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Non-Toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality [a review]

Over the past couple years, plenty of folks have thinking and writing about "purity culture," that Evangelical movement of the nineties and early aughts that encouraged teenagers to resist the sexualized culture, keep it in their pants, and wait until marriage. That was perhaps the kernel of the movement, but it went far further than that to insist that courtship was the only godly way to gain a mate (over and against dating) as well as to adopt a view of human sexuality that idolized virginity and shamed anything short of that.

Reactions to purity culture have been mixed. While many have distanced themselves from it, even to the point of renouncing their faith and embracing everything they had once fled from, others have sought a way forward that holds onto the concept of sex being reserved for marriage while nonetheless healing from some of the extra trappings associated with the movement. Zachary Wagner, the editorial director for the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT), represents this latter direction with his new book, Non-Toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality.

I greatly respect the work Wagner does at CPT, and I think this book mirrors the gentle, pastoral persona he exudes on the CPT podcast. There's a lot to commend about it, but one nitpick I have to get out of the way right now is the title. I understand that it cleverly capitalizes on the well-known phrase, "toxic masculinity," but masculinity is (far) more than just sexuality and the book is for the most part only about male sexuality. In the book he argues that men are more than just their sexual desires, yet ironically the title inadvertently works against this theme.

Anyway, the book, such as it is, does a admirable job of first walking through purity culture and its more problematic aspects and then building up a better understanding of male sexuality that sees it as a genuinely good thing that nonetheless needs to be stewarded well. The last section of the book is the most interesting (at least to me) because he takes the time to walk through the phases of sexual development from boyhood through adolescence to dating, marriage, fatherhood, death, and resurrection.

Wagner's key contention with purity culture is that it dehumanizes people, both men and women, by reducing men to rapacious sex machines that must be fed and by reducing women to nothing more than potential stumbling blocks to men's holiness. The goal of purity culture was itself to recover healthy sexuality in the face of a hyper-sexualized culture, but ironically it too made far too much of sex such that teenagers often felt that the most important fact about themselves was their virginity.

The problem that he sees with the purity/impurity binary is a) how black and white it is, b) how it elevates sexual sins above all others, and c) how it fails to make space for the fact that human beings mature over time. For example, one of the main questions teenage couples would ask in youth groups was, "How far is too far?" wondering if kissing was okay before you were married or if it would send you directly to hell. Pastors and parents tended to not do much to disabuse teens of this notion, telling horror stories about unintended pregnancies intended to scare teens into purity.

But is this the way that we think through sin in any other context? If a child tells a lie, for example, we see it as a sin but we see it specifically as stemming from immaturity, something that children are to be trained out of. Wagner believes that the sexual urges teenagers feel are both good and natural, and so when they make decisions to look at porn or do whatever else, we can treat it the same way. We can recognize it as sin, but we can recognize it as a kind of sin specifically resulting from immaturity and an inexperience with stewarding a newly-noticed sexuality. Rather than sternly condemning and shaming kids, we can speak seriously and yet graciously about ways they can practice self-control and love of neighbor. One of my favorite quotes from the book was this:

Boyish curiosity is not evil. It is a good, God-given impulse that can drive us to understand and discover the beauty in the world. But curiosity can end in dark places. There’s no perfect innocence in a broken world.

This strikes me as a loving, compassionate, and yet truthful way to communicate to little boys that the curiosity that drives them to look at porn is, in many ways, quite understandable! And yet pornography capitalizes on that curiosity in dark ways that dehumanize both the viewer and the actors, who are many times abused and trafficked and caught in systems they can't escape. But it's a way of talking to a young boy that doesn't make him feel like he's fundamentally broken and evil.

Wagner holds a traditional view of sexual ethics in common with purity culture, yet he also recognizes the ways in which that kind of teaching tends to assume all people feel heterosexual temptation. And when it did try to acknowledge the existence of LGBT individuals, its answer was ineffectual "solutions" like reparative therapy or "praying the gay away" that tended to make things even worse for those individuals. Instead, Wagner argues, there's a way to lovingly listen and acknowledge and walk through our varied experiences together in the bonds of friendship.

The last part of the book is about how even though purity culture teens were often promised a reward of endless sex with a "smoking hot wife" if only they would save sex for marriage, the reality is that marital sex is often far more challenging, confusing, and painful than that airbrushed vision. He shares candidly from his own experience of how the trauma of sexual abuse and bad teaching made sex difficult and even impossible in many seasons of his marriage.

Instead, he wants to redirect that vision to acknowledge that while sex can be a delightful bonding experience, the ultimate biological end of male sexuality is fatherhood. He says this in light of the contentions of many abortion rights activists who point out that women often bear the brunt of parenthood while men can fairly easily ignore the consequences of their "consequence-free" sex. "The solution," he says, "is to reassociate male sexuality with fatherhood." He doesn't mean that every man must father biological children to be "truly a man" or anything like that, but just simply that in the highs and lows of experiencing our sexuality, it's important to remember the biological purpose of why we're even built like this. Recognizing that even Jesus himself never fathered any child, Wagner argues that any man can embody fatherhood because "Fatherhood is the male half of the cultural mandate."

Wagner wants to create space for men to act in paternal ways toward the world without actually being paternalistic. "The vocation of paternal masculinity, rightly defined, cannot and should not be reserved only for heterosexual married men." But that raises the fairly obvious question of what he could possibly mean, then. He answers:

So, how can men move through the world in a way that honors the masculine vocation of fatherhood? They can care for animals, coach a sports team, or build homes with precision and care out of concern for the people who will live in them. There are men who cultivate and plan landscaping projects, and those who are longtime employees and train new hires with care and attentiveness. Think about the man who teaches a second-grade classroom, and those who guide others on their life’s journey with music. What about the man who waits tables in a restaurant, patiently attending to the dietary restrictions of his guests? Or the man who paints the church lobby? Think about the man who arranges flowers for weddings, events, and public art displays. And the man who prepares a meal in a shelter for the homeless. What about the man who taught Galilean peasants about their heavenly Father and rebuked his disciples, saying, “Let the little children come to me”?

He's very clearly going to great lengths here to envision a masculinity that is inclusive of the many different men who exist in this world, and that's a great instinct—truly. And I agree with him that the vocation of "fatherhood" is something that can be fulfilled in various different ways besides literal biological fathering of children. I'm on board with him in seeing "coaching a sports team," "training new hires," or "teaching a second-grade classroom" as exercising a certain kind of fathering muscle. Those are relationships of someone older and wiser compassionately shepherding someone along in life. But I have to say, in his zeal to cast a wide net here, he begins to stretch the word far beyond any kind of meaningful sense. Painting a church lobby is paternal? What is being fathered there—the wall? Arranging flowers for an event is some kind of fatherhood? How? If a woman arranges the flowers, is she exercising a kind of spiritual fatherhood? I agree that those are good things a person could do, that a man could do, and that they would be faithful ways of fulfilling the cultural mandate, but I have a hard time understanding the paternal connection he sees there.

I'm not convinced that fatherhood is "the male half of the cultural mandate," as if the cultural mandate splits neatly or meaningfully into gendered halves. It seems to me like we could just acknowledge that some men are biological fathers, some are adoptive fathers, some aren't fathers at all, there are some ways in which we can "spiritually" father other human beings through life, but that not being a father doesn't make a man any less of a man. Fatherhood is a personal relationship that in its natural sense is age-differentiated. A man may find himself as a father figure in a certain situation, and he may simply not be in a different situation, and both situations can be fine and good.

All that said, I do think he's right to reconnect male sexuality to fatherhood. Sex is a creational act that results in a relationship to a new life, a relationship that is both similar to and quite distinct from a maternal relationship. Though these relationships have their own unique qualities, a father has just as much responsibility toward that new life as the mother does. It is abhorrent when men feel like they can impregnate a woman and then run off without any kind of obligation.

Overall, Non-Toxic Masculinity is, I think, a good response to purity culture. Though the title isn't very representative of the book's content, the content itself is thoughtful, gracious, and interacts well both with those who are more conservative than him as well as those who are more progressive than him. In the end, Wagner wants to chart a course that is both compassionate towards the wounds caused by poor teaching while also being forthright about his theological convictions regarding a masculinity that takes embodied male advantage and channels it for the good of others. My nitpicks aside, he holds forth a male sexuality that is both inherently a good thing while also holding forth a gospel of abundant mercy for the broken. That is a beautiful thing.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

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