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 I’m looking for thoughts on reshaping an old, outdated, outmoded and basically unhelpful – and many would say harmful – model of sexuality guidance for those who come to Choices.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?
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.