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

 

Flickr: M.o.B 68 / New Statesman
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“I begged him to come home”: Breaking the taboo around texting the dead

Many people text dead loved ones to cope with their grief – but trouble arises when they get an unexpected reply. 

A month after Haley Silvestri’s dad died from a heart attack, she texted him begging him to come home. In the middle of the night Silvestri’s 14-year-old sister had found their father, with his lips and mouth blue, lying on the kitchen floor. “There was nothing there anymore, just a dead body,” Silvestri says. “My father had his first heart attack months before and seemed to be doing OK. Then, this happened.”

In the very first episode of CSI Miami’s seventh season, the protagonist – Horatio Caine – fakes his death. For the first 15 minutes of the episode, the viewer believes the character is truly dead, as the camera lingers on Horatio’s body face down on the tarmac.

Silvestri and her father used to enjoy watching the show together. After he had passed and she realised she would never see her “best friend” again, she picked up her phone. “I texted my dad begging him to come home,” she says. “I begged my dad to please be ‘pulling a Horatio’.”

"My heart was broken and I was bawling as I texted her over and over" 

In texting her father after he had died, Silvestri is by no means unusual. No official figures exist for the number of people who use technology to message their deceased loved ones, but Sara Lindsay, a professional counsellor, clinical supervisor, and trainer, says it is “more common than we think”.

“I see it as a modern and contemporary part of the grieving process,” she says. “I think in a way it's very similar to visiting a graveside, in that the bereaved are reaching out, particularly in the early days, because it takes a long time for people to process the reality that this person has now gone.”

Karlie Jensen, 18, texted her friend immediately after she found out she had died in a car accident. “I texted her as soon as I woke up to the news from my mom that she had passed. My heart was broken and I was bawling as I texted her over and over waiting for a text saying it wasn't her, that my mom didn't know all the facts, and maybe she was just hurt.” Jensen also called her friend and begged her to respond. “I did it because I couldn't let go and couldn't accept she was gone from my life forever,” she says. Karlie continued to text her friend while also calling her voicemail in order to hear the sound of her speaking again. 

Karlie (right) and her friend

After her first text to her deceased father, Silversti also began texting him once a week. She fell into depression, and on her worst days messaged the number. “I think it helped initially because it felt like I was personally writing a note to him, that I knew he only was gonna see,” she says. “I did it because it was my attempt at pretending he was still here and could text me back.”

Lindsay, who has over a decade’s experience of bereavement counselling, emphasises that this behaviour is in no way unhealthy. “I think on the whole it's a very healthy part of grieving, particularly in the first year where the bereaved faces agonising days without their loved ones,” she says. “There is just so much loss and change in their life that’s out of their control, I see this aspect of texting as a small way of being able to reach out and alleviate that pain. That person is suddenly now not there but how they feel about that person hasn't changed.”

"I was going through my phone and I saw his number – I wanted to delete it, but I hesitated I thought maybe I could send a text"

Despite being normal, however, using technology to talk to the dead is a behaviour we rarely – if ever – hear anything about. If the words “texting the dead” make it into the media, they are usually followed by a far more sensationalist “and then they text back!!!!”. Yet although messaging the deceased is popularly seen as the stuff of horror movies and trashy headlines, in reality it is simply a new, modern way to grieve.

Via Mirror.co.uk

“The first time I texted him I was on my bus on the way to school,” says now-20-year-old Dylan Campbell about his cousin Josh, who passed away from leukaemia. “I didn't have many friends so I had no one to talk to. I was going through my phone and I saw his number – I wanted to delete it, but I hesitated I thought maybe I could send a text and someone would reply or I would get something out of it.”

Campbell continued to send his cousin texts for a few weeks, “kind of like a diary”. He says he did so because he regretted not seeing Josh more up until his death, and “had a lot of things to say” that he’d never had the chance to. Linsday says texting in this way is a very healthy way of completing unfinished business. “There might have been something they've never said to their loved one that they want to be able to say and texting is a very normal place to do that.”

"Begging for a dead person to reply to you hurts since you won't ever get what you want in return"

Nonetheless, Lindsay notes that texting the dead can become unhealthy if grief becomes “stuck”, and the texting replaces normal communication or becomes a long term compulsion. Unlike Silvestri and Campbell, Jensen continued to text her friend in the hopes she would text back. She admits now that she was in denial about her death. “Begging for a dead person to reply to you hurts since you won't ever get what you want in return” she says. “I don't know if it helped trying to contact her or hurt worse because I knew I'd never get a reply. I wanted a reply.”

Quite frequently, however, this reply does come. After a few months – but sometimes in as little as 30 days – phone companies will reallocate a deceased person’s phone number. If someone is texting this number to “talk” to their dead loved one, this can be difficult for everyone involved.

“This story doesn't have a happy ending,” says Campbell. “After a few months someone from that number called me and yelled at me to stop bothering them – it was really heart breaking.” When Silvestri texted her father to wish him a happy birthday (“Saying I hoped he was having a great party up in heaven”) someone replied telling her to never text the number again. “I was pissed off,” she says. “Just block my number if it was that serious. This was a form of therapy I needed and it got taken away because someone couldn’t understand my hurt.”

Indeed, behind the sensationalist tabloid headlines of "texting back" is a more mundane - and cruel - reality of pranksters pretending to be the dead relatives come back to life.

"Visiting a grave is a clear recognition that the person visited does not exist in the normal day-to-day state of life, whereas texting allows for a suspension of that reality"

Silvestri, Jensen, and Campbell have never spoken to anyone else about the fact they texted their dead loved ones. Lindsay says that a fear of seeming “mad” combined with cultural phenomena – like the British stiff upper lip – might make people reluctant to speak about it. There is also a stigma around the way much of our modern technology is used in daily life, let alone in death.

This stigma often arises because of the newness of technology, but Christopher Moreman, a philosophy professor and expert on death and dying, emphasises that texting the dead is simply a modern iteration of many historical grieving practices – such as writing letters to the dead or talking to them at their graves. “I don't think the process of grieving is much changed, even if new modes of grieving come about due to new technologies,” he says. In fact, if anything, the differences between old and new ways of grieving can be positive.

“One important difference is in the sense of proximity,” explains Moreman. “I can text a loved one from anywhere in the world, but I can only visit their grave in one specific location. In another way, texting has the same structure whether I am texting someone who is alive or dead, so a sense of proximity also exists in the experience itself.

“Visiting a grave is a clear recognition that the person visited does not exist in the normal day-to-day state of life, whereas texting allows for a suspension of that reality. Some people may complain that new technologies allow us to ignore the reality of death, but there isn't any evidence that one way of grieving is more or less healthy than another.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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