Non-Toxic Masculinity: A Review

Ed Shaw
Reviews 3 mins
Found in: Sexuality, Church

Zachary Wagner, Non-Toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality (IVP USA, 2023) 

This is a remarkable book: it’s open and honest about sex and sexuality in a way that a number of gay/same-sex attracted Christians have been, but it’s been written by a young heterosexual pastor and theologian. It tells of how he and his wife have been scarred by the church: both grew up in the US ‘purity culture’ of the 1990s and 2000s – her as the victim of childhood church-based sexual abuse, and him as a self-declared ‘fanboy’ of Mark Driscoll and co. It shares their struggles with sex within marriage and, in particular, how the teaching he received left him ill-equipped to inhabit his sexuality well before and after his wedding day.

The autobiographical nature of this book may not be obvious from the title and cover but is the book’s greatest strength. This is no cold critique from an outsider, but a searing indictment from someone who lived and breathed what he regards as the toxic masculinity of many church leaders and writers who were influential in his teens and twenties. Though written from a US experience, the names he cites were influential this side of the pond too – there were plenty of Mark Driscoll fanboys in the UK, and the books of Joshua Harris and Stephen Arterburn were influential amongst the students I worked with in the late 1990s and 2000s.

Wagner’s definition of purity culture certainly sounds familiar:

‘…it was characterized by a strong emphasis on (1) premarital sexual abstinence for young people, (2) sexual freedom and fulfilment within heterosexual marriage, and (3) the assurance of blessing for those who lived according to this ethic and consequences for those who transgressed it’ (p.19).

This is not far off how Christian sexual ethics were communicated to me (and sometimes by me?) at the turn of the century, with a stress on point 3. But it was, as he argues, a sexual prosperity gospel: keep yourself sexually pure before marriage and God will reward you with a great sex life when you do. It was the Church’s answer to the Sexual Revolution: big up sex within marriage in response to society’s embracing of all sex outside marriage. But experientially it didn’t work, especially amongst the first generation to be saturated by internet pornography (with little chance of living up to the pre-marital purity demanded) and then taking all the wrong expectations it manufactured within them on honeymoon (with no chance of the reality matching the unrealistic fantasies). No wonder that as a result so many have kissed the church (and/or its sexual ethics) goodbye.

It’s especially unsurprising when this was combined with an understanding of male sexuality that, Wagner rightly argues, was so dehumanising for both men and women. It saw Christian leaders portraying themselves, and other men, as barely controllable sexual creatures who needed their wives to service them sexually, and other women to dress modestly and interact with them rarely, if we were all to keep sex within marriage. Every man was battling with sexual purity every moment of every day, and every woman was a potential threat to them.

All of this created a Christian subculture that was damaging for everyone – especially women. Wagner shares his wife’s painful experiences (their clear collaboration in writing the book is a huge strength) and poignantly summarises his teenage years in one heart-wrenching sentence: ‘I longed for companionship, but my most constant companions were guilt and shame’ (p.28).  

Thankfully this book is not just a catalogue of the errors the Church made, and the damage we have caused: it is seeking to recover a healthy male sexuality. It does so by pointing us to Scripture and the Word made flesh. Wagner is especially helpful in exposing how 1 Corinthians 7 has been so dangerously misapplied and how Jesus, not Driscoll or Harris, is the true man. Just one subheading ‘Jesus has a penis’ (p.101) could be a helpful paradigm shift for many who are unwilling to confront the reality that Jesus has a sexuality and so is the best person for us to turn to when we need advice or comfort in this area of our lives.

The last section of the book takes the reader on a journey through the formation of male sexuality. It is incredibly practical, whilst recognising there are no easy answers to the many challenges. For example:

‘I’m wary of two opposite ditches relating to pornography use and teenagers. An overemphasis on avoidance and moral disgust leaves vulnerable teen boys feeling alone and disgusted about themselves when they fall prey to pornography’s seduction. But normalizing porn use normalizes dehumanization, leaving young people vulnerable to malformation and toxic sexual relationships later in life’ (p.123).

Wagner is open about his own struggles with pornography – both before and during his marriage. Sex within marriage has not been easy for him and his wife, because of her childhood sexual abuse (and experiences he brought to their marriage too). Their decision to be open about this is, I think, the main gift of this book. Without such honesty by some, all married couples are given the impression that every other husband and wife are having great sex all the time, and singles are blind to the new challenges that will be theirs if they get married.

Wagner deserves huge credit for writing, as a married man, a book that is so singles-friendly. This is mainly because of this decision to be so open about his sex life. It is also because he puts sex in its right place. At one point he recounts a therapist who was helping him and his wife turning to him and saying: ‘Zach, you can survive without sex’ (p.64). He goes on to describe his stunned response, but growing realisation that he had grown up in a Christian hypersexualised culture that had tragically not made him aware of this possibility.

He also does well in writing a book that is helpful reading for a same-sex attracted/gay man. He understands not every male is simply heterosexual, and that purity culture was even more challenging for those from sexual minority groups. But because he is so honest about his own struggles with sexuality, he is able to build a bridge to other painful experiences – and the good that can come from them all. I loved one of his closing thoughts:

‘What if God gave me my sexuality to teach me self-denial? This isn’t purity culture’s self-denial for delayed gratification. This is the self-denial of giving up something that I was taught to expect, something I badly desired. But I’m choosing to trust that life will come from this small death. And I trust God more than I trust myself. He is committed to my good, and he is forming me into a more whole version of myself’ (p.187).

This is a remarkable book. But it is not a perfect book: I would have liked more on the Bible’s big picture teaching on the purpose of sexuality – and the spiritual resources our sexualities give us.1 Because of this big picture I am not able to regard Christian sexual ethics as a secondary issue (which is where, I think, he lands in a couple of places). I appreciate the help that he and his wife have received from therapists (I often recommend them) but worry he could give the impression that they are necessary to recovering healthy male sexuality. Instead, I suspect this book would do as much good as many therapists if placed in the hands of groups of Christians who are willing to discuss the contents and be as beautifully open and honest about their own sex lives and sexualities as Zachary and Shelby Wagner have been about their own.

  1. For this readers will have to turn to my Purposeful Sexuality: A Short Introduction (IVP, 2021).