Part of the struggle for these men is reconciling their masculine identity with abstinence. Photo: Getty
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What happens when evangelical virgin men get married? A secular female sociologist found out

Alice Robb talks to sociologist Sarah Diefendorf about what it’s like to be a secular woman at a virginity support group for religious men. 

In 2008, sociologist Sarah Diefendorf spent a year attending a support group for young Christian men who’d pledged to remain abstinent until marriage, getting to know the 20-something bachelors whose lives revolved around an evangelical mega-church in the southwestern United States. Studies have found that teens pledging abstinence through large-scale national programs like True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing are no more likely than their peers to remain virgins until marriage, but small peer groups may be more successful. “In these small groups, the men would really talk and grapple with issues of sex and sexuality,” Diefendorf, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, told me. All 15 men in the group kept their pledges (as far as she could tell). But their struggles with sexuality didn’t end on their wedding nights. Diefendorf followed up with the men five years later, after they were married, to see what kind of issues they were still facing.

Diefendorf will present her research to the annual convention of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco on Sunday. I talked to her about what she found out – and what it’s like to be a secular woman at a virginity support group for religious men. 

Alice Robb: Was it awkward for you to be there?

Sarah Diefendorf: I initially was worried about being a woman entering this space. They had a Facebook page at the time that said, “Men only”; I didn’t even think they would let me in. But I found that my secular identity trumped my gender identity. It didn’t matter as much that I was a woman as it mattered that I was someone from outside the church. They see a very clear divide between the evangelical community and the secular world. They wanted to tell their story to someone from the outside.

AR: What does the church teach them about sex?

SD: The church teaches that that sexual activity is a gift from God, and in order to enjoy that gift, it needs to occur only within marriage. Men talked about sexuality as a dichotomy: They believed that sex was sacred, but they also talked about sex as beastly, as something that needed to be controlled. The “beastly” elements of sex, for them, are things like masturbation, pornography, lust and same-sex desire.

AR: How do they control the “beastly elements”?

SD: They had support groups where they’d meet once a week and confess their sins and their struggles and debate what’s appropriate. One night they had a very lively debate about masturbation. They came down on the idea that perhaps it would be okay to masturbate because they believed it would help them last longer on their wedding night.

They also have set up this intricate network of accountability. For example, the informal leader of the group had two “accountability partners”. One would text him every single night at 9pm to ask if he was “behaving”. It was a reminder that someone was looking out for him. Then he had a second “accountability partner” who every week would receive a report from his laptop that told him what websites he had visited, so he could make sure he wasn’t looking at pornography.

AR: Are there similar support groups for abstinent women in the church?

SD: Not that I found. The church, and the men that I interviewed, don’t believe that women would need a space to talk through these issues. They believe that men are highly sexual beings and they have “natural urges” that need to be controlled, but they don’t believe that women have that natural desire to be sexually active. Women are the providers of sexual activity for their husbands.

One of the men shared a revealing story. He was dating a woman from outside the church and she wanted to have sex with him. I asked him why they broke up, and he said that was the main reason. Not only did having premarital sex go against his beliefs – for him, it also indicated that she was in love with him, and he wasn’t yet in love with her. It couldn’t be that she just wanted to have sex with her boyfriend.

AR: You write that these men are “transgressing normative understandings of gender that equate performances of masculinity with sexual activity”. How do they reconcile their masculine identity with abstinence?

SD: For these men, to be a good man and a man of God meant saving themselves for the wedding bed. Amy Wilkins, a sociologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder, also interviewed men who pledged abstinence before marriage, and she argued that these men are asserting their masculinity in different ways. Rather than saying, “I’m a man because I engage in a variety of sexual activity,” they’re saying, “I’m a man because I can avoid that temptation; I can control these things.”

AR: What is the courtship process like? 

SD: They all married women they met in the church, a lot of them through services geared toward people their age. The church has a Friday night program dedicated to people in their age group. They have a live band, candy, free coffee.

For the most part, they had short engagements, ranging from about three months to a year or a year and a half. The engagement is in many ways a dating period: There’s a lot of going out to dinner, going to movies, cooking together. A lot of it is focused on the church – attending the Friday night programme together, going to church on Sunday.

There’s usually church-sanctioned support during the engagement period. Some couples made lists of what was appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour. For example, one couple decided that kissing on the lips was okay, but not kissing on the neck or touching the body below the neck.

AR: Finally, what happens after they get married?

SD: When you spend the first twenty-plus years of your life thinking of sex as something beastly that needs to be controlled, it’s very difficult to make that transition to married life and viewing sex as sacred. And once these men are married, the church pulls away the support group. The idea is that once you’re married, it’s all good – you’re supposed to be enjoying sex with your wife. Your significant other is supposed to be your support system.

I brought the men back together after they were all married. They’d maintained close friendships with each other, but they made it clear to me very quickly that they no longer discussed sex. They felt they couldn’t talk to other men about these issues anymore because now, when they were talking about sex, they were talking about their wives. Before, if they talked about masturbation, pornography, they were just talking about themselves and their own transgressions. If they were talking about their sex lives post-marriage, they were talking about the women who were involved, and that went up against the idea that women are non-sexual beings.

But as one of the guys said, once you get married, the “beastly” doesn’t disappear. They still struggle with issues like excessive pornography viewing, masturbation. A few of them were worried that they might want to have an affair. They’re still struggling with these things, but they no longer have an outlet to work through them. They didn’t have the tools to engage in a healthy sex life.

This interview has been edited and condensed. This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

 

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile