Feature

When men who abstain from pre-marital sex get married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands

In 2008, 15 evangelical Christian men took an abstinence pledge. To cement their commitment, the unmarried men in their late teens and early twenties attended a weekly support group. So did Sarah Diefendorf, a University of Washington sociologist. Four years later, Diefendorf reunited with these same guys — 14 of them are husbands now — and interviewed them to find out whether marriage had changed their views on sexuality. It hadn't.

At the support groups, the men agreed that sex is a sacred gift from God that needs to be controlled; that pornography, masturbation, and homosexuality are dangerous; and that premarital sex is "beastly." They had "accountability partners" who sent them text messages ("Are you behaving?"), tracked their Internet search histories, and took other measures to remind them not to stray.

When they got married, the men no longer met with their group. According to the church, they no longer needed the support and, as one participant said, "Having a wife acts as its own accountability." But they were still tempted by things like pornography and extra-marital sex.

They also found it difficult to talk about sex with anyone — including their wives — and had an immature understanding of their own sexuality. "The men I interviewed still think of sex as something that needs to be controlled in married life — and something that they no longer have the tools to control," Diefendorf says.

"While sex is framed as 'sacred,' 'wonderful,' and a 'gift from God post-marriage," the paper explains, "these married men still think of sex in its 'beastly' terms. In focusing solely on the goal of abstinence until marriage, conversations on healthy sexuality within marriage were never part of the discussion."

The study, which is still under peer review (Diefendorf has already presented it to the American Sociological Association), also found that men who abstain are more likely to think women lack sexuality, and to believe that Christian women never talk about sex (evangelical Christian women do talk about sex, the study clarifies, just not in mixed company).

The key problem, Diefendorf says, is that "abstinence-only education is pervasive in the U.S., and works off of a shame-based, non-evidence-based model that does not provide individuals with the tools to understand sex as something that is healthy when they are ready for it."

"It's fine to wait until marriage to have sex if that's what you want," Diefendorf says, "but how can we encourage people to make the decision that is best for them while simultaneously providing accurate, positive information about sex and sexuality? The answer is in much more comprehensive, inclusive, accessible sex education."

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