Faculty Column: why Tebow’s convictions about virginity matter

Tim Tebow’s celibate lifestyle challenges cultural assumptions society has regarding masculinity.

Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication.

Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication.

For Noel Biderman proving that Tim Tebow has compromised his virginity is apparently worth a cool million. “Score with Tebow and you can score!” Biderman announced. Biderman is the founder of Ashley Madison, a website created to facilitate extra-marital excursions, and he has put up a $1 million bounty to any woman who can prove she has slept with Tebow. The offer is good for the entire NFL season. At the same time the bounty went viral, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski tells a cheering crowd at the University of Rhode Island that he’d have sex with Tebow to take his virginity. Why is outspoken Christian Tebow’s virginity a target? I would suggest the reason has more to do with gender than religion.

How society relates masculinity with sex

Sex is a distinction based on biology, while gender is socially constructed. Gender is a society’s definition of what it means to be properly male or female according to specific cultural standards. While you have no say in your sex, you do have say in how you conceptualize and express your masculinity or femininity.

Psychologist James Doyle spent years interviewing men of all ages to understand how they construct masculinity. His research uncovered five dominant themes: Don’t be female, be successful, be aggressive, be self-reliant and be sexual. Two of these themes particularly relate to Tebow. At an early age boys are expected to be successful. We measure our self-esteem by our ability to rise above others and “make it.” It is not enough to win, one needs to be more powerful or better than others. If women are sex objects, notes one gender scholar, men are success objects. In addition to success, Doyle noted that men are to be sexual. Men are expected to be consumed by sexual desires and thoughts and to have multiple sexual partners.

I once read an article that listed 26 things a man should do by age 26. “Lose your virginity” was fourth on the list. Any man who isn’t obsessed with or active in sex will find his manhood questioned. Tragically, notes social critic Cornel West, black males have particularly equated being sexual with power and status. Many men today have embraced this hyper view of masculinity and have a vested interest in maintaining today’s definition.

Tebow's lifestyle challenges cultural assumptions

The reason Tebow’s virginity has been disparaged by Gronkowsi and targeted by Ashley Madison is that it challenges deep assumptions about masculinity. When it comes to success, Tebow dares to play by a different set of priorities. He is more concerned about what God thinks of his play than coaches, players or the press. Anyone who watches him play cannot question his passion for the game or his desire to win. Yet he takes a knee after every game, regardless of the scoreboard, because his ultimate desire is to please God, not merely to win.

Having this perspective allows him to finish a game with a loss or poor quarterback rating and still feel good because his conduct was God-honoring. “If God is satisfied with the work,” notes Christian writer C.S. Lewis, “the work may be satisfied with itself.” Concerning sex, Tebow’s convictions provide a stark contrast to Biderman’s, who claims that “sports and sex go hand-in-hand.” While Tebow no doubt is keenly aware of his sex drive and could easily parlay his fame resulting in many sexual encounters, he submits his desires to a different standard. “Keep the marriage bed pure,” admonishes the writer of the book of Hebrews to both singles and marrieds.

While some may not agree with Tebow’s communication style, we all can feel good that someone is choosing to openly defy an overly sexualized and success-driven stereotype of men. Those who have invested in these stereotypes now have a need to squelch him by ridicule or catch him in a tryst with a bounty-seeking seductress. “In all affairs,” states philosopher Bertrand Russell, “it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” By questioning long-standing views of masculinity, Tebow gives us the courage to do the same, even if it may bring ridicule and make us a target.

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