It’s every parent’s least favorite conversation and every youth minister’s most awkward lesson. For the kids, it ranges from excruciating to titillating. It’s got cutesy euphemisms out the wazoo, like “the birds and the bees” or “the facts of life,” signaling our collective discomfort with the topic.
It’s the sex talk.
Because the Bible talks about sex– and consequently, so do our middle and high school students– so must parents and youth groups. Prior to the “sexual revolution,” many church and parent talks were limited to one word: “don’t.” Rising teen pregnancy rates revealed that this approach wasn’t working. So was born the “purity culture” movement: True Love Waits programs, purity rings, all the 90s-tastic youth group tropes elder millennial Christian probably remember as a mixed bag. I myself came up at the very tail-end of this era. While I applaud the proactive effort, this approach had its flaws, too. Framing premarital sex as the ultimate sin after which one is irreparably scarred is not only damaging, its unbiblical.
As we’ve struggled to find our footing against the ever-changing sexual ethic of the world, we as the church tend to make a few crucial mistakes in the sex conversation. Here are a few that I’ve noticed, and what we should try instead:
We Give Rules Without Reasons
God’s design for sex is a rich, beautiful narrative that is told throughout scripture. He created the first couple and made them one flesh; he told them to multiply and blessed them. In sex, He gave them an incredible gift that served as a means of multiplication, a source of pleasure, and a bonding agent. Their unity in marriage was our first picture of the gospel, Christ and His bride united in love.
Yet, as we go about convincing our teenagers to wait, we often resort to fear-mongering about teen pregnancy, STDs, and even hell. Of course, they need to know the risks inherent in a sexual relationship; that’s part of making an informed decision, that ultimately, is theirs alone to make. Yet, why do we spiritualize the fear, when scripture tells us that we are not given a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7)? How long will they remain afraid in a world with rebuttals to all our objections? What if instead, we showed them the beauty of God’s design? Our conviction that sex is reserved for the marriage bed should indicate a high view of sex, as something sacred and beautiful, not a low view of something terrifying and taboo.
We Think Short-Term
Our teenagers are walking out into a world full of pressure and temptation, one that won’t take care to respect their decision to save sex for marriage. So of course, we need to talk about temptation. We need to talk to them about how to remove themselves from compromising situations, stand up to pressures from romantic partners, and have hard conversations. In many homes and churches, this conversation is being had often and well.
The problem is, one day these teenagers will likely be married adults, going from having to say “no” to being able to say “yes.” That’s the conversation we’re not having.
The problem with excluding the future from this conversation is this: our kids will be left trying to undo years of conditioning to see sex as forbidden, or even dirty and bad, in the moments after they say ‘I do.’ This struggle is well-documented among millennial Christians, and one I can attest to myself. It can (and has) cause(d) a lot of anxiety among Christian newlywed couples. Perhaps instead of simply pounding temptation-resistance tactics into our kids’ heads, we try a more balanced approach. Instead of just showing them how to wait, let’s remind them of the beauty of what they’re waiting for.
We Talk Little About Redemption
Who remembers the duct tape illustration? It goes something like this: a demonstrator tears a piece of duct tape off the roll and gives it to a member of the audience, with instructions to stick it to their arm, peel it off, and pass it down. Wash, rinse, repeat. The first audience member in the lineup will likely find the tape especially sticky and painful to peel off. Once they do, bits of their dead skin and arm hair are stuck to the tape forever (gross). Each successive person finds the tape less and less sticky.
This is supposed to be a metaphor for sex, implying that with each sexual partner, a person is less and less able to bond with the next. While there’s a grain of truth here, there’s something about it that shouldn’t sit right with those of us who have experienced the grace of Jesus Christ.
It’s true that having a sexual past can complicate relationships. Any baggage brought into a relationship, sexual or otherwise, will take patience and work on the part of both partners. But my issue with this metaphor is its statement on the future and the worth of a person as a function of their body count. Our worth as people is intrinsic; we are image bearers of God, not dirty pieces of tape. Sexual sin is not some permanent marker, unable to be cleansed by the blood of Christ. We need to relay this message to the kids in our youth group, or our home, who have already chosen to engage in premarital sex. I’ve met too many traumatized adults who let partners continue to take advantage of them because they didn’t know that, once they had sinned, they could choose to turn from it and have godly relationships. Tell your kids, out loud, that they are not damaged goods no matter what they’ve done, and that God’s perfect plan for them is still in motion.
We Assume No Past Trauma
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a young woman when I was working with a campus ministry in college.
In the group bible study I led for freshman girls, the topic of saving sex for marriage came up. She became visibly uncomfortable. That’s when she admitted to me that the topic made her uncomfortable. As a child, she had been molested by a family member. The choice to remain “sexually pure,” had been taken from her. Church sex talks now sounded to her like condemnation.
All this time, I had assumed that those with experiences like this knew that our categorization of premarital sex as sin was about consensual sex; that the assault or molestation committed against them was a grievous sin that their abuser will one day answer for. But assumption is a dangerous game. The shame surrounding these abuses doesn’t lend itself to this conclusion.
We would like to think of this kind of trauma as a niche issue, something we shouldn’t have to address upfront. But the truth is 45% of women and 22% of men have experienced sexual violence during their lifetime. We can never assume that our kids are not bringing baggage into the conversation. It’s always best to address possible trauma upfront.
We Don’t Talk About Consent
The secular world has only really started talking about consent since the #MeToo movement. But even now, much of the church seems to find this conversation irrelevant. Our model has long been that before marriage, the answer is always no. After marriage, the answer is always yes. But this at best, ignores nuance, and at worst, promotes abuse.
Sexual manipulation and coercion is rampant in our high schools. In 2016, 17.7% of 10th graders in Washington reported that they had been made to engage in unwanted kissing, sexual touch or intercourse. I’ve spoken to many women who claim this type of abuse as part of their story. Many of them say the same thing: ‘I didn’t understand that I could say no.’
Even the most deeply convicted teens are vulnerable; there’s a wide gray area between touch that we’ve deemed acceptable, like hand-hold and kissing, and sex. God forbid a romantic partner ever take advantage of that gray area, pushing past their boundaries by claiming “it’s not like we’re having sex!” Or more despicable yet, an authority figure try to take advantage of their position. Even after marriage, the agency to say ‘no’ from time to time, and have that ‘no’ respected, is a key part of a healthy and Christ-like relationship. Teaching consent is not some dangerous pathway to promiscuity; it’s protection against wolves in sheeps clothing.
Talking to the kids in our home or at church about sex can be a difficult endeavor, made more difficult by the broken world in which we live. But with so many voices competing for their attention, we must keep the conversation going. Now more than ever, they need to hear from voices who have their best interest at heart, and more importantly, from the God who holds them in His hand.
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