Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his girlfriend, the singer Ciara, recently announced plans to remain sexually abstinent until marriage.
It was a vow that came as a surprise to many. After all, sexual purity is a commitment that is historically expected of, associated with – even demanded of – women. However, sexual abstinence is not something assumed of men, especially men like Russell Wilson.
Wilson, an accomplished, attractive athlete, embodies contemporary ideals of masculinity, which include style, wealth and, yes, sexual prowess.
So how does a man like Russell Wilson navigate a commitment to abstinence while upholding ideals of masculinity? Wilson’s status as an athlete and heartthrob is likely giving him what sociologist CJ Pascoe calls “jock insurance.” In other words, due to his celebrity status, he can make traditionally nonmasculine choices without having his masculinity questioned.
But what does it mean for a man who isn’t in the limelight, who makes a similar type of commitment to abstinence? And what does it mean for the women they date, and might eventually marry?
I’ve been researching men who pledge sexual abstinence since 2008, work that comes out of a larger scholarly interest in masculinities, religion and sex education.
While men make this commitment with the good intentions for a fulfilling marriage and sex life, my research indicates that the beliefs about sexuality and gender that come hand in hand with these pledges of abstinence do not necessarily make for an easy transition to a married sexual life.
Who’s pledging “purity?”
Comedian Joy Behar recently joked that abstinence is what you do after you’ve been married for a long time. Here, Behar makes two assumptions. One is that sexual activity declines both with age and the time spent in a relationship. This is true.
The second is that abstinence is not something you do before marriage. For the most part, this is true as well: by age 21, 85% of men and 81% of women in the United States have engaged in sexual intercourse.
If we compare these numbers to the average age of first marriage in the United States – 27 for women, and 29 for men – we get the picture: most people are having sex before marriage.
Still, some in the United States are making “virginity pledges,” and commit to abstinence until marriage. Most of the data that exist on this practice show that those who make the pledges will do so in high school, often by either signing a pledge card or donning a purity ring.
Research on this population tells us a few things: that those who pledge are more likely to be young women, and that – regardless of gender – an abstinence pledge delays the onset of sexual activity by only 18 months. Furthermore, taking a virginity pledge will often encourage other types of sexual behavior.
Virgins in Guyland
But little is known about men who pledge and navigate this commitment to abstinence.
I was curious about how men maintain pledges in light of these statistics, and also balance them with expectations about masculinity. So in 2008, I began researching a support group of 15 men at an Evangelical church in the Southwest. All members were white, in their early to mid-20’s, single or casually dating – and supporting each other in their decisions to remain abstinent until marriage.
The group, called The River, met once a week, where, sitting on couches, eating pizza or talking about video games, they’d eventually gravitate toward the topic that brought them all together in the first place: sex.
On the surface, it would seem impossible for these men to participate in what sociologist Michael Kimmel calls “Guyland” – a developmental and social stage driven by a “guy code” that demands, among other things, sexual conquest and detached intimacy.
Rather, the men of The River approach sex as something sacred, a gift from God meant to be enjoyed in the confines of the marriage bed. At the same time, these men struggle with what they describe as the “beastly elements” – or temptations – of sexuality. And it is precisely because of these so-called beastly elements that these men find each other in the same space every week.
The men of The River grappled with pornography use, masturbation, lust and same-sex desire, all of which can potentially derail these men from their pledge.
It raises an interesting dilemma: to these men, sex is both sacred and beastly. Yet the way they navigate this seeming contradiction actually allows them to exert their masculinity in line with the demands of Guyland.