Relationships: Sexuality

Warning:  This post contains content appropriate for older teens and adults.  If you are offended or easily embarrassed by frank talk about human sexuality, STOP reading immediately.  No, I mean it.  I have lots of other posts, browse on the right and find something else to read.  Otherwise, kick your underage kid out of the room and read on.

We live is a sex-obsessed, sex-drenched society.  Somehow, we have deluded ourselves into thinking that pushing the boundaries of good taste is not only acceptable, but desirable and perhaps even necessary for the advancement of the human race.  Sadly, public flaunting of sexuality has not translated well into private sexual maturity.  This is beyond just being sexually moral, but being responsible, even in a non-religious context.  And equally sadly, all many churches have done is lash out and demand ever stricter interpretations of Scripture in a futile quest to stem the tide.  It’s a lot like putting a band-aid on a stab wound to the neck.

One way in which we see that failure is in abstinence education.  Abstinence-only sex education programs have no significant impact on the rate of teenage sexual intercourse.  Go ahead, read that sentence again.  If you’re concerned that I’m making that up, please trust me, I’m not.  (That also means that none of the other sex education programs are having an impact, either, by the way.)  I can’t speak to how the educational system should respond to this problem, but I can address the church.  There are a few ways in which we are failing, and until we begin to get it right, we will have to deal with the consequences.

The first problem is that we ourselves don’t have things clearly, or appropriately, defined.  There was a trend, for a time, for adolescent girls to “pledge” their virginity to . . . their fathers.  If you are not already saying, “Ew,” I will say it for you: Ew.  That crosses a lot of lines right there.  I understand fathers wanting to protect their daughters, but that is simply inappropriate.  Why not have them make their pledges to their mothers?  Why aren’t boys expected to do the same?  Why, in Heaven’s name, are we trying to return to the age of young women having to prove their purity before it can be sold to their husbands?  This kind of thing reduces feminine sexuality to a single aspect and ties a woman’s worth to her lack of sexual experience.  Neither of those helps develop healthy, moral sexuality.

Second, there is a rule, spoken or unspoken, among Christians: Keep your legs together and your pants zipped at all times, even when you’re alone.  Yes, you read that last part right.  I’m going to be very frank here.  We tell our teenagers not to masturbate.  Why?  For some reason, we seem to think that the hands-off policy is a sign of a devout and moral person.  Let’s try an experiment.  If you’re in a sexual relationship with someone, try having absolutely no sexual contact for, let’s say, eight years, give or take.  Also, you are not allowed any form of self-gratification during that time, and no cheating with someone else.  I’m assuming you’re an adult.  Chances are, even for you, that is going to be next to impossible.  Now imagine that your doctor has injected you with an overload of hormones.  What, exactly, do you think is going to happen?  Not only is it normal for adolescents (both boys and girls) to seek relief of their sexual tension, it is healthy and natural.  If we speak openly about this subject and teach healthy sexual expression during the teen years, we may just find that our young people will be more, not less, able to exercise self-control in their relationships.

Third, we fail our LGBT young people.  I have known children as young as ten who are already sensing that they are attracted to people of the same sex.  Instead of helping them, we might confuse them by telling them that it’s a phase, or it will pass, or that their feelings aren’t real.  We have then damaged their trust that adults can help them as they grow and mature.  We need to be better prepared to be parents, teachers, and adult friends to these kids, who are vulnerable and at risk to begin with.  We can’t be part of the problem.

Finally, we emphasize the no-sex rule, but we fail to help adolescents navigate relationships.  We teach them that having sexual intimacy of any kind is not only sinful, but disrespectful to their boy- or girlfriend.  We might even tell them that dating is “wrong” at their age.  There is an entire philosophy of romantic relationships which teaches exactly that.  But we don’t teach teenagers how to have good, moral relationships with each other.  I’m not suggesting we gloss over or ignore the sexual aspect.  But we need to be helping both boys and girls understand, respect, and relate to each other as well.

There is much more to be said on the issue of sexuality and relationships.  Next post, I will address issues in adulthood.

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3 thoughts on “Relationships: Sexuality

  1. Amy, in your opinion, how do we, as the church, “get it right”? I see a list of problems without solutions. Not that I’m expecting you to solve the worlds problems, but what are some ideas you had as you wrote this post?

    • The first thing I think we can do is start with being honest (with ourselves and with our teens) about what they are feeling, rather than telling them what they will or should be feeling. When I was in training as a health educator, one of the things that research has consistently found is that when parents are actively involved and have open communication with their kids, the teens are less likely to be involved in all sorts of risk-taking behaviors (including “daredevil” type behavior, sexuality, and drug and alcohol use). Instead of speaking only to teens, why not spend some time educating adults?

      Second, people employed by the church can educate themselves. Some churches (and not saying this about you personally, Alex, or about my own church’s youth pastor–you guys are great) tend to want to push old understandings of sex and relationships on their congregants/teenagers. I heard a message recently in which the person (a man) had no idea, physiologically speaking, how females develop. He therefore tried to make some embarrassing claims about the physical “needs” of men vs. women (like men “need” sex and women “need” to supply it, and if we don’t make sure they know it, they won’t because they’re not really all that interested). I’ve heard similar messages given to teens, that boys “can’t help themselves” so it’s up to girls to call the shots–as though girls aren’t willing participants (I believe that’s actually called rape) or have to be pressured or they wouldn’t really want to. It helps to be informed of actual data and actual thoughts and feelings of the very real people we deal with. I have the benefit of my MS Ed. in health. (Yes, I went to Brockport; no, it’s not as liberal as one might expect.) Aside from paying for a 2-year advanced degree, there’s a lot of great (Christian) research about sex and relationships. Would be good if churches updated things to reflect biological and psychological realities rather than tired assumptions from at least 30 years ago.

      My advice on LGBT teens is that we need to start by listening rather than freaking out. It’s a fact, kids are coming out at earlier ages these days, with less fear of retaliation at school. But bullying still happens, and churches need to be prepared to be safe places for these kids, not somewhere they still have to be afraid. And that goes regardless of the church’s position on what the Bible says about homosexuality. I understand that some churches are more liberal and some more conservative on the issue, so I can’t be more specific than that. The church has to decide what “safe” and “loving” look like based on their understanding of Scripture. Unfortunately, there are a lot of churches where public bullying (i.e., gay-bashing) still occur–and if that seems unbelievable (which, to someone with a heart for God it should), just do a Google search for it. Trust me. No matter what a church understands Scripture to mean, there’s no excuse. We don’t do that to anyone else we perceive as having sin in their lives.

      Alright, I know this is getting long, but one other thing. When I was a teen, and a new Christian, it was all about suppressing our sexual feelings (or, for girls, that we really didn’t have any to speak of and that we shouldn’t let ourselves be pressured). There was a Christian magazine for teens which had a column on relationships and sexuality. Reflecting on it now, the columnist was ahead of his time in what he wrote. He made it ok to have feelings and desires. His position was that it was how we treated others and how we responded to the natural maturing of our bodies that made the difference. I honestly think that we are so afraid that somehow if we give an inch, we’ll have to give a mile–that if we allow teens to have any form of sexual expression (like self-gratification), then we’re allowing them to “lust.” That isn’t what is happening, but it’s helpful to acknowledge that fear and then try to manage it.

      Hope that answers the question.

  2. I think the failure of “sex education” of all stripes is that it treats teen sex as a “teen” issue and a “sex” issue. It is really a family issue. Teens live in families where expectations are communicated (or not), guidance and supervision is given (or not), and where teens have functional or non-functional models of relating to others modeled. Churches need to focus more on helping families to be healthy, addressing the invisible roots rather than the more obvious fruit.

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