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