Sex, Theology, and Teenage Choices - by Kate Ott ‘00 M.A.R.
“We are teaching about sexuality all the time in our churches …” When I make this statement to groups of clergy, youth ministers, or parents, many are surprised to hear it. Most don’t include much sexuality education in their programs. So, they wonder, how is it they are teaching about sexuality all the time?
This is my way of pointing out the obvious. In US culture and many Christian traditions, sexuality education is defined very narrowly. It usually takes the form of one youth group evening each year or a staff information session about the sexual abuse prevention policy. We think of sexuality as something people do – particular acts – rather than as part of who we are and the way we live in relationship with others. Whether we know it or not, in our churches we are signaling attitudes about sexuality, teaching it, all the time.
A broader view of it – one that treats themes of intimacy, sensuality, reproductive health, gender identity, and sexual orientation as well as abuse prevention – is well known in Unitarian Universalist Association and United Church of Christ circles that teach the “Our Whole Lives” sexuality education curriculum. Most of the rest of us rarely understand sexuality in such terms. We should be more alert to the many ways we are teaching about sexuality every day – think of the adult relationships our kids see modeled in church, or the rules about clothing in youth group, or the division of bathrooms in the church building, or the retreat sleeping arrangement protocol, or how God is named.
Unfortunately, we often miss the impact that these many commonplace messages have on youth – what we value about bodies, how we understand gender or our image of God, and what we’re communicating about who the congregation welcomes. Yet all these issues throughout the year offer teachable moments, an open space for clergy, youth ministers, teachers, and parents to share information and talk. In turn, this approach to education does affect teen choices. There is a common myth that talking with youth about sexuality issues will lead them to engage in sexual behaviors. Actually, the opposite is true. The more information teens have, the better equipped they are to make healthy decisions based on their moral values.
“No Sex Until Marriage”
Which moral values? When congregations do explicitly teach about sexuality, teachers often believe they need to give teens a sexual ethic, which is usually boiled down to: “No sex until marriage.” I believe this old instinct needs to be questioned, because the ethic of “no sex until marriage” has been proven ineffective with teens.1 First, it primarily focuses on one sexual behavior and does not clearly define that behavior.2 Second, it is often accompanied by rigid gender and sexual-orientation theologies. Third, it gives no guidance on relationship formation either prior to or after the wedding.
Recently, the relationship of consent and power to sexual conduct has moved to the forefront of national conversation. We send the wrong message to our teens when we disempower them – take away their consent – and force them into a sexual ethic devoid of lasting foundation in moral values or an understanding of relationship formation. Rather than give teens a behavior-based rule, we should help them form their own sexual ethic.
Seven Ethical Norms
Identifying a foundation of values can help youth build their own sexual ethic. In her 2006 book Just Love, Margaret Farley suggests the following seven ethical norms: no unjust harm, free consent, mutuality, equality, commitment, fruitfulness, and social justice.3 From such a foundation, one can make ethical judgments about certain behaviors and relationships.
In the messiness of teens’ lives, we might assume they are not capable of developing a sexual ethic. But that’s not my experience. I regularly talk with youth groups around the country, and I usually introduce a short exercise to begin building a sexual ethic.
It may take the following shape: The group reads 1 Corinthians 13:1-8:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
We note that Paul was talking to a whole community, not lovers. The interpretation of love he is proposing is a love that looks the same no matter if it is one person, two people, or a whole group. We make a two-column list of what love is and what it is not. Then everyone in the group adds their own values to the two columns. Each teenager is instructed to think about a personal idea of God and Jesus and what the faith community has taught them. Based on that theology, I ask them to select the top five values important to them in a friendship and in a love relationship. Most often, the five values are the same for both friendship and romance, words like honest, kind, trustworthy, mutual, and patient. When I ask the teens to pair off and give examples from scripture or from their theological beliefs that support their value selections, mostly I overhear instances of how Jesus treated others. They also give concrete examples of what the value looks like in a relationship.4 One teen might say patience means waiting for a romantic partner to be comfortable and ready to kiss for the first time. Another will describe being trustworthy and honest as speaking up for a friend when rumors spread.
By the end of this exercise, the teens have identified a theological foundation of five values for determining how ethical a relationship is. When we are done, I suggest to them that they need all five values before they can engage in sexual activity – and the decision to engage in a behavior would have to support and deepen the values. In most cases, they groan, and one brave youth says something like, “But that’s really hard.”
Indeed, creating healthy sexual relationships is difficult work at any age. The sooner we cultivate a values-based foundation with our children and teens, the better equipped they will be to nurture a sexual ethic that will serve them in all relationships – their friends, lovers, and their own sense of self. We disempower youth when we institutionally keep silent, or announce sexual decrees, or focus only on preventing negative outcomes, or let our teens fumble through their sexual lives led more by mass media than theological reflection.
We can empower youth if we address sexuality issues in their myriad everyday forms. Our religious communities can furnish access to information, model a variety of healthy sexual relationships, and build strong interpersonal relationships – all grounded in their faith values.
Kate Ott ’00 M.A.R. is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Drew University Theological School. She is the author of Sex + Faith: Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence (Westminster John Knox, 2013) and, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield, Christian Ethics for a Digital Society. See her blog at kateott.org.
1 See Anthony Paik, Kenneth Sanchagrin, and Karen Heimer, “Broken Promises: Abstinence Pledging and Sexual and Reproductive Health,” Journal of Marriage and Family 78 (2016), pp. 546–61, and Christopher Trenholm et al. “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs: Final Report,” Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., a Congressionally funded evaluation submitted to the US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, April 2007, accessed on July 30, 2018 at https://www.mathematica-mpr.com/ our-publications-and-findings/publications/impactsof- four-title-v-section-510-abstinence-educationprograms.
2 According to research, youth have varied definitions of abstinence. Many interpret “no sex until marriage” as only including one or two forms of sexual intercourse, so they try other kinds of sexual acts, often unprotected. See, Mark D. Regnerus, Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2007), and Melina M. Bersamin, Deborah A. Fisher, Samantha Walker, Douglas L. Hill, and Joel W. Grube, “Defining Virginity and Abstinence: Adolescents’ Interpretations of Sexual Behaviors,” Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 41, no. 2 (2007), pp. 182–188.
3 Margaret Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (Continuum, 2006), p. 231.
4 Kate Ott, “Contemplating Sex: Sexual Ethics for Today’s Teens,” Leader’s Guide and Participant’s Handout, TheThoughtfulChristian.com, 2013.