Religious groups are known for championing an abstinence-only approach to pre-marital life, and groups both national and local have been set up to promote and support this lifestyle. Sociologist Sarah Diefendorf spent a year with one – a small support group for young Christian men – and in a recent interview with the New Republic she explains how the abstinence-only approach did not necessarily make for a healthy sex life after marriage. This was in large part due to the severely gendered environment that Diefendorf encountered in which masculinity was equated with sexual restraint and femininity was equated with sexual disinterest – beliefs that led to long-term struggles even after marriage. Diefendorf told the New Republic:
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.”
When it came to abstinence-only support for women, Diefendorf found that there was none. The men she talked to believed that women do not “naturally” have the sexual urges that men do, thus eliminating a need for female support groups in the church. She said:
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.
These notions of purity and masculinity, however, made for a difficult transition into married life for most of the men. Diefendorf followed up five years later and found that the men from the group who were married were still struggling with sexual urges that they felt were “beastly” and, without a support group to talk through these issues, they often turned inward and stopped talking about, and in many cases enjoying, sex altogether. Diefendorf explains:
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…The idea is that once you’re married, it’s all good— you’re supposed to be enjoying sex with your wife…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.
For a great read on how abstinence-only groups target women by making abstinence “sexy”, check out this post by Soc Images.