Non-Toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality by Zachary Wagner

Non-toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy male sexuality cover imageSummary: Can men have a non-toxic masculinity, and what would that look like?

Non-Toxic Masculinity is a book that I decided not to read initially. And then Josh Butler’s book and TGC article came out. And Patrick Miller stonewalled Sheila Wray Gregoire and then eventually apologized. So many other things happened recently that are mainly about toxic masculinity that I decided to accept a review copy.

Up front, I am not the target audience here. I am 50 and have spent nearly 15 years as a stay-at-home uncle and then dad. I have not once earned more than my wife. I am firmly in favor of women’s ordination. My senior sociology project in the mid-90s was about the acceptance of rape myths among students at evangelical colleges. I have long thought that many men are toxic. I read Everyman’s Battle on a friend’s recommendation and immediately threw it away as trash precisely because it treated women as the problem instead of rightly paying attention to evangelical sin avoidance as the problem. I favor men working toward being less toxic, but I am highly suspect of any gendered approach to discipleship for men.

I was too old for the main purity culture teaching; I had been married for several years when I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out. The term dodging a bullet is probably too weak of a statement when I have talked to people about the harm of purity culture. In my mid-20s, despite being a fairly outspoken egalitarian, a seminary professor and a friend separately challenged me because they thought I was adopting a kinder, gentler form of sexism. I can remember talking about the problems of porn (and this was long before smartphones) and suggesting that part of breaking the power of porn was to firmly establish that women in those videos should be treated as “mother, sister, daughter.” My friend challenged me to think about how that framing still established women in relation to men and not as a child of God or imago dei. My professor challenged me to think about how I was thinking of marriage as a means of equipping me for others things. I argued with both of them but eventually came to realize that they were right.

It wasn’t good enough to be a kinder, gentler sexist that categorizes women by their relationship to other men (by default, still maintaining a gender hierarchy). And it was not good enough to think of marriage as a means of maturity building. I do not live up to my ideals, but from that point, I have attempted to live as if all hierarchy violates God’s good creation, whether it be gender, race, class, or other types of hierarchy.

While I appreciate the open discussion of the harm of purity culture, the problems with the way that the church has created a “sexual prosperity gospel” (if you avoid premarital sex, then you will be rewarded with “mind-blowing” sex in your marriage), the problems of both porn and the problematic ways that the church has handled porn and many other topics, my main problem with most books written toward men is still present. I do not believe that men and women are simply interchangeable, but I do think that men and women are far more alike than they are different.

In many cases, books written to men about “how to be a man” are not really about masculinity, they are about maturity. I think mistaking instructions on maturity for instructions on masculinity harms both men and women. Both men and women should be encouraged toward maturity. And if you are speaking to men about maturity, then you should not be framing maturity as if it were particularly masculine (or feminine).

This is often true in discussions of the fruits of the spirit within gendered books. There is no gender in fruits of the spirit, both men and women should embody fruits of the spirit. Toward the end of the book, Wagner connects masculinity to fatherhood. Wagner’s main point was that a broad view of fatherhood, not just biological fatherhood but the care of others, is part of being masculine.

“Every time a man seeks to take responsibility for, cultivate, nurture, protect, repair, renew, or redeem his corner of creation, he is acting like a father and living out the chief end of his sexuality.”

But there is nothing particular in this type of formation that is necessarily differentiated by gender. The exact same formation of “seeks to take responsibility for, cultivate, nurture, protect, repair, renew, or redeem his corner of creation” would work if the gender was switched. If the same sentence were true, replacing the language with “woman, her, mother, and her,” then it is not about sexuality but maturity.

Wagner does expand the idea and, I think, makes it a bit better by describing it in helpful ways, but it would be better if framed as “to follow God well, we need to mature, just as women also need to mature. Some areas where men’s and women’s maturity can look similar are…”

Wagner’s list of how fatherhood expresses itself is being relational, cooperative, life-giving, responsible, nurturing, and self-sacrificial. I am quoting part of the section on relational below, but in all of these, tweaks of pronouns or using Motherhood would be almost exactly the same result.

“Male sexuality is relational. Fatherhood is a particular type of relationship made possible by our sexual bodies. Our bodies are intended to serve us in forming connections with other people too. Romanic relationships are not the only context in which our sexuality is relevant; they show us we are relational creatures. Through sexual embodiment, we are connected to everyone who shares our bloodline–siblings, children, parents, grandparents, cousins, and beyond.”

The reality of transgender discussion makes it much more complicated to discuss gender because biology, culture, and other factors interact in complex ways. I am not a scientist and do not have any training or background in biology, but we know there are more options than XX or XY. Most people have either XX or XY, but XXY or XXYY are possible. I know that many conservatives made fun of Supreme Court Justice Jackson’s answer to “Can you define the word woman?” But I think Jackson is right legally. The variation within women is such that virtually all definitions will exclude some that we traditionally call women and include some who we traditionally do not call women. Conservative Christianity, in its attempt to maintain traditional sexual ethics, can fall into a similar trap of creating definitions that are both too broad and too narrow.

At this point, I think that the best path forward is to emphasize the need for maturity and avoid being too particular about issues of gender. That is not because I think that embodiment is unimportant (I really appreciate the focus on embodiment here) but because I think we end up doing harm by forcing definitions of gender onto people when there are noteworthy exceptions.

There is no question that Zachary Wagner comes from a more conservative theological tradition than I had. There are places where I have theological differences, but it isn’t the broad theology that I disagree with, it is the narrow anthropology of how gender is reflected in the Imago Dei. I generally agree with most of the book’s conclusions, but not necessarily how he got there.

Much of this post has been about what Wagner didn’t do in the book, and no book can do everything. I think Non-Toxic Masculinity is helpful and contributes to the conversation on gender in Christianity. I think this book may be helpful if you have been impacted by purity culture. And I think this book handles disappointment in sex for those impacted by the sexual prosperity gospel. And I think this book is helpful in discussing the impact of sexual abuse and shame. But there are limits to a book on male sexuality that someone in their mid-30s writes. Being about 15 years old than Wagner, I am now more aware than I was in my 30s regarding how sexuality and age interact, and I think there would have been some value in having more interviews about sexuality and aging as a part of the book.

Non-Toxic Masculinity is a far better book on male sexuality than most books I have read. But I still wanted more.

Non-Toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality by Zachary Wagner Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook 

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