Publishing Date: April 4, 2023
“It’s a confusing time to be a man”1 asserts Zachary Wagner in the introduction to Non-toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality. In the wake of hashtags like #ChurchToo and #SilenceIsNotSpiritual, Wagner identifies a culture of toxic masculinity that has invaded the church. His new book discusses how purity culture acted as a vehicle for the adoption of toxic masculinity into the church, and a refreshing, if challenging, vision of how the church might rid itself of toxic masculinity and create a positive vision for masculine sexuality.
The book is divided into three parts. In the first part Wagner explores the roots of toxic masculinity within and alongside purity culture. Supporting his arguments with popular purity culture literature like “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Wagner defines purity culture as “theological assumptions, discipleship materials, events, and rhetorical strategies used to promote traditional Christian sexual ethics in response to the sexual revolution.”2 He observes that purity culture got its start as a well-intentioned reaction to the sexual liberation culture of the 1960s and 70s. It reached its peak of influences as the Millennial generation came of age, and while it is a harder sell to Gen Z, it is still influential in today’s youth culture.
Wagner then critiques the tenets of the Purity Movement, pairing them with Biblical ideas to suggest that the messages of purity culture are (at best) barely Christian or (at worst) anti-Christian. For example, the notion that “bodies are evil and sex is bad,” contradict Genesis’ declaration that bodies are “very good.” He also suggests that purity culture used sex to sell abstinence in a strategy similar to the prosperity gospel: pay now and reap the benefits later. Purity culture promises the benefits of sexual certainty in an uncertain world and time of life. Yet the certainty was a promise that the pastors, parents, and authors could not keep. Those who follow the prosperity gospel worship money over God; those who follow the sexual prosperity gospel worship sex.
“Wagner then critiques the tenets of the Purity Movement… the messages of purity culture are (at best) barely Christian or (at worst) anti-Christian.”
Wagner then devotes significant space to an in-depth exploration of toxic masculinity. Wagner defines toxic masculinity as “a way of thinking, living, and acting as a male that dehumanizes self and others.”3 Noting that toxic masculinity is a human nature problem, not just a Christian one, he asserts that Christians ought to oppose toxic masculinity in both the church and the broader society. This opposition includes correcting the male perspective, including physically viewing women in sub-human, hyper-sexual terms, as well as addressing behavior, patterns of thought, emotions, and men’s relationship to sex itself. Many men have difficulty conforming to purity culture’s specific model of masculinity, though blame for the resulting emasculation is often shifted to women. Wagner notes that the misogynistic undercurrents of toxic masculinity make women the guardians of sexual purity, thus when anyone’s purity is violated, the woman is responsible. Wagner suggests that repentance and rehumanization of women are necessary first steps to addressing male dehumanization.
The second part of Wagner’s book attempts to describe a positive vision of male sexuality. He asserts that toxic masculinity is not essential to masculine nature and can be unlearned, but the narrative of purity culture falls woefully short in actually addressing deeper issues and complexity. The shame-and-fear approach of purity culture leads to isolation, silence, and selfishness. Sexuality is good and can be directed towards both humanizing or dehumanizing ends. Wagner attempts to correct misconceptions about male sexuality in the Bible by citing scripture followed by analysis. Wagner explores the Biblical definition of “purity,” moving beyond the sexual to the holistic, which includes addressing larger patterns of injustice and oppression. He also addresses the tendency to read scripture out of context and, in providing the appropriate context, undermines purity culture’s simplistic and self-serving narrative. Purity culture operates through a legalistic approach that ultimately misses the necessity of renewal. In studying Jesus as a model of male sexuality, Wagner notes Jesus’ work to rehumanize women who were shamed by their culture, how he never engaged in sexual conquest, entitlement, lustful fantasy, or fear of women, and affirmed both singleness and marriage.
“Purity culture operates through a legalistic approach that ultimately misses the necessity of renewal.”
In the third and final part, Wagner reflects on what masculine renewal and redemption might look like. Boys begin receiving toxic messages long before they hit puberty and learn early on that vulnerability is incompatible with cultural values of masculinity. Sexual sin is often the expression of an immature emotional self. Attempts to protect children from hyper-sexualized culture combined with the purity culture suggests that preventing exposure is the sure path to success. However, Wagner suggests that long term efforts to form young men’s virtue would be the better path. Parental relationships shape children and those efforts need to include conversations about masculine sexuality.
Wagner goes on to address adolescence and sexual temptation, reframing the pornography struggle in terms of moral immaturity as opposed to moral compromise. The current extremes of overemphasizing avoidance and moral disgust leave teens vulnerable, isolated, and prone to toxic sexual relationships later in life. In addressing the myth of the honeymoon sexual experience and idolization of marriage, Wagner suggests that honeymoon hype sets people up for disenchantment, marital dissatisfaction, infidelity, and even losing their faith. Marriage, and life in general, is about much more than sex. Wagner maintains that marriage is not a sexual transaction, it is a covenant of love and faithfulness. Wagner suggests that all men should aspire to maturity, whole, healthy, virtuous expressions of sexuality. Men must act like adults before they can act like men.
Wagner suggests that fatherhood is a much better prescriptive paradigm for masculinity than leadership and dominance. Every man is called to be a father to the world in his own way. The embodied reality of fatherhood signals that our sexual bodies are built for all manner of relationships. Male sexuality implies responsibility; a need for men to mature toward responsible, humanizing, and respectful ways of expressing their sexuality. Wagner tries to present a life-giving vision of masculinity that can serve all men, regardless of their sexual orientation or erotic inclinations.
While Wagner does not have solutions to all problems relating to masculine sexuality, and who could reasonably expect him to, he attempts to grapple with difficult issues in a humanizing way. Wagner’s conclusion is that non-toxic masculinity is a rehumanized masculinity, conformed to the image of the true man, Jesus of Nazareth. This book has the capacity to inspire uncomfortable and entirely necessary conversations.