginity existing as a national obsession.
“What’s discouraging about that chapter of our life is that at 13 or 14 my sex life was being discussed,” Jonas said in a 2019 interview with The Guardian. “It was very tough to digest it in real-time, trying to understand what it was going to mean to me, and what I wanted my choices to be, while having the media speaking about a 13-year-old’s sex life. I don’t know if it would fly in this day and age,” the artist continued, dubbing the entire phenomenon "very strange.”
And it wasn't just Nick. Joe, the second eldest Jonas Brother, recalled an instance in which he felt “terrified” after a reporter demanded he and his siblings answer deeply personal questions about their virginity – or else. "I remember this interview with this guy whose entire agenda was to focus on the rings," the singer recalled later in his Vulture essay. “He kept pushing the subject, and when we insisted that we didn’t want to talk about it, he told us, ‘I can write whatever I want,' which terrified us. That’s the thing: We didn’t know any better, and we just wanted to make people happy.” Although Joe said he later learned that “I don’t have to answer any questions I don’t want to,” he was seemingly still surprised by that reporter's insistence. “Like, why do you even care about my 15-year-old brother’s sex life?” he wrote.
This bizarre fixation on young Disney stars' virginities reached an uncomfortable crescendo at the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards. While emceeing the show, British comic Russell Brand took nearly every opportunity to lambaste the Jonas Brothers for sporting purity rings, even launching into a whole bit about striving to deflower all three of the boy band's then 15, 19, and 20-year-old members.
“I'm beginning to wonder, you know, are the Jonas Brothers quite what they seem, 'cause if they were, how come I've got this little ring now?" Brand joked, wielding a replica of the Jonas Brothers' iconic silver accessory between his fingers. “I mean initially, he was a little bit reluctant, but eventually sort of saw it was for the best and let me tell you, it was an enjoyable and pleasant experience and I wish the rest of the Jonas Brothers the best of luck because over the course of the evening, I want a collection of these bloody things," he continued, uncomfortable laughs emerging from the crowd.
But Brand's creepy, repetitive bit didn't go unaddressed. Later that night, American Idol's sixth season winner and a notable purity ring-wearer Jordin Sparks took the stage, responding to the comic's thread. “Alright I just have one thing to say about promise rings," Sparks said moments before introducing a performance by rapper T.I. “It’s not bad to wear a promise ring because not everybody – guy or girl – wants to be a slut."
Inciting countless headlines, early internet outrage, and a reportedly overnight increase in purity ring sales, Sparks ultimately walked back this sweeping generalization in the weeks following the award show. “I wish I would've worded it differently," the then 18-year-old artist told Entertainment Weekly. "Somebody who doesn't wear a promise ring isn’t necessarily a slut – but I can’t take it back now." But even with her less-than-ideal wording, Sparks maintains speaking out was the right call. “It was a split-second thing, and it came out kind of wrong,” she said. "Still, I don’t regret it.”
And as for the virtuous teens of the hour? Shortly after the ceremony, Nick told BBC News that “it's cool to see” that Brand “recognizes we are gentlemen," however Kevin Jonas spoke more candidly about the creepy culture underwriting Brand's deeply personal jabs. "I think he focused on certain things and didn't move off of them," the eldest Jonas explained. "People's attention spans in America need more than that."
But even with the clear discomfort of their young talent – one that was confirmed years later – keeping virginity as a key element of the Jonas Brothers' identity (and that of their Disney Channel peers) was clearly a profitable decision.
“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,” NPR's Hazel Cills explained in a 2018 deep dive on the topic for Jezebel. "Whenever a star did do something relatively normal for a teenager, like take sexy photos, they were more intensely scrutinized.”
So when the vast majority of these teen stars ultimately ditched their rings later in their career, their virginity – or new lack thereof – made headlines once again.
“Purity rings were to wait for the right person when the time was right," Joe told The Late Late Show host/traffic nuisance James Corden on a 2019 “Carpool Karaoke” segment. “We grew up in a church and our dad was a pastor, so it kind of just came natural for everyone we grew up with to go through this, and get one, and say, ‘I’m gonna wait for the right person,’” he added. "Some people would say, ‘I’m gonna wait until marriage. When you’re about 15, 16, and start dating, and you go, ‘Wait a minute. What did I say I was gonna do?'”
But when you're a teen and a pop star, these normal, conflicting emotions surrounding high-pressure social contracts are only heightened – especially when all your creative expressions must be G-rated.
“Because of our age, because of Disney, because of those rings, there were so many things throughout our career that we had to sugarcoat,” Joe explained in his Vulture piece. “If a lyric was slightly sexual, someone at the record company would tell us we had to change it. It could be the most innocent reference, like ‘I’m alone in a room with you,’ and it would have to go. It felt like we couldn’t be creative, so we stopped listening to them and just started handing shit in,” he continued. Later in the essay, Jonas shared that he and his younger brother Nick ultimately chose to remove their rings. Kevin married his wife Danielle Deleasa in 2009, telling People magazine that they waited until after they had tied the knot to have sex.
But it's not just the JoBros. Although Selena Gomez says she struggled with the backlash against her wearing the ring – “sometimes you have to lie to yourself to get through the criticism, and then you're in your closet crying,” she told The Times in 2015 – the artist later chose to take it off around the time she dated fellow musician, Justin Bieber. “I'm not embarrassed,” Gomez said of her decision to sport a purity ring in the first place. "I'm also not embarrassed to say that the ring has come off. I got it when was I was 13 and I respect so much what it represented, but it isn't for everyone."
But for Demi Lovato, the purity ring impacted more than just their career or dating life, seemingly exacerbating an already traumatic experience. In their 2021 documentary, Dancing With the Devil, the star revealed that being “a part of that Disney crowd that publicly said they were waiting 'till marriage,” prevented them from speaking out after they were raped as a teen.
"I lost my virginity in a rape," Lovato said. “We were hooking up but I said, 'Hey, this is not going any farther, I'm a virgin and I don't want to lose it this way.' And that didn't matter to them, they did it anyways. And I internalized it and I told myself it was my fault because I still went in the room with him, I still hooked up with him."
As a result of both this self-blame and their extremely chaste brand, Lovato says they struggled to cope. “So what, I'm supposed to come out to the public after saying I have a promise ring?'" they said. ”Six months later, I'm supposed to say, ‘well I had sex, even though it was rape?’ Some people aren't going to see it that way."
But to pin this widespread purity push on Lovato's heartbreaking trauma or their peers attempting to navigate Disney Channel stardom and balance the external pressures from family, friends, and religious communities with their own needs and identities – a common experience many teens struggle with -- would be reductive.
The late aughts' purity ring obsession was a long time coming, a pop culture moment precluded by a roughly two-and-a-half-decade-long campaign for abstinence-only sex education. In 1981, the Reagan Administration passed the Adolescent Family Life Act – the first legislation of its kind – as a part of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, prompting the US Department of Health and Human Services to launch several sex ed initiatives with a particular focus on just how much parenthood financially and socially sucked for unmarried young people. The bill also handed federal funding to public and private organizations – many of which were Catholic – who used abstinence-only education in an attempt to stop horny, hormone-crazed teenagers from, well, being horny, hormone-crazed teenagers.
Considering this notable support of Christian organizations, the bill wound up at the center of a heated legal battle – Bowen v. Kendrick – after a ragtag group consisting of clergypeople, taxpayers, and the American Jewish Congress sued then HHS Secretary Otis R. Bowen in 1983, claiming that the bill violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause – a.k.a the separation of church and state.
Five years later in 1988, the case ultimately made its way up to the Supreme Court, where Bowen emerged victorious in a 4-5 decision maintaining that the Adolescent Family Life Act was constitutional. But the Reagan-era bill wasn't the only public policy designed to scare young people into keeping it in their pants before tying the knot … or else they "just have to be prepared to die."
A testament to this politicized legislation – and the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which had changed public perception on sex ed in schools, culminating in 47 states mandating some form of instruction on the topic by the early '90s – the U.S. Government funneled roughly $2.1 billion into abstinence-only education programs as of 2018. Peaking between the years of 2005 and 2009 – a span of time which just so happens to fall during the Disney Channel purity explosion – the government spent a total of approximately $846 million dollars on these programs over this five-year period, according to data collected by The Sexuality Information and Education Council.
The Silver Ring Thing was one of the many aforementioned abstinence-advocacy groups that received this sweet, sweet, federal cash. Known today as ‘Unaltered,’ – a name that may or may not be the product of a bunch of ministers thinking ‘how can we make abstinence sound like the next Silicon Valley unicorn?" – the virginity pledge program was founded in Arizona in the mid-'90s and pulled out all the stops in begging teens people not to bone. Featuring “programs complete with hard rock, light shows and comedy skits to encourage kids to abstain from sex until marriage,” as NPR put it back in 2005, attendees were encouraged to buy virginity merch – specifically, silver rings inscribed with a Bible verse which partially reads “God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of all sexual sin."
The Silver Ring Thing's fandom spanned well beyond young people, with President George W. Bush and co. also apparently getting down with the sex-less ambiance of virginity-themed rock concerts. Between 2003 and 2005, the government gave the organization upwards of $1 million in federal grants as a part of the Bush administration's broader push for more abstinence-only sex education, according to NPR. In a similar suit to Bowen v. Kendrick, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the government, claiming that using federal funds to support a religiously-affiliated group was unconstitutional.
Roughly three months later, the Bush Administration stopped giving federal funds to The Silver Ring Thing in its existing structure, stating that doing so was using taxpayer dollars to fund religious activities. The following year, the government ultimately reached a settlement with the ACLU.
On some level, the Disney Channel purity ring craze, and perhaps the media's coinciding obsession with teen pregnancy, as evidenced by the massive success of Juno, 16 and Pregnant, and “pregnancy pacts” among high school girls making national news, also encompassed the attitudes many young people – myself included – had surrounding sex, perhaps by design.
Inspired by my Disney Channel idols, I decided I wanted a purity ring when I was 12 years old, a fact I proudly announced to my babysitter – who existed more as a proverbial older sister – while on a walk one summer afternoon.
“That's a big decision," she said. “Why do you think this is the right choice for you?” She listened as supportively as she could while I proudly echoed several of the talking points I gleaned from reading Tiger Beat interviews with Selena Gomez and The Jonas Brothers, a series of sentiments summarized by a now cringe-inducing cliche – "true love waits."
She glanced at me, doing her damndest to hide her very reasonable skepticism. "Well Carly, I'll be sure to ask if you kept that promise on your wedding night," she said.
Although at the time I remember thinking abstaining from sex until marriage would be an easy task akin to “just saying no” to alcohol or tobacco, my views were largely colored by, well, being 12. I was a middle schooler who had only recently had my first kiss – an awkward closed-mouth affair with an eighth-grader named Adam whose idea of making a move was evidently whispering “just kiss me, foo!” into my ear while watching 2008's critically panned Speed Racer. The concept of sex – one I admittedly didn't fully understand – unsettled, intrigued, and at moments terrified me, a sentiment seemingly shared by the majority of my suburban Illinois classmates.
My school – the exterior of which you may recognize from a handful of shots depicting the ficticious John Adams Middle School in 2011's Bad Teacher – stuck to an abstinence-only sex education curriculum. Though it is unclear whether this was a result of federal funding or the fact that we were middle schoolers in a largely Christian community, meaning most of us probably wouldn't have been having sex anyways, our discussions of the topic centered around the dangers of STIs and unwanted pregnancies, a resounding message of “don't do it” underlying each lesson. Our textbook (which has since been archived online) featured no mention of “condoms," “birth control” or “safe sex," information that while not perhaps immediately useful, may have been beneficial to learn sooner rather than later -- especially considering abstinence-only education has been proven largely ineffective.
Back in 2007, a study from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that despite receiving billions in government funding, abstinence-only education had no tangible impact on young people's behavior.
“At present, there does not exist any strong evidence that any abstinence program delays the initiation of sex, hastens the return to abstinence, or reduces the number of sexual partners,” read the review. "In addition, there is strong evidence from multiple randomized trials demonstrating that some abstinence programs chosen for evaluation because they were believed to be promising actually had no impact on teen sexual behavior."
This research also illustrated that more comprehensive sex education led to several "positive outcomes" like "delaying the initiation of sex, reducing the frequency of sex, reducing the number of sexual partners and increasing condom or contraceptive use."
A decade and change later, it seems this data still stands. A pair of 2017 studies published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that while Abstinence-Only Until Marriage (AOUM) programs may conceptually work at preventing young people from having sex, they spectacularly fail in practice.
“While theoretically fully protective, abstinence intentions often fail, as abstinence is not maintained,” the study reads. “AOUM programs are not effective in delaying initiation of sexual intercourse or changing other behaviors. Conversely, many comprehensive sexuality education programs successfully delay initiation of sexual intercourse and reduce sexual risk behaviors,” the paper continued, adding that “AOUM programs inherently provide incomplete information and are often neglectful to sexually active adolescents; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning adolescents; pregnant and parenting adolescents; and survivors of sexual assault.”
But just as the times and the science have changed (or, well, mostly changed, considering twee experienced a brief, albeit traumatizing revival earlier this month) both the federal and cultural approach to teen sex has drastically shifted as well.
In 2009, the Obama administration significantly reduced funding for this type of education in their 2010 budget, a choice Sara Moslener, author of 2015's Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence, says speaks to both the social and economic state of the country in the late 2000s.
“I hate to reduce it all to being like, well, there was money,” Moslener explained, linking this shift in funding to Disney's purity ring craze. “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 was during the Bush administration, and then things really shifted with Obama.”
During the final year of his second term, the Obama administration took this change a step further, slashing all funding for abstinence-only programs. That said, these cuts were somewhat restored after President Donald Trump's administration outlined their approach towards sex education. While more comprehensive programs detailing contraception were still included in the administration's funding, they explicitly championed regimes focused on “sexual risk avoidance" – a.k.a abstinence, according to the New York Times.
But even with the return of abstinence-only funding, the Obama-era approach to sex education was seemingly mirrored by the next generation of Disney Channel celebrities – namely Zendaya. Long before setting box-office records with last month's Spider-Man: No Way Home, and captivating audiences as Rue in HBO's Euphoria, Zendaya was a Disney Channel staple, co-starring in Shake It Up! alongside actress Bella Thorne, and later spearheading her own show, K.C. Undercover. During the latter series's second season, Zendaya appeared on the July 2016 cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, where she spoke candidly about her moderate approach to sex and relationships, a stark contrast from her late aughts predecessors.
“I would much rather be in love and have the full experience with the person I’m doing that with,” the then 19-year-old star explained, adding that “everyone deserves to be in love.” And as for casual sex? “As long as you protect yourself and get tested periodically, then by all means, go ahead and do what you’ve got to do,” she continued.
Even though she was still a teen, Zendaya had a point – there is no singular “correct” approach to something as deeply personal as sex and virginity. Just as abstinence advocates aren't wrong to save sex until marriage, there's also nothing wrong with choosing to get it on – so long as safety and consent are top priorities. You're not the Jonas Brothers in 2009. I'm not your mom. Get down with your bad self – or don't. I'm a pop culture writer, not a cop.
Top Image: Wikimedia/Disney Channel. Designed By Cracked's Shea.