Sarah Diefendorf sees an obsession with virginity in America. Usually that obsession is directed toward women, but she was more curious about the guys. So beginning in 2008, Diefendorf, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Washington, began researching a support group of men at an evangelical megachurch in the Southwest whose members had pledged sexual abstinence until marriage. When her research began, each of the men was in his early- to mid-20s and single or casually dating. To make sure all of that casual dating didn’t turn into casual sex — or sex of any kind — they would meet every Wednesday night in a suburban living room where 16 guys would eat pizza and help each other avoid what they called “beastly sex.”
She recently spoke with MEL about some of her findings.
Why male purity pledges?
I was broadly interested in purity balls, which are elaborate father-daughter dances where girls as young as 4 pledge sexual abstinence until their wedding night. At these dances, the fathers give their daughters a promise ring, and on the day of her wedding, the father walks his daughter down the aisle, hands her off to her husband and the promise ring is taken off as the wedding band is put on. I was curious if there were any similar rituals for young men. That led me to my first field site — an evangelical megachurch in the Southwest.
How did you find it?
Because these churches are so big — this particular megachurch had 14,000 people who attended Sunday services — they rely on small groups to maintain and build the sense of community people go to church to seek. This church had a huge database of small groups. I searched through it until I found a group that sounded like men who were supporting each other in abstinence until marriage. The description read, “Find us on Facebook!” I emailed the moderator of the group, “When we think about sexual abstinence and sexual purity, we think about women. I want to tell your story.” He wrote back, “Great, come to our meeting next Wednesday.”
What was the meeting like?
To use their language, they talked about the group as “men supporting each other along their walk on the pathway to God.” These men firmly believed in the church’s teachings that both men and women should save their virginity for their wedding night. Because the church taught that sex is a wonderful gift, but that it’s a gift from God. So in order to enjoy such a wonderful gift, you need to save it for the person you’re going to marry. The purpose of this group was to support each other in maintaining that pledge of abstinence since they had no illusions about the difficulty of maintaining sexual abstinence until marriage.
How did they view sex on the whole?
They described sex as “sacred,” but also as “beastly.”
What does “beastly” mean in this context?
For them, the beastly elements of sex and sexuality were pornography, masturbation, lust and same-sex desire. Those four things were talked about very openly. The idea being that in confessing their sins and talking through their beastly struggles, they were able to know what the other person was dealing with and help them control it so they could make it to their wedding night as virgins.
What was the most common beastly element?
Pornography, hands down.
Just basic internet porn?
Yes. Internet porn was the most common struggle these men talked about. From the sound of it, many of them spent hours upon hours looking at porn online.
How old were they?
20 to 25. So these weren’t teenagers; these were adults.
What was the atmosphere like?
Very casual. Often, a few of them would saunter in 15 or 20 minutes after the meeting had started — late from work or the gym. But once they started talking, things got intense quickly.
Did the meeting have any kind of structure?
They’d eat. They’d talk about their day. They’d joke around. A lot of them had shared interests when it came to films, video games and outdoor exercise. Sometimes they’d pray; sometimes they wouldn’t. Then the small group leader would begin by asking if there was anything they wanted to discuss. If there wasn’t anything specific, he’d share something he was struggling with. More often than not, if someone said they were struggling with something, someone else in the group had a similar concern and that would generate a larger conversation.
Is that when, as you said before, things would get intense?
Yeah. One of the more important functions of this group was that these men didn’t agree on everything. The space allowed them to talk through what they each individually believed when it came to things like lust. For example, they didn’t always agree on whether it was appropriate to masturbate before your wedding night. One guy said, “It’s totally fine as long as you’re not lusting after someone.” Whereas another man said, “Absolutely not. You can’t masturbate without lust.” They also would engage in somewhat heated conversations about how to control the beastly elements of sexuality and how far they should be allowed to go before it’s considered too far.
And how did they believe beastly desires could be controlled?
A few different ways, but the most interesting was what they referred to as “accountability partners.” These are men within and outside of the group who held each other accountable in different aspects of beastly sexuality. As an example, one group member had an accountability partner who would text him every night at 9 p.m. with a simple message, “Are you behaving?” He was supposed to respond and tell him what he was doing and make sure he wasn’t masturbating, looking at porn or kissing his girlfriend on the neck.
A second accountability partner installed software on the small group leader’s laptop that would send him a weekly report of all the websites he’d visited. So if he’d been looking at pornography, the accountability partner would know and give him a call and say, “I saw you were looking at porn again. Let’s have a conversation and equip you so you aren’t struggling with that again next week.”
Did they get to choose their partners as you would an AA sponsor, or were they assigned?
They chose their own accountability partners. Sometimes it came out of a group conversation. A guy would come in and say, “I’m really struggling with X, Y or Z. I need someone who can hold me accountable.” And someone else would say, “I can do that for you.” Other times it would be an explicit conversation: “I know you’ve struggled with pornography addiction in the past. Can you hold me accountable for this now?”
They did, however, emphasize over and over again that women couldn’t be accountability partners. They felt like it would be entirely inappropriate and risky to have a woman holding you accountable for these things.
How much sexual gratification do you think these guys got from talking about sex?
That’s a good question. Michael Kimmel, who wrote the book Guyland, has this great quote, “The experience of sex pales in comparison to conversations about sex.” It’s not actually about the sexual activity you’re engaging in; it’s about the ability the next morning to talk to your guy friends about the night before. His point is that masculinity is equated with sexuality — and specifically heterosexuality and heterosexual activity. So many men are asserting a normative, masculine behavior by being able to talk with other men about their sex life.
The men I’ve interviewed don’t have a sex life to talk about, but they still have a need to talk about their desires. A 23-year-old non-evangelical guy might say, “Yeah, I hooked up with her last night.” While an evangelical guy might say, “It’s really hard for me not to look at pornography.” Very different topics, but they both achieve the same thing — showing the men around them that they’re heterosexual and that they have a normative sex drive.
What happens after they get married?
In almost all of my follow-up interviews, I found a somewhat troubling story: Over and over again, these men told me that they still struggled with beastly elements of sexuality. As one small-group leader told me, “The beastly doesn’t disappear once the ring slips on.”
For 25-plus years, these men have been told that sex and sexuality is beastly and needs to be controlled. Then, all of a sudden, they’re allowed to have sex, but they don’t know how to navigate sex and sexuality in a way that’s positive. For example, every time I asked these men in my follow-up interviews if they talked to their wives about sex or their sex lives together, they assumed I meant something negative. For them, it tended to be out of the realm of possibility to sit down with their spouse and talk about their sex life and what they were comfortable with and uncomfortable with in the bedroom.
Instead, they were still wrestling with the beastly aspects of sexuality. Plus, they lamented that the church no longer provided support for them in married life. The church said, “It’s our goal to get you to marriage, but once you’re married, you should be enjoying this sacred gift from God.” That wasn’t the case for these guys. And they were worried that they no longer had their support group or accountability partners.
Does that also mean they’re no longer able to suppress their beastly temptations?
Yeah. These men spoke pretty openly about struggling with pornography in married life and a significant number of them talked about how the beastly just shifts. Now they were being tempted by extramarital affairs. It would be really interesting to follow up with them again in five years to see if they’re having more open conversations with their wives or if they’re even still married.
Did anyone ever get judgmental or defensive?
Not at all. A lot of that is the “hate the sin, love the sinner” mentality. You know, “I believe it was wrong that you were looking at pornography. But I love you, and I want to support you.”