The gender roles assigned to men via purity culture further perpetuate sexual dissatisfaction and unrealistic relationship expectations, sex educators say.
While a large portion of research on purity culture has focused on how the ideology has affected women and girls, these same gender expectations enforce an unrealistic view of masculinity and male sexuality, according to researchers and educators.
Linda Kay Klein, a sex therapist and author of “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free,” said purity culture teaches that men should be stereotypically manly.
“They are told that they must be leaders in the church and the home, which includes in the bedroom. Purity culture teaches women that men are sexually disgusting at best and monstrous at worst,” Klein said, who has spent more than 15 years researching the relationship between religious trauma, sex and gender.
The expectation that men pursue sexual encounters as “conquests” has led some men to question their worthiness of manhood, and for some, to even question their sexual identity, said sex educator Elizabeth Schroeder, who has spent 25 years researching the topic of sex ed and is co-founding editor of the American Journal of Sexuality Education.
Josh Link, co-host of the Dirty Rotten Church Kids podcast, said an expectation existed in his purity culture experience that Christian men behave like Russell Crowe’s character in “Gladiator” or Mel Gibson’s in “Braveheart.”
“If you’re a guy and you weren’t that aggressive, you were seen as weak. If you were a guy and you showed your emotions and talked about how you felt, you were seen as weak,” Link said.
Link’s podcast explores the impact of evangelical Christianity’s teachings and the reasons why he and his co-host, Adrian Gibbs, left the reformed Baptist-leaning church they started in south Florida. Link said purity is consistently one of the most requested topics for discussion from listeners of the show.
“I never was that aggressive boy that the church was trying to make me. I write music. I write songs. I can, at moment’s notice, get sappy. In my deconstruction (of my faith), I’ve come to understand my feelings and be okay with them,” he continued
Evan King, 30, did not grow up in a religious family, but at 16 started dating a girl whose family was very involved in church in Decatur, Ala. He noticed church leaders told girls they should be responsible for ensuring abstinence in their relationships, but that boys were to blame if any sexual activity took place. This blame existed despite the reinforced expectation that men and boys were expected and encouraged to be the pursuers in relationships.
“As I became more involved with her and more involved in the church, (the message) was very much like I was a part of (the problem) and causing (us to be sexually active), but I wasn’t ever getting the harsh talking to from the pastors and the youth ministers (like the girls were),” King said.
Years later, when King married a different woman, he learned she was also taught about sex through evangelical purity culture, and is still working through the emotional toll of purity culture on their relationship. They’ve sought both individual and couples therapy, in part to work through the confusion that resulted from those teachings about sex and sex roles.
“After a lot of growth and a lot of change, (purity culture) is still a problem that we have to work through,” King said.
“We’ve talked about having children in the near future, but one thing that we have both discussed is they absolutely will not grow up in a religious household that teaches (purity culture) or things like it. I will not subject my children to anything like because I see what all the long-term ramifications of it are.”
Nic Morte started questioning her sexuality when she was 11 years old and entering youth group at her family’s Southern Baptist church in Huntsville, Ala. A queer trans woman, she said she experiences attraction to men and women.
And the messages she received at church as a preteen deepened the shame she felt about her sexual desires.
“As a person assigned male at birth, having sexual urges for both sexes in a very chaste society is very strange,” she said. “I was confused constantly. I internalized that I was a bad person because I was feeling these things. I would stay awake at night crying to myself because I felt like I was a mistake and that God didn’t want me.”
The role of male dominance, which many churches encourage through teaching that men are the leader of the household, bleeds into young people’s relationships and interactions with one another, too.
Link said he heard firsthand the judgment that takes place in an environment that expects people to conform to gender roles reenforced by church teachings. She said some girls were isolated because they were viewed as bad influences.
“If you were a girl and you didn’t show your emotions and you were more stubborn, (other men in the church) would say, ‘No, you should stay clear of her. She has some issues. She’s too aggressive to be around the girls.’ It was always a problem,” Link said.
How men play a role in continuing purity culture
While sex educators say purity culture teaches an unhealthy and unrealistic view of masculinity, church leaders and lawmakers continue to endorse it.
Between 1996 and the 2018 fiscal year, Congress has allocated more than $2.1 billion in taxpayer dollars into abstinence-only-until marriage sex education programs, according to a report from Sex Education for Social Change (SIECUS).
Schroeder said some men perpetuate this culture knowingly and some unknowingly. But whether they know they’re perpetuating it or not, they do so because men do receive some benefits from it.
“Why do (they) perpetuate these male role stereotypes? Because the dominant power structure (in church and in government) is still white, cisgender, heterosexual (and) Christian. There’s value in it (for those men). There’s strength in it,” she said.
Schroeder adds that women also have a role in keeping purity teachings alive, and do so by fulfilling societal norms for women.
“(Women) are socialized from a very young age to think about others before ourselves. As women, we want to hold up our men. We want to reinforce for them that they are of value,” she said.
King said he wished more churches would allow women in the church to be honest with the girls and young women in the congregation about their experiences with sexuality instead of often leaving the purity lessons to young, male youth pastors.
“You have to have women teaching women and teaching men what the experience is like from the other side. I don’t know if the religion itself would allow them (women) to do that,” he said. “A (male) youth minister is not going to have any inkling of what it’s like to be a 16–year–old girl, but yet he is in charge of teaching her about the purity of her sexuality.”
“Men need to get out of the way and to step aside.”