Review: Non-Toxic Masculinity

Non-Toxic Masculinity, Zachary Wagner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2023.

Summary: Focusing on the distortions of male sexuality coming out of the purity culture movement, charts what a healthy male sexuality might look like that is responsible, selfless, and loving.


These are the opening words in Zachary Wagner’s new book, Non-Toxic Masculinity. The book focuses particularly on the brand of male sexuality that has emerged out of the evangelical church’s purity movement culture that has been marked by scandals of sexual abuse and harassment in the church and unhealthy patterns of sexuality in many marriages. This also has resulted in male shame and body hatred. Wagner writes for men, reflecting on his own experiences growing up in purity culture, calling for men to be accountable both in owning the problem they have had and seeking the healing and vision of positive masculine sexuality that he believes may be found within the scriptures.

Wagner focuses the first part of the book on the Purity Movement of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, defining it as “the theological assumptions, discipleship materials, events, and rhetorical strategies used to promote traditional Christian sexual ethics in response to the sexual revolution.” He contends that the messaging of the movement led people to believe:

  1. Bodies are evil and sex is bad
  2. Abstinence will result in great sex later
  3. In sexual certainty in an uncertain world
  4. Sexual sin always had clear consequences
  5. Sex is at the center, it is a big deal
  6. Singleness is subhuman (and only temporary)
  7. Boys are dangerous (and so are girls)

These messages inculcated shame rather than a recognition of the gift of our sexuality and bodies, that men were out of control animals (and that women bore the burden of not arousing their desires), and also led to attitudes of male sexual entitlement in marriage. It also created ideals of masculinity that many men struggled to identify with, whether they were straight or gay. Wagner shows how these messages were dehumanizing for both men and women.

In the second part of the book, he seeks to articulate a vision for renewed male sexuality. He begins with the assumption that men are victims of their own desires that may result in shame, self-hatred, and may be the root of compulsive pornography use. He speaks of his own breakthrough of recognizing the wonder and beauty of being male and that desire, curiosity, and attraction reveal our longing for this deepest of human connections for which God made us. He also deal with biblical misconceptions, challenging expectations of marital sexuality, male desire being greater than female, that sexual frustration is a good reason to marry, and that wives owe husbands sex. Finally, he focuses on the male sexuality of Jesus, that as truly male and not androgynous, Jesus had a penis, modeled healthy relationships with both men and women, and the dignity of singleness. He rehumanized women who had been ill-treated.

In the last part of the book, Wagner explores what “grown up” male sexuality is like. He begins with the role of parents and significant adults in shaping the male sexuality of boys and protecting them from abuse, teaching them of the dignity of both boys and girls bodies. He challenges the “every man’s battle” narrative while offering a helpful critique of pornography use. He offers healthy alternatives for young men and their parents to the “I kissed dating good-bye” narrative. He discusses how we cultivate cultures of dignity, accountability, and friendship between men and women in the church, recognizing the failings of both complementarians and egalitarians. He punctures the overblown expectations of marital sexuality, talking honestly (with his wife’s explicit permission at the beginning of the book) about their own sexual struggles, and how marriage is a process of learning to love in all of life and in the bedroom.

Wagner also goes to a place I haven’t seen many books go. He talks about the connection between male sexuality and fatherhood, that this is one of the central purposes of men’s sexuality. He contends that this capacity teaches us that male sexuality is relational, cooperative, life-giving, responsible, nurturing, and self-sacrificial. What I so appreciate here is that Wagner frames male sexuality and fatherhood in broader issues of Christ-like character that extend far beyond our intimate relations.

I found this an important book to read to understand the fallout to the Purity Movement that I’ve encountered both in other books and in the experience of those raised within it. I appreciate both the analysis of the impact of that culture on young men (so much more has been written from female perspectives) and the effort to articulate healthy male sexuality within a traditional Christian sexual ethic without the messaging of purity culture. The frank discussions of pornography use and the underlying issues is an important aspect of this book. Wagner also manages, I think, to convey respect for LGBTQ+ persons while adhering to a traditional Christian sexual ethic, as well as to reflect upon the negative ways purity culture impacted LGBTQ+ persons.

There is only so much one book can cover. The book deals only tangentially with the sexual ethics of the wider culture. While speaking trenchantly against male sexual entitlement and patriarchy, there is an opposite extreme of male passivity that I have discussed with Christian leaders, both male and female. It is a confusing time for men, and declining male college enrollments and other measures suggest that as women advance in many areas, men are not advancing with them. Some of the qualities of healthy masculinity addressed in this book seem to bear on such questions and I hope Wagner will write more about this.

What Wagner has done is articulate a vision of masculinity that is humanizing for both men and women, that articulates the goodness of male sexuality and bodies within a biblical sexual ethic, and that is positive, life-affirming, and attractive. The church has been losing young men and women for lack of this, even while the culture offers nothing better. What I hope is that this will be a book that starts a conversation among Christian men that has been sorely lacking.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

One thought on “Review: Non-Toxic Masculinity

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: April 2023 | Bob on Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.