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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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

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