Sexuality Conversations


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I’m reading – desperately reading – I might add, Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers by Mark D. Regnerus.  I’m looking for thoughts on reshaping an old, outdated, outmoded and basically unhelpful – and many would say harmful – model of sexuality guidance for those who come to Choices.  We need a fresh approach to a critical issue that is threatening the lives and futures of teens (and young adults), both inside and outside the church walls. That said, my thoughts here focus more on youth who typically find themselves in a church on Sunday mornings.

Consider this some-will-find-shocking excerpt from World Magazine, August 11, 2007 issue: “Evangelical teenagers are just as sexually active as their non-Christian friends.  In fact, there is evidence that Christian teens may be more sexually immoral than non-Christians. Statistically, Evangelical teens tend to have sex first at a younger age, 16.3, compared with liberal Protestants, who tend to lose their virginity at 16.7.  [Okay, perhaps we’re splitting hairs here!] And young Evangelicals are far more likely to have three or more sexual partners, (13.7 percent), than non-Evangelicals, (8.9 percent).  [Whoa – really?] What about abstinence pledges?  Those work for awhile – delaying sex, on an average of about eighteen months, with 88% of pledgers eventually giving up their vow to remain virgins until marriage.”

Here’s a regular scenario where a 15 year-old girl from a local youth group comes in for a pregnancy test, and the conversation might go something like this:

“So, you probably didn’t plan on needing to come here for a pregnancy test right?”, asks the client advocate.  “No,” she says hesitantly.  Client advocate: “Were you  using birth control?”  Girl:  “No – I didn’t plan to have sex.”

Clearly, it’s not working – whatever “it” is, is having limited impact upon our teens, and hopes and futures are being compromised: physically, socially, spiritually, and emotionally. Whatever has been packaged and approved of as within (someone’s interpretation of) appropriate bounds is not effective.

At Choices, we have struggled with addressing sexuality concerns among the young single adult population of those we serve – this topic is fraught with explosive opinions – the ‘party line’ has never felt sufficient for the scope of the issue. So, while we have provided some info within the time-honored-yet-inadequate (and even and especially harmful) abstinence mantra mandates, we knew there was more we should be doing – but what?  Our experience has been that after a negative pregnancy test, the teen/young adult is outa there fast.  There’s a reason:  the message isn’t compelling, it’s not desired, and ultimately largely ignored. Sure, we’ve attempted to get on board with the latest strategies to come out of the Conservative think-tanks through the years, but after spending too much time trying to wrangle the constraints into a conduit of hope, we’ve seen too little impact.  The all-too-familiar mantra of don’t have sex because God says so is a weak proposition. Newsflash:  If the message isn’t received and internalized, it’s not helpful, and does not make a difference in the lives of youth. Hence the dilemma.  We need a better way of being –  a better way of responding – because the outcomes are still the concern: lives and futures are at-risk.

It certainly seems like the Big Stupid, as some might say: we need to give youth the tools to navigate the sexual landscape more responsibly.  The question is what that might look like – what do you think?  I would love to hear from others who have found customary approaches lacking, and are willing to dialogue – I’m definitely not looking to debate.  How can we begin to shift this discussion toward a more helpful and hopeful model with integrity?  And, can we live with some concessions for the good of those we serve?

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There is some refreshing data Mark shares in his book:

  • Social capital.  “Better youth outcomes are found where there are higher densities of social relationships among youth, parents, and other interested adults…”
  • Embeddedness.  “…Embeddedness in religious communities that care about [youth] enhance the power of the religious messages they receive and may well shape their sexual choices…including their sexual options and opportunities by their participation in alternative, desexualized social networks…”  The level of embeddedness is directly correlated to the internalization of belief systems to which teens are exposed. So, more involvement will more likely bring some better sexual choices.

And a reality that should be noted:

  • FYI: Regular church attendance does not = adherence to values represented by said church.

I’m hopeful that we can create some fresh perspectives that will maintain respect, reality, and renewed focus on a topic that is long overdue. My kids are worth it – and so are yours, and those of our communities – because not only do youth and families pay the price, but also those very same communities.

2 thoughts on “Sexuality Conversations

  1. Very thought provoking article. Thank you for writing it. I have not answers…only a few thoughts.

    “The all-too-familiar mantra of don’t have sex because God says so is a weak proposition.”

    I think this statement gets at the heart of this issue, and many other right vs. wrong issues that have real-life consequences. If the church-attending youth are not responding to the Biblical call for sexual purity until marriage, they are likely, in their spiritual immaturity, failing to acknowledge God’s authority in general. This is an absurdly simple explanation I know. However, as a culture, we deeply struggle with the idea of absolute authority and our submission to it. The theme can be seen our general adversion to the idea of obedience to authority in in many area of life. Take a look a modern parenting, our attitudes towards government, employers, etc.

    So for Christian teens, to accept an abstinence message almost necessitates a change of Godward orientation. A change of heart. A spiritual, internal work, until the idea that “God says so” actually has meaning. So perhaps this is a largely spiritual conversation…of a commitment to pray for the holy spirit to work in the heart.

    Additionally, a strong message of hope, and the re-affirming of the good and Godly gift of marriage is certainly in order. The message that marriage is a worthwhile and praiseworthy path, and even a goal, has somehow slipped out of our modern churches, in favor of prolonged singlenes, college, career, and adventure first. (But, that is another conversation!)

    For those who do not yet possess a faith in Christ, this subject of promoting sexual purity becomes a little murky for me. Without a notion of “rightness”, the purity push becomes a matter of weighing the consequences. Its a hard sell. Secularists respond compassionately to this reality by teaching teens to engage in sex as responsibly as possible, to honor themselves, to not rush, to be informed. I don’t fault them for this message, as I believe that outside a knowledge of a Holy God, this is well intentioned.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Shawna. I struggle with this topic since I realize that what is in question is how we hold the truth we believe – it’s often an awkward tension, since no matter what we do, we risk offense. My primary focus is how shall we then live, i.e., what do we say in The Room when we meet with a client? Absolute authority is something not easily embraced in our culture – so what is the intent of God’s heart for us? I don’t believe it’s absolute obedience as much as it is living in such a way as to honor him and those around us, which is certainly key to a posture of sexual integrity. We also need to remove fear, shame and disgrace from the process – those components more typically send people fleeing from the heart of God than toward a sexuality that reflects the goodness of the created design.

      Your point that ‘marriage is a worthwhile and praiseworthy path, and even a goal, has somehow slipped out of our modern churches, in favor of prolonged singleness…’ was a big BINGO to me! This is something I see as pivotal: God designed us as sexual beings, and when sexual interest begins, there is a provision: marriage. Our culture has put marriage off so far into adulthood that it invites people to express their sexuality along the way – we were created for such activity; it is inherent in our DNA. We have so tweaked God’s design that we as a culture are out of balance. And yes, our churches have bought into this late-marriage model. Mark Regnerus says that our culture seems to think of marriage as “perfect at 30, yet crazy at 22” attitude. But, his research shows there is NO evidence for that. He does say that people are ready for marriage earlier, and that what is necessary (on the homefront and in our society), is preparation and changing mindsets. Rather than having the perspective that one needs to ‘be ready’ or ‘be mature’ or ‘have it together’ he describes his own marriage as ‘growing up with his spouse’, and that being advantageous as common experiences provide a bonding in the marital relationship. Love develops over time. He also says that waiting for the ‘perfect person’ is absurd.

      In the short-run, I believe as Christians we need to begin having conversations and influencing the faith communities – and communities – we engage with.

      Perhaps a fresh perspective – and extraordinary measures of grace – along with more dialogue about sexuality would be helpful? Finding appropriate parameters of communication is my ultimate quest.

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