By Sarah Diefendorf
Last spring, David Magnusson’s portraits of girls who attended purity balls generated lots of attention.These images of young women in white gowns, embraced by their fathers, evoke the sentiment and purpose of purity balls: dances at which daughters pledge their virginity to their fathers until they marry. As Amy Derogatis argues in her new book, Saving Sex, purity balls raise questions about the autonomy of these girls and the value we place on their virginity. Purity balls are a dramatic example of contemporary right of passage for many American teens: the virginity pledge. These rituals – pledges and balls – highlight cultural understandings of virginity and gender in which young women are supposed to protect their virginity, because it doesn’t really belong to them. It belongs to the men they will marry.
While we are perhaps now familiar with images of virginal young women pledging to “save themselves,” we know less about young men who make similar decisions. The Jonas Brothers, for instance, received significant attention for prominently sporting purity rings that symbolize one’s intent to remain a virgin until marriage. However, in a recent article in People Magazine, Nick Jonas opens up about breaking his pledge and losing his virginity, stating that as a sexually active 22 year old, he is now a “…man in all ways.”
Examining these messages about young women who maintain their virginity and young men who lose it suggests that in the US we equate virginity and sexual purity with femininity and sexual activity with masculinity. What does this mean for men who, unlike Nick Jonas, make and stick to abstinence pledges? Can they both see themselves as masculine and virgins? Or are they, to use Nick’s words, NOT men in all ways?
I began to examine these questions in 2008, when I interviewed young white men between the ages of 19-25 who were a part of an evangelical mega-church support group called “The River.” This group was dedicated to supporting these men in their decisions to remain abstinent until marriage. The men of The River openly discuss pornography, masturbation, same-sex desire, and lust—all elements of sexuality that they consider “beastly.” Small group discussions were meant to help these men control these “beastly” desires in hopes of achieving the “sacred”—sex within the confines of marriage. In order to maintain their virginity until marriage, these men must balance this tension between sacred and beastly—a balance that may seem to present what sociologist Amy Wilkins calls a “masculinity dilemma“.
Men in The River also assist each other through “accountability partners.” Accountability partners help these young men “keep each other honest” when it comes to violations of their pledge (e.g., pornography use, masturbation, sexual activity with girlfriends or fiancées). Accountability partners might seem to challenge the kinds of “sex talk” we stereotypically associate with young men. But, my research shows that accountability partnerships symbolically reinforced these men’s masculinity—albeit in less traditional ways. For instance, when these young men talk about sexual temptations, they underscore how incredibly difficult it is to remain abstinent, emphasizing the strength it takes to withstand their desires. In Wilkins’ research with young Christian men, she found similar language and argued that discourses about temptation allowed abstinence to be framed as consistent with culturally dominant understandings of masculinity. The “sex talk” among men in The River might seem to initially challenge contemporary understandings of masculinity in that they aren’t objectifying women, nor are they talking about all the things they wanted to do to women sexually, a la young men in Michael Kimmel’s Guyland or C.J. Pascoe’s Dude, You’re a Fag. However, the “temptation talk” accomplishes something similar. That is, whether or not any of these young men (those engaging in traditional sex talk or abstinent young men engaging in temptation talk) are having sex doesn’t actually matter. The conversations about sex with their guy friends can sufficiently serve as evidence of masculinity. Whether or not one is considered “a man in all ways” may be less about actual sexual activity than it is about ways in which we perform gender.
Unlike Nick Jonas, for the men of The River, a pledge of abstinence does not mean a disavowal of masculinity. Rather, their masculinity is reinforced through the strength required to control a “beastly” sexuality before marriage. In 2011, I conducted interviews with these men after they got married, and this same beastly sexuality threatens their ability to enjoy the “sacred” as successful Christian men. Again, they have something in common with the sexually active young men in Guyland, whom Kimmel finds also ill equipped to forge mutually satisfying, adult sexual relationships. The way that the struggles facing the young men of the River overlap with those faced by non-virgin secular men indicate that perhaps, as a society, we need to focus on developing conversations about sex and sexuality that do not reinforce already existing gendered inequalities. Purity balls and sexually abstinent young pop stars capture our collective attention because they are framed as choices that seem dramatically at odds with what we collectively think of as “typical” sexual behavior for young people, yet closer investigation reveals practices that work to further gendered inequalities around sex.
Sarah Diefendorf is a doctoral candidate in the department of sociology at the University of Washington. Her article, “After the Wedding Night: Sexual Abstinence and Masculinities Over the Life Course” is published in the October 29 (5) issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.