Let’s Talk About Sex Bay-bee…

The crew over at Patheos have come up with their next Forward Thinking question. The series of questions are designed to counter the assumption a lack of religion equals a lack of values or morals. The question this time: What would you tell teenagers about sex? Libby Anne at LoveJoyFeminism says this:

“I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about the problems of the purity culture’s elevation of virginity. The evangelicalism I grew up in made abstinence before marriage a critical matter of faith, and did it’s [sic] utmost to persuade of [sic] scare teens out of having sex. Misinformation was rife. But like many similar blogs, I spend more time talking about how the purity culture “does it wrong” than about what it looks like to be doing it right.”

I haven’t thought deeply about this question in a while, and never in a nonreligious context. I do have a son a few years away from being a teenager, though, and issues surround sex have started to pop up more often. The issue used to be simple for me, because sex was only permissible within marriage. On the surface of things, then, teenage sex shouldn’t have been an issue. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. But, setting aside the trauma it causes the teenage mind to have the body and mainstream society telling you one thing and religious culture telling you another, one can see the reasoning behind the marriage approach. The difficulty of determining the appropriateness of sexual relations in every particular case is mitigated by a simple prohibition against its practice except in very limited circumstances.

Georges Bataille discusses the “juridification” of sex in his Death and Sensuality, the process of bringing sexual relations within the bounds of the law. As I’ve noted before, society as a whole (meaning not any one individual necessarily) benefits from monogamous relationships. With the norm of marriage in place the individual can assent to the rule and focus his or her attention elsewhere. This is certainly not to say that the tension between desire and the law goes away; however, it is difficult to imagine what it would be like without the norm.

This is where I think the most liberal forms of this discussion go wrong. I agree with those that rail against the arbitrariness the origin for sexual prohibitions as well as the misinformation that goes on within religious circles. However, I doubt that the destruction of sexual taboos would make for a better situation. Nor is it valid to say that “kids are going to do it anyway,” the same argument trotted out for war or gun control, which serves to maintain the status quo. We do significant work with the ideas of sexual norms, whether we abide by them or violate them. For some “violators,” it is the very notion of a violation that gives the sexual encounter much of its appeal. For some “abiders,” it is only the notion of the prohibition that keeps them in their relationship. Tension over sex and desire gives the world of advertising its largest source of ideas for generating revenue.

That is to say that the answer to teenage sex is not to downplay it. The ubiquity of sexual desire in all our communications makes any attempt to dismiss it hypocritical. Dealing productively with the issue of teenage sex will take more creativity than has been set forth thus far. Christianity’s success in keeping me from having sex until marriage was borne primarily from fear, fear of what would happen if I did. In my teenage mind, STDs were God’s consequence for screwing around. Instead, I just got married as quick as I could. (This will not be part of my recommendation to my son.) From my admittedly anecdotal evidence, the teenage brain is remarkably less equipped to handle the intricacies of an intimate relationship in balance with school, work, and life in general. It’s not impossible; I think, however, it is rare. My teenage identity was pretty wrapped up in being a “smart” kid, but nearly all of that intelligence disappeared when the sex drive turned on. So, I don’t think that “information” about sex is enough. As strange as it may sound, some sort of inculcation is necessary.

Parents should certainly take the dominant role in teaching teenagers about sex, and it should involve some effort to discern where they are at in terms of deciding the approach to take. It might be that the approach is “Do not do it. Under any circumstances. Until you graduate.” While some would argue that will just backfire, it doesn’t have to if it is spoken in a context of a loving and caring relationship. Of course it won’t work if the parent-child relationship is constituted only by the giving and receiving of commands. My hope is that, along with other “moral” issues, I will be able to put as much responsibility on my son as I think he can handle to make the right decision, neither burdening him with the weight of it all or removing his obvious will from the situation. While I will not argue that he should only have sex in marriage, I will likely recommend that the best scenario for him to engage in sex is one in which he has a handle on other areas of his life and thus is prepared to deal with the pleasures and consequences of his actions. This, for me, would be later, rather than earlier, in a committed relationship, where the chances of one partner taking advantage of another have decreased, if ever so slightly.

I guess I’m finding that sex retains a certain sacredness for me. Part of me thinks that this is only the heritage of religious indoctrination. Yet I can’t imagine casual sexual partners being in the best long-term interest of all the parties involved, not to mention the unbalanced way in which judgment falls predominantly on women for “promiscuity.” Since long term planning is not a strong suit for many, and particularly not those in their teenage years, it seems best to err on the side of caution.

I’m curious to hear what others think.

6 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Sex Bay-bee…

  1. Hey Matt,

    As someone who is still within the Christian construct and working with youth in that context, this topic comes up regularly. The concept of virginity is something that I have been particularly fascinated with. Many of the sexual behaviors of these Christian youth are based some sort of inherent understanding on what does and doesn’t constitute a loss of virginity.

    I have had youth tell me they that had had mutual oral sex with a partner, but that they were sure glad that they didn’t have sex with them. Uh…what? It’s almost as if the OT law about a woman being “intact” kicks in, thus permitting anything until vaginal intercourse. The kids see virginity as a “yes/no” question that is irreversable. While there have been some Christian teachers out there who talk about secondary/renewed virginity and such, the common perception is that once you engage in vaginal intercourse (both the guy and girl) your “on/off” switch of virginity has been toggled. This “letter of the law” thinking seems to be in direct contradiction to Jesus’ teaching about purity of the heart and the connection between thought-life and action. What I have been teaching my own youth, both in private mentoring and though large group teaching, is that virginity and purity are synonyms and are a spectrum, rather than an “on/off” switch, and that their state of virginity/purity moves along that spectrum as their thought-life and actions demonstrate.

    Another phenomenon is the willingness to engage in sexual experimentation, especially with casual partners as opposed to within a committed relationship. My youth, and I believe youth in the wider Christian context, understand that sex acts outside of marriage can result in a lack of trust, quarreling, and other undesirable consequences that will probably result in the termination of the relationship. Their creative solution? Don’t have sex with anyone they actually care about, that way there is less/no pain when the relationship ends. I have had youth tell me that if they really care about someone or are interested in them as a long-term partner, they are less likely to engage in sexual behavior with them in an effort to preserve the relationship. What ends up actually happening, however, is that the psycho-social damage resulting in having intimate physical relationships with emotionally distant persons causes issues within their relationships that are in fact serious.

    Lastly, your own history as far as getting married as early as possible in order to have permissible sex in the Christian context is really common. My wife, for her baccalaureate thsesis, did a study of students at our college to find correlation between strength of religious conviction and “marital horizon,” that is, when a person either was married or sees themself getting married. The correlation was ridiculous. Regardless of religous preference, those who felt more strongly about their faith saw themself as being married earlier. What can result from such a significant decision being made so early (not always, of course) is that divorce may become the only way to correct a perceived lapse in judgment. It seems ironic to me that Jesus said “I hate divorce” at least one more time than he said “I hate premarital sex,” and the Church bemoans the fact that the divorce rate within Christianity is higher than the rate outside it, yet the current construct of sex education within Christianity is still lacking an effective means of both preventing casual sex and mitigating against divorce within its adherents.

    Thanks for a great post,


    • Josh,

      Good to hear from you and thanks for your comment. I think you are right about the Old Testament connection. The relationship of Judaism with the law often emphasizes the letter over what we might argue is its “spirit.” If the tradition can emphasize the reason(s) for the law rather than the condemnation that will ensue from its transgression, I think there might be a greater effect.

      The second scenario you mentioned is one I hadn’t thought about, and is creative and troubling at the same time. I would argue that it exhibits a lack of care and control that is a mark of immaturity. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the situation is complicated by the stigma that falls unfairly on the female in this relationship. And as you note, the patterns of interaction may be carried unintentionally to other relationships as well.

      I also appreciate your last comment. I suspected it would be the case for others as well that strong faith and strong relationship = get married quick. Aside from the potential theological mandates involved, though, when the letter of the law is the only thing keeping people from doing something they would otherwise do, the institution has already lost. It would be interesting to see how Christianity might supplement its traditional mandates (monogamy, no divorce) with legitimate evidence from outside the tradition (non-sectarian psychological or social studies, etc.) in order to further its aims.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.

      • It’s interesting, Sam and I were just having a conversation about this last week. What to teach our kids about sex? I am torn. Growing up with purity rings, True Love Waits, etc, I think I had the idea that the ultimate sin you could commit in your christian walk was to have sex before you were married. I remember a fellow youth group member (and friend) telling me that they had had sex with their then boyfriend and part of me wondering if I should still be friends with them! Obviously there was a bit of a skewed perspective there when sex was the end all-be all of your christian walk.

        I don’t remember it being presented to us that way (virginity being the most important thing to bring to your marriage), but I don’t remember a lot of teaching about sex that didn’t involve stressing the importance of saving it till marriage and that being the “ultimate” gift you could give your spouse. I remember admiring people who saved their first kiss until their wedding day and thinking “If I could have just had that kind of will power, my (future) marriage will be awesome!” I don’t think that I’m totally different from a lot of christian teenagers (at least those growing up in our generation) in how I put virginity on a pedestal as the true testament of how “christian” you were, and thinking that as long as you were both virgins when you got married that your marriage was going to be totally Radical!

        I think looking back at things now that the intentions were good (the abstinence teaching), but it didn’t leave a lot of room for error or take into consideration the complexity of teenage relationships and thinking. I can’t quite get to the idea that handing out condoms at school is the best idea, but neither is telling your kids “DONT DO IT” and then sticking your head in the sand.

        What I’ve come to right now is that the best thing to do is have an open and honest dialogue regularly with your kids about sex, not leaving it up to the church/school/whatever to teach them. If your kids reach the age where their friends are talking about sex and you haven’t already established a relationship with your kids that allow them to talk/ask questions about that kind of thing, I think you’re in for trouble. It’s laughable the things that kids tell eachother about sex, my goal is that our kids are comfortable enough to come to us and tell us what they’re hearing and/or ask questions. I don’t think I ever would have felt comfortable asking questions about sex because as far as I understood, I wasn’t evven supposed to be THINKING about sex, let alone having questions about it!

        I’d write more but Oli is throwing a bit of a fit, so I’ll leave it there.

        • Hi Kylie,

          Although there is pressure on both sexes (in Christian circles), girls seem to bear the brunt of the responsibility to preserve virginity. Boys shouldn’t have sex, but if they don’t hold up their end of the bargain, girls shouldn’t let them. That part is duplicated in broader culture as well.

          I think that I agree with you on the condoms issue. Schools should preserve a sort of neutral stance. Having them available (and without stigma) is great; encouraging kids to take them because “they’re going to do it anyway” is reinforcing the predicted behavior. I don’t know if this is actually done anywhere. My point is that there is a line that needs to be monitored.

          Of course, if you’re able to talk about it at home, that eliminates a lot of the concern about what the state does in the first place.

          Thanks for your comment.

  2. Pingback: Forward Thinking: Talking to Teenagers about Sex

  3. Pingback: What do we owe our parents? A values question… | Even the Bravest…

Leave a Reply