Virginity, sexual “purity,” and abstinence pledges are typically examined from the female point of view — and understandably so. But some new research, presented this weekend at the American Sociological Association’s annual conference, tackles a less-explored question: After marriage, what happens to the guys who took virginity pledges?
Sarah Diefendorf, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Washington, began her study in 2008, when she started attending a weekly support group attended by about 15 Christian men; the group was affiliated with a megachurch in the southwest with more than 14,000 members. Each of the guys had committed to remaining a virgin until marriage, and the purpose of the group was to give them a safe space in which to share their struggles with sticking to that promise.
But the discussions covered more than just abstinence. The guys were open and honest with each other about a wide range of sexual desires, most of which they deemed potentially damaging to their overarching goal of waiting for marriage to have sex: pornography, same-sex attraction, lust (both for their girlfriends and other women). The participants told Diefendorf how helpful it was to have people with whom they could talk through these issues; they knew they weren’t on their own.
But here’s the catch: Years later, in 2011 and 2012, Diefendorf checked back in with the guys, most of whom were married. After marriage, that once-robust support network had disintegrated. They were expected to talk only with their wives about sex; other than that, they were largely on their own.
The church teaches men to keep struggles of sex and sexuality ‘in the light’ pre-marriage. Through both membership in [the church] and the support of accountability partners, these young men create the space in which they can be open about their struggles. However … the church teaches, ‘once you are married, everything should be kept behind closed doors.’
Given that marriage is framed in such a sacred and positive light, men should not need support groups to deal with issues of sexuality within marriage; this is, rather, the reward for which they have all been waiting.
So these men aren’t sure how to talk to their wives about their sex lives; as one man Diefendorf interviewed said, “For me to come home from work and say, hey, did you like it last time? I mean that would be — that would be such a weird question for me to ask.” Many of the men Diefendorf interviewed said they wished that their church would address sex more openly, because after enjoying the pre-marriage support network, they were suddenly lost, on their own and confused without it. It’s a different side of the same story: Virginity pledges can lead to some unanticipated problems.