Virginity pledges, where teens vow to forego sex until marriage, have frequently appeared in the news since the phenomenon began in the early 1990s. What is noticeably lacking in the news coverage about this primarily evangelical Christian response to what’s seen as an over-sexualized culture is a more nuanced understanding of how these pledges work. Namely, how do the teens stay true to their vows and what happens after marriage? 

Studying a small group of young evangelical Christian men, Sarah Diefendorf, a sociology graduate student at the University of Washington, found that support groups and open discussions about sex with trusted companions were key in helping the men maintain their pledge during their pre-marital years. However, once these men entered the marriage bed, they began to face real trouble.

“People think that evangelical support groups are just about suppressing men’s natural urges, but really they are caring, supportive and safe spaces that allow men to have a remarkably open and frank discussion about sexual desire,” Diefendorf stated in a press release. She presented her findings at the 109th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco on Sunday.

Diefendorf began her study in 2008, when she began attending support group meetings for young men in their late teens and early 20s, who had pledged to remain virgins until marriage. Her particular group was affiliated with a nondenominational evangelical megachurch attended by about 14,000 worshippers each Sunday in the southwest United States. Over the course of a year, Diefendorf also conducted one-on-one interviews and focus-group meetings with the men.

During the group meetings, the men spoke of sex as a “sacred” gift from God intended for wedded couples only, and also as a “beastly” occurrence if it happened outside of marriage. “To maintain this gift from God, they believe that they must control sex before marriage,” Diefendorf explained. Many of the men spoke of how they struggled with the many threats to their virginity commitment, including pornography, yet also masturbation, which some considered “as destructive.”

Diefendorf found discussion in a support group was only one way for the young men to explore their sexual urges. Each also worked with an “accountability partner” to help control his behavior. One of the men, for instance, told Diefendorf that his accountability partner sent him text messages every night: “Are you behaving?” Some used other tech tools, such as software that would track the websites they visited, information they later shared with their accountability partners.

A few years later, in 2011 and 2012, Diefendorf returned to the men having learned that 14 were now married. She wanted to know how the men’s views of sex and masculinity had changed since marriage. As taboo as sexual activity was before marriage, Diefendorf soon discovered, talking about sex now that they were married was equally taboo, as it was seen as disrespecting their wives. “After marriage, the church culture assumes that couples become each other’s support, regardless of the issue at hand,” Diefendorf said. “There’s little support in figuring out sexuality in married life, and these men don’t know how to talk to their wives about it.” One of the men told Diefendorf, “For me to come home from work and say, ‘hey, did you like it last time?’ I mean that would be — that would be such a weird question for me to ask.”

The newlyweds had discovered the so-called beastly elements of sex — temptations by pornography and extramarital affairs — do not disappear with marriage. The men wished for more guidance from the church, and one said he’d cheer if his pastor decided to talk more about sex. Deifendorf noted “these men have gotten so used to thinking about sex as something negative that they bring those concerns with them to the marriage bed,” and once married, they “struggle to manage those concerns in the absence of the supportive community.”

Two things are noticeably lacking in this small scale study. One is the attitude of women. While her study wasn’t designed to address women’s take on virginity pledges, Diefendorf told New Republic, “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.” In one case, a man told of breaking up with a woman he’d dated from outside the church because she wanted to have premarital sex. He believed her desire for sex indicated she was in love with him. While this may have been the truth, Diefendorf suggested he simply may not have understood this woman to have a sexual appetite.

While the women’s perspective would add to the study, a more important missing element is a “control group” — a comparison group of age-matched wedded men who had not taken a virginity pledge before marriage. What did they experience before and after marriage? My guess would be the absent control group of men would have faced pretty much the same level of confusion, both before and after marriage, though for different reasons. After all, the men in this study were relatively young, and for many men and women, it takes time to make sex and love and partnership work.