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“We Must Choose Manhood”: Masculinity, Sex, and Authority in Evangelical Purity Manuals


In 2017, author and former youth pastor Joshua Harris launched a Kickstarter campaign for a documentary with an unusual premise: he would travel across the country listening to people tell him how his book ruined their lives. Twenty years earlier, then-21-year-old Harris wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye (1997), an evangelical missive promoting traditional gender roles, courtship with the intention of marriage, and an intense, almost obsessive devotion to sexual purity. The book became immensely popular, arriving as it did at the height of the True Love Waits movement and the accompanying push for abstinence-only sex education programs in many public-school districts. I Kissed Dating Goodbye—and the scores of other similar books promoting sexual purity and a conservative Christian approach to gender and sexuality that it spawned—shaped an entire generation of evangelical Christian teenagers' and young adults' worldviews. These guidebooks promote patriarchal values in updated, "hip" guises, hoping to reproduce conservative evangelical views of gender and sexuality in the next generation. In Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (2020), historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez argues that white American evangelicals from the 1970s onward should be understood primarily as a group united as much by common cultural touchstones and political affiliations as by shared theology. The election of Donald Trump, she avers, is the culmination of evangelicals' embrace of "militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrined patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad."[1] As cultural touchstones, evangelical purity manuals helped to normalize and justify this combination of Christian faith and patriarchal masculinity. An examination of evangelical purity manuals of the late 1990s and early 2000s reveals how these books combined traditional Christian literary techniques such as testimony and parable with popular culture and dominant patriarchal values to reinforce the kind of hegemonic masculinity that made Trump appealing as an icon of conservative Christianity.

Robert Wyrod describes hegemonic masculinity as a social process reinforced by three factors: sexuality, authority, and work. "Hegemonic masculinity," he writes, "usually encompasses ideals of a male economic provider, male authority over women in the home, and ideals of male sexuality equated with sexual virility, freedom, and control."[2] These tenets buttress and complement each other: often, when men feel deficient in one area they will compensate in others. Hegemonic masculinity, Wyrod notes, is neither natural nor inevitable, but occurs within complex social networks, and not all men are able to achieve all its tenets. For evangelicals who preach that God has ordained particular roles for men and women and designed them to fulfill these roles, the inability of some men to live up to these expectations presents a problem. Purity manuals serve as an intervention, presenting a spiritual pathway to hegemonic masculinity.

The most successful evangelical purity manuals share a fixation on maintaining strict gender roles separating men and women into immutably opposed categories of thought and behavior. Girls are defined as emotional, romantic, passive, and highly sexual yet paradoxically sexless beings who incite lust in men of all ages with the slightest flash of skin, but themselves experience no sexual temptation or desire. Boys, meanwhile, are seen as driven primarily by sexual desire: they are "visual," constantly distracted by women's bodies and led against their will down paths of objectification and lust.[3] "Guys are complicated," write Justin Lookadoo and Hayley DiMarco in Dateable (2003). "Deep. Multi-layered. When you get to the core of this intricate species they want . . . sex. Yep. That's pretty much it."[4] In For Young Women Only, Shaunti Feldhahn and Lisa A. Rice agree, writing that "God created guys not just 'visual' [sic] but with lots of testosterone and a more assertive sex drive. . . . Sociologists say that this visual, sexually assertive nature keeps guys invigorated and motivated to pursue the right woman, marry, and have children."[5] By constructing men as intensely sexual, purity manuals reinforce hegemonic masculine ideals of sexual virility without encouraging young men to be sexually promiscuous.

While framing young men as sexually virile, however, purity manuals also reinforce further hegemonic masculine ideals of authority and work through their insistence that young men learn to control their sexual desires. In Stephen Arteburn and Fred Stoeker's Every Young Man's Battle (2002), the authors construct sexual purity as a war in which "our bodies often break ranks, engaging in battle against us," proposing abstinence as a way to be "a fighter, a real man, a soldier."[6] Dateable goes so far as to shame men as effeminate if they cannot control their sexuality: "As a guy, you are designed to be the man. So shut up with the pansy-baby whining about not being able to control it and move on."[7] Many purity manuals construct young men's work to establish self-control over sexual desire as training for the God-ordained patriarchal authority they will be expected to wield in other aspects of their lives. This is especially pertinent for training teenagers in complementarian understandings of marriage, in which husbands are expected to be both spiritually and sexually dominant.[8] "The guy is in charge of the relationship," Dateable establishes immediately.[9] It goes on to argue that every girl "wants a real man to take charge and give her the ride of her life"—insinuating that men who do not desire authority in relationships are not "real men."[10] In I Kissed Dating Goodbye, meanwhile, Harris insists that men's spiritual leadership is theologically sound: "The Bible," he argues, "clearly defines the importance of a man's spiritual leadership in marriage (Ephesians 5:23-24). . . . The girls I talk to, Christian and non-Christian alike, agree. They want the guy to take the lead and provide direction for the relationship."[11] Harris's statement, which argues that both Christian and non-Christian women desire male leadership, reinforces the unity of purpose and vision between hegemonic masculinity and the portrait of masculinity prescribed by Christian purity manuals.

As a literary scholar I am most interested in the ways that these Christian purity manuals' figurative and rhetorical tactics reflect their thematic combination of Christian patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity. Evangelical purity manuals use a variety of literary modes to do their work: some of these, such as the inclusion of personal testimony and parable, are deeply rooted in the Christian literary tradition as well as the Bible. Others are more rooted in secular media and popular culture. The combination of these tactics speaks to the hybrid nature of Christian purity manuals as a genre: they seek to use Christian forms of authority as well as useful cultural examples of masculine dominance or power to construct an understanding of religion that baptizes hegemonic masculinity and patriarchal power.

Testimony is, arguably, the oldest and most important literary mode in Christian history. The author of 1 Peter commands his reader to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."[12] St. Augustine's Confessions, which is often considered the first autobiography in Western literature, is simultaneously a confession of the author's sins and a testimony to God's transformative power in his life. Within church spaces and Christian literature, testimony often follows a pattern: the narrator sins and suffers while separated from God, confesses his sins and is transformed by God's grace and goodness, and experiences renewal and thriving by living according to God's precepts. Many purity manuals work through the testimonial form, their authors confessing to the reader how they struggled with sexual sin prior to submitting to God's plan for sexuality. Every Young Man's Battle, for example, details the authors' pornography addictions, and in I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Harris reflects ruefully on his love of kissing and porn as a young teen, reflecting that "the fact that I remained a virgin during those years is, to be honest, a miracle" achieved only through God's grace.[13] Attempting to impart moral direction to their readers, however, the authors of purity manuals face a dilemma: if they admit to too much sexual activity, they risk losing their audiences' trust and respect. The solution to this dilemma is what I term "testimony-by-proxy": a tactic in which the author shares second- or even third-hand accounts of other people's disastrous experiences with sexual promiscuity and heartbreak. I Kissed Dating Goodbye uses this tactic especially frequently; in the chapter "Seven Habits of Highly Defective Dating," for example, Harris uses a series of rapid-fire anecdotes about couples whose choices perfectly illustrate each point he makes, all without any attribution or context.[14] Testimony is a useful literary mode for the authors of purity manuals because it appeals to Christian readers as a spiritual mode of storytelling while also, as a form of memoir, resisting skepticism or fact-checking. As Shannon Forbes notes, "it is . . . logically flawed to call a memoir untrue, because one cannot argue against the form or shape events may take in one's memory: I cannot say that the way someone remembers something is not the way one remembers something."[15]

When personal testimony falls short, purity manuals—most prominently I Kissed Dating Goodbye—also frequently draw on the mode of the parable. Christian readers are particularly familiar with parables and allegories as methods of imparting truth: Jesus teaches frequently through parables, and allegorical works such as Pilgrim's Progress are also popular within conservative Christian communities. For Harris, parables appear in the form of purported dreams he or his friends have that perfectly illustrate his points. In one, a woman's wedding day is interrupted by her husband's numerous ex-girlfriends, symbolizing the emotional baggage he carries.[16] In another, Harris encounters a library card catalogue documenting his choices (and, most importantly, lustful thoughts), which he weeps over until Jesus appears and takes responsibility for them by signing his name in blood.[17] By communicating dreams that perfectly illustrate the spiritual lessons he is attempting to prove, Harris implicitly references the biblical modes of both the parable and the prophetic dream as valid sources of truth.

Even as purity manuals draw on traditionally Christian narrative modes to communicate their points, though, they also use other methods that belie the tension in conservative Christians' simultaneous condemnation of and admiration for so-called "worldly" media, language, and pop culture. Dateable, for example, is filled with slang, unusual fonts, and pre-drawn doodles and underlining. These drawings and emphases serve two purposes: to give the appearance that the book has already been read and enjoyed by young people, and to demonstrate that the authors are young, cool, and relatable. By covering the page in poorly-drawn figures illustrating major points, including Seventeen-style personality quizzes, and using purportedly cool slang terms like "chill" and "EZ," Lookadoo and DiMarco imply that their book is straight talk delivered by a peer, not disconnected moralizing by a distant adult.[18] This is significant because it demonstrates an authorial anxiety about the conservative nature of the messaging, and a desire to obscure the ways in which purity manuals are used as tools to impart adults' values to teenagers.

Purity manuals also frequently invoke popular TV shows and movies to illustrate lessons or to serve as (often labored) metaphors. Arteburn and Stoeker, for example, invoke The Lion King as a story of a young man sowing his wild oats before assuming adult responsibilities—a comparison which inadvertently implies that Simba had been having sex with Timon and Pumba.[19] In For Young Women Only, meanwhile, Feldhahn and Rice use Peter Parker and Mary Jane's relationship in Spider-Man 2 as evidence that boys need girls' support and encouragement to become the heroes God wants them to be.[20] While these cultural allusions often appear stilted and are at odds with messaging that paints popular culture as a well of temptation and immorality, they serve a calculated purpose. In her discussion of pop culture parodies produced by abstinence program "Silver Ring Thing" (SRT), Sara Moslener writes:

The use of media, and parody in particular, is employed to cultivate social identification among the adolescents, to help them recognize SRT as a grouping of peers who share their vernacular, interests, and desires. The group selects films, celebrities, narratives, and tropes that create a shorthand for interpersonal intimacy. In doing so, SRT begins to develop their moral economy by inverting familiar meanings while maintain the original meaning-making devices.[21]

By transforming the meaning of well-known stories, these writers stealthily harness the appeal of figures they claim to oppose, turning Captain James T. Kirk, Jerry Seinfeld, and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants into spokespersons for the purity movement.

In addition to these pop cultural invocations, several writers use extended martial and sports metaphors to valorize commitments to sexual purity and reinforce stereotypes of masculine aggression. "You are the princess," Dateable tells women. "You are the reason guys fight so bravely."[22] In a dizzying turn of revisionist history, Lookadoo and DiMarco tell men that a strong commitment to God and purity will make them manly since "gladiators and knights were so dangerous because they knew God was worth fighting for."[23] Every Young Man's Battle, meanwhile, is so filled with analogies about football, baseball, basketball, wrestling, gladiatorial combat, and World War II that it reads more like a list of stereotypical masculine interests than a stirring narrative of overcoming adversity.

Evangelical purity manuals' combination of testimony, parable, and other traditionally religious literary modes with pop psychology, pop culture, and the aesthetics of other popular teen media reflects their authors' willingness to look beyond the Bible and Christian history for models of how men should look and behave. In the process, this genre spiritualizes gendered norms essential to the Christian Right. Through a series of rhetorical moves that conflate strict gender roles and patriarchal authority with Christian piety and obedience to God, these purity manuals elevate hegemonic masculinity to the status of a key Christian tenet, to be promoted and protected at all costs. While purity manuals may seem like cringe-worthy cultural objects ripe for mockery and then dismissal, they are representative of larger trends in conservative Christian literature: trends that normalize patriarchy and present it as essential to faith. The evangelical centralization of hegemonic masculinity did not begin with the abstinence-only sex education campaigns and purity manuals of the 1990s and early 2000s, nor did it end with them. But they represent an important cultural step: one that specifically sought to market white patriarchy to teenagers, using popular culture and biblical narrative alike to reproduce conservative values in future generations and create a group identity that equates patriarchy with godliness.


This article was originally published by Post45, a collective of scholars working on American literature and culture since 1945, and appears here with permission.


Notes & References:

[1] Kristen Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2020), 3.

[2] Robert Wyrod, AIDS and Masculinity in the African City: Privilege, Inequality, and Modern Manhood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 28.

[3] Evangelical purity manuals are almost exclusively heteronormative in their scope, as if out of a fear that even mentioning the possibility of homoeroticism will encourage it in teenagers. There is, of course, an entire other cottage industry devoted to "curing" LGBTQ+ people of their "sinful desires."

[4] Hayley DiMarco and Justin Lookadoo, Dateable: Are You? Are They? (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2003), 72.

[5] Shaunti Feldhahn and Lisa A. Rice, For Young Women Only: What You Need to Know About How Men Think (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2006), 98.

[6] Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker, Every Young Man's Battle: Strategies for Victory in the Real World of Sexual Temptation (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2002), 56, 84. 

[7] DiMarco and Lookadoo, Dateable, 134. 

[8] Complementarianism is the belief that the Bible ordains different roles for men and women: men are called to lead spiritually in the pulpit and the home, and women are called to submit and nurture. While scholars are divided between complementarian and egalitarian readings of the Bible, many evangelicals insist that complementarianism is essential to a belief in Biblical inerrancy—and by extent, evangelical identity.

[9] DiMarco and Lookadoo, Dateable, 23.

[10] DiMarco and Lookadoo, Dateable, 167. 

[11] Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A New Attitude Toward Romance and Relationships (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2003), 196.

[12] 1 Peter 3:15 (NIV).

[13] Arterburn and Stoeker, Young Man's Battle, 9; Harris, I Kissed, 15. It is worth noting that this kind of extreme flattening of all sexual desires and actions into the category of perversion and sexual sin is a common one: within the rhetoric of Christian purity manuals, all extramarital sexual desire is sinful and the beginning of a slippery slope that leads to sexual addiction and other potentially life-long, or even eternal, consequences.

[14] Harris, I Kissed, 29-43.

[15] Shannon Forbes, "Performative Identity Formation in Frank McCourt's 'Angela's Ashes: A Memoir,'" Journal of Narrative Theory 37, no. 3 (2007): 474.

[16] Harris, I Kissed, 14. 

[17] Harris, I Kissed, 103-108. 

[18] DiMarco and Lookadoo, Dateable, 109, 82. 

[19] Arteburn and Stoeker, Every Young Man's Battle, 30.

[20] Feldhahn and Rice, Young Women, 61-62. 

[21] Sara Moslener, Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 134. 

[22] DiMarco and Lookadoo, Dateable, 128.

[23] DiMarco and Lookadoo, Dateable, 172. 


Melodie Roschman (@roschmachine) is a recent English PhD graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder. Her dissertation examines memoir, community, and resistance in the progressive Christian community surrounding the late Rachel Held Evans.

Title image credit: Post45

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