Snapchat and Sexting: Navigating Technological Conversations (part 2 of 2)

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It’s not like the “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine” way of flirtation is a new process, as KJ Dell’antonia, blogger for the New York Times reminds us.

This morning, Good Morning America showed a snippet (not available to public at time of writing this blog post) on the dangers of teenage sexting, one of many news media sources to recently discuss the issue. Generally, the media links sexting with cyber-bullying, as the names Hope Witsell and Amanda Todd evoke fears that messages and images intended for an intimate partner can quickly get forwarded into the wrong hands, resulting in a heap of humiliation and emotional abuse. These are important stories, no doubt, that perpetuate the media’s overarching narrative that our world is becoming less trustworthy.

Emily Bazelon, contributing journal for Slate, explains the detriment of media coverage of sexting and other teen sexual activities in her review of Kathleen Bogle and Jeff Best’s new book Kids Gone Wild: Understanding the Hype Over Teen Sex:

“Still, the alarmism breeds, and has repercussions. It creates a misleading picture of kids’ lives and obscures the real issues of sexuality facing American teens. While the overall teen birthrate has declined, too many black and Hispanic girls are still getting pregnant. Data from 2011 shows that teenagers of color are more likely than white kids to have had sex before age 13 and to have had four or more partners. Best and Bogle rightly argue that the TV shows do a disservice, fueling “the fears of white, middle-class parents that their kids are engaging in unprecedented sexual promiscuity” while ignoring “real class differences in sexual behavior, which are connected to poverty, educational opportunities, and other complex factors that the news media, particularly television, often want to avoid.”

Sexting, either through a sexually suggestive message or an erotic image, appears to be transitioning into a common option for exploring sexual development. Jeff Temple, professor of psychology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, and others recently assessed the sexting habits (in this case, strictly the sending of erotic imagery vita text message) of a diverse group of Texas teenagers, discovering that approximately 25% of teenagers have sent a sexually explicit image through text message during their six-year-long study. While these students are reportedly seven times more likely to have sexual intercourse than those that don’t sext, they appear to have no increase of sexually risk-taking activities, such as unprotected sex, the combination of sex and alcohol, and a higher quantity of sexual partners.

David DeMatteo, professor of psychology and law at Drexel University, and several of his students provide a detailed study about the prevalence of sexting amongst teenagers. In “Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consequences“, published in September 2014’s Sexuality Research and Social Policy, DeMatteo and colleagues discover that 54% of the students assessed acknowledge sending sexually suggestive/erotic text messages; 28% of students reported texting erotic images of themselves. 10% of the pool of teenagers reported texting weekly, while 28% said that they “seldom” exchange sexts. Males and females send a common amount of non-visual sexts, but adolescent girls were more than twice as likely to send visual sexts of themselves as teenage boys. Teenagers don’t seem to be sexting to anonymous parties; 44% of teenagers reported sending sexts consensually with their romantic partners, while another third of teenagers used sexting to flirt with a romantic interest.

Much has been written about sexting and cyber-bullying, and while the research from Drexel seems to suggest that cyber-bullying is an outlying experience, it still exists around sexting. Fifteen percent of students reported feeling pressured to send sexts back to the original sender, and while only eight percent of the adolescents claimed to have personally experiencing embarrassment or humiliation from others following a sext, a whopping 71% said that they knew someone who had been embarrassed, humiliated, or bullied because of a sext. About a quarter of the participants said that they forwarded sexts to other people, generally friends.

DeMatteo warns of the correlation between rising rates of sexting amongst teenagers and the lack of appropriate legal infrastructure. Here’s the problem: Only ten states have passed legislation pertaining specifically to underage sexting. Forty state governments folllow the federal identification of sexting amongst minors as child pornography.

Massachusetts is one of these forty states. David Capeless, District Attorney of Berkshire County, writes the following about sexting on his website:

“Sexting” may violate the laws of the Commonwealth that were established to keep our children safe. The child pornography laws in Massachusetts are all felonies; they are quite serious, and there are no “lesser” charges (i.e. misdemeanors) that apply to this conduct.

Sexting seems to encompass the actions of all parties involved, including those who encourage/entice a minor to take a nude photo, the minor whose nude/sexually explicit picture gets taken, and those who send and forward these pictures. Massachusetts laws seem to be indifferent to whether the sext message sent to a minor is consensual; if it involves a minor, the state of Massachusetts deems this has participating in or distributing child pornography, a state felony. Conviction of sexting amongst minors can result in a 10-20 year jail sentence, a $10,000 fine, and being forced to register as a sex offender (as the state considers sexting among minors as a sex crime) for twenty years.

We can argue in another blog post whether or not the length and severity of sentencing is justified, especially given that research doesn’t seem to support the alarmism that television reporters place around sexting, but nevertheless, David DeMatteo and colleagues uncovered another disturbing trend: Over 60% of students were unaware that sexting is viewed by the state (Pennsylvania, home of Drexel, has a similar structure to Massachusetts) as child pornography. Students who knew of these legal implications reportedly participated in sexting far less than those that didn’t. DeMatteo writes in an online interview:

Young people need to be educated about the potential consequences of sexting, which can include legal, social and psychological consequences; ways to avoid running afoul of sexting laws in their jurisdictions; and how to avoid becoming a victim of sexting.

The education should come from many sources – the more young people hear the message, the more likely it’ll be to sink in – so they should be educated by their parents, schools, and perhaps even law enforcement. An interesting question is at what age should such education about sexting occur? A reasonable position would be that young people should be made aware of sexting – what it is, consequences, etc. – around the same time they are learning the basic facts about sexual behavior.

As we discussed in Friday’s blog, parents and educators can remind their adolescents that nothing on the internet truly gets erased, as Snapchat would lead us to believe, discuss the emotional response around what happens when you receive a sext from another peer, and have conversations about the legal implications of sexting.

Snapchat and Sexting: Navigating Technological Conversations (part 1 of 2)

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One of the fun things about writing this blog is learning about current social trends that my formerly un-hip self would have completely avoided.

Today, I present you: Snapchat.

snapchat sexting familiesSnapchat provides a unique way of viewing photos (cleverly known as “snaps”), which have a shelf life of 1-10 seconds once sent. After the ten seconds of viewing, the image file, Snapchat reports, disappears, connoting an organizational value for privacy: I can send you something I generally wouldn’t want others to see, and in 10 seconds, it will be gone. Snapchat recently added “Snapchat Stories“, a feature that allows images or videos to be seen and commented on for 24 hours. A group of researchers from the University of Washington polled university students this year to determine their favorite usages for Snapchat. 60% of users reported using Snapchat primarily to share funny stories or images. Snapchat reports that 700 million images and videos and 500 million Snapchat Stories are shared daily, making Snapchat one of the more popular social media apps.

Snapchat has been involved in quite a few legal issues in its three year existence. Snapchat created a bit of false advertising in their report of disappearing images. Most people can take screenshots with their phones as a way to save images. Richard Hickman of Decipher Forensics discovered that images and videos can be restored by removing a file extension that was keeping images from being viewed; like any good entrepreneur, he created a how-to video and dispersed it throughout his community. Others have created apps, such as Snapbox and Snapchat Saver, that allow you to save Snapchat images. Snapchat seems to have made limited efforts to adapt its product following these discoveries and creations.

Snapchat also carries a bit of an image problem around sexting, the dissemination of sexually suggestive, provocative, and exploitative material (either visual or non-visual) through technology. Although the University of Washington study reports only 14% of users had ever sent a sexually suggestive image, others report an increase of underground activity. The Daily Dot, a news source updating readers about Internet and technological-related issues, recently exposed an amateur porn community that through the venue Snapchat Stories. Author Cooper Fleishman writes:

It’s not clear if Snapchat is aware of BoyConfessions [the name of the pornographic community] and its ilk. If so, the company could be in a jam. To discourage users from spreading questionable porn, Snapchat may have to compromise its core principle—user privacy—and take an active interest in what its users are sending.

There is nothing stopping two users from snapping each other private X-rated photos, regardless of user age. Snapchat has never interfered with that. It gets messier when underage users are snapping nude photos to aggregator accounts, whose owners edit the boys’ photos into videos and pimp them out publicly. Once it’s out there, anyone can screengrab the nudes, and the person in the video won’t be notified. Those screenshots “can, and will, be everywhere,” John warns.

Sexting is incredibly challenging to do research on for two reasons: the general under-reporting of sexual activities amongst users and the easy accessibility for minors to use online material such as Snapchat (and advertise themselves as over the age of 18).

For example, Shari Kessel Schneider and others reported in 2011 that only 13% of Boston-area high school students (from a pool of about 23,000) have received a sext, with only 10% forwarding sexts to peers. On the other hand, Donald Strassberg, professor of psychology at the University of Utah, reported a few years ago that from a pool of 600 students at a private high school (unknown if the high school was religiously-affiliated, although if it was, that makes these numbers more staggering), 40% had received a sexually-suggestive or explicit image, with almost 20% admitting to have sent a sext. It seems that students are more willing to admit that they’ve received a sext as opposed to sending one; Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility at England’s University of Plymouth, suggests that teenagers are far more likely to suggest that they have friends who sext than admitting that they themselves sext.

Technological advances have created mediums for teenagers to explore their sexuality, and in Monday’s post, we’ll discuss a recent study that catalogs the usage of mobile devices for sexting purposes. (It’s funny to mention a “recent study”, considering the two that I mentioned in the previous paragraph happened in the last three years, but it’s important to keep tabs on the constant, rapid adaptation of technology and social media.) Part one of this series is addressed to parents, not in a way that creates paranoia, but in a way that begins honest conversations with teenagers about the collision between sexual development and technology. Here are three ideas that may help launch these conversations. Note that these conversations, as all attempts at connection between parent and teenager, need to be organic and give your adolescent the perception that you have something to learn from him/her.

1) Parents, do your homework. Visit the support pages of social media sites, such as Tumblr, Instagram, and ooVoo, and learn how their products work. Maintain curiosity about these products, and ask yourself how these social media sites may enhance connection.

2) Establish boundaries around mobile device usage. Create agreements with your teenagers so that they can have cell phones/ipads/etc. as long as you have their password. Join Instagram and require that your teenager adds you to their connection list. Monitor what apps get downloaded, and ask your adolescent to show you how they work (again, from a place of curiosity, not judgment).

3) Learn about the avatars of your teenagers. What kind of online/social media presence is your teenager trying to make? Ask your teenagers how they want others to perceive them online. Adolescence is about trying on different potential identities, and social media sites give teenagers a structured venue to explore these different personae, so learn about and show compassion toward their efforts.

 

First Responders, National Holidays, and Couples Therapy

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We frequently hear ambulance sirens in our neighborhood, as the sound echoes throughout the streets of our Boston suburb and into our second-floor apartment, but they generally pass by, directed toward a hospital, fire station, or in a worst case, a scene of an emergency.

One afternoon this summer, the siren wails grew nearer to our house, nearer, until the flashing lights of ambulance vans and a fire truck parked outside our front door. I watched the following scene from the second floor, a la Jimmy Stewart: two men carefully yet efficiently strapping my landlord onto a gurney, a woman negotiating calmness to the landlord’s hysterical wife and direction to her even-tempered daughter. A team of paramedics receiving the gurney in the back of an ambulance van and quickly attaching my landlord to a number of monitoring devices, gauging his heart rate and blood pressure. Within about 10 minutes, they drove away, sirens blazing through our often impassable streets, where they dropped him off, whisked him into care of emergency room, and sped toward the next emergency, where I only imagine this stressful process of quick resuscitation and calming of family members got repeated dozens of times throughout an 8-12 hour shift.

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On Saturday, September 27th, communities throughout the nation shared end-of-summer picnics and gatherings in honor of First Responder Appreciation Day.

We’ll cut you some slack if you missed it. Only 19 states (including Massachusetts, but not including bigger states like California, Texas, New York, and Florida) have passed legislation identifying September 27th as a state holiday, signifying the overlooked, often thankless tasks of law enforcement officials, firefighters, EMTs, and others that arrive to scenes of emergency and tragedy offering order, support, and compassion to immobilized victims and communities.

Currently, the House of Representatives has a bill, sponsored by Massachusetts’ own Michael Capuano, that would require the President to designate 9/27 as National First Responders Day. This bill was introduced into the House at the end of February, where it has remained in the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform for the last seven months. Some legislators and civilians, including Andrew Collier, brother of Sean Collier, the MIT police officer who was killed on duty while tracking the Tsarnaev brothers following the Boston Marathon bombings last April, have attempted to press the House into moving this bill along. Andrew Collier writes on change.org, a site that invites citizens to support legislative petitions:

“We ask that our elected officials designate a national holiday to honor the brave professionals in the emergency response fields, including Police, Firefighters, and EMS. We’ve witnessed the bravery and heroism of these men and women time and again – running into the Twin Towers on 9/11; heading toward the sound of gunfire in Colorado, Connecticut, and too many other recent tragedies; and facing danger for our protection in every community, every day. We are now reminded of their bravery again after the tragic events that took place in Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown, MA.”

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Researchers at Johns Hopkins report that first responders who are exposed to traumatic events increase their possibility of experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms, including physical ailments, avoidance, and flashbacks. First responders are also more likely to develop substance use addictions as they attempt to wash away the memories of seeing someone severely injured, having one of their colleagues killed, or seeing a dead body.

Too often, our first responders suffer in silence. Unfortunately, a stigma around receiving professional help exists in many first responder communities, as some risk losing their job or ranking following a PTSD diagnosis. Global News, a Canadian news source, reports that 23 Canadian first responders have committed suicide since April, a disturbing trend amongst many nations.

Anita DeLongis and David King, professors of psychology at the University of British Columbia, recently explored the internal suffering of first responders in the context of intimate relationships. In “When Couples Disconnect: Rumination and Withdrawal as Maladaptive Responses to Everyday Stress”, an article published in August’s Journal of Family Psychology, DeLongis and King evaluated the interactions patterns of 87 intimate relationships involving paramedics. The authors identify the term “rumination” as the passive, internal process of repetitive thinking about problems, and label burnout, the depletion of emotional and social resources, as the end result of perpetual rumination. Many first responders avoid burdening their partners with the stressors and chaos of their job, but still struggle to truly leave work at work.

DeLongis and King asked these couples to keep journals of their conversations at three points during the day: one hour after waking up, immediately after work, and before bed. They discovered days with greater work stress also involving greater levels of rumination during times before bed. Rumination seldom involved discussions explicitly about work, but carried over into worries about other areas of life, including finances and social obligations. Partners attempted to assuage the increase of worry in one of two ways: either by pursuing and trying to find solutions to eliminate the worry, often through criticism, or by distancing completely. DeLongis and King also discovered that paramedics struggling with burnout had a greater tendency to withdraw entirely, creating an impenetrable wall around their anxiety, exhaustion, and feelings of worthlessness. Partners’ responses, regardless of whether they pursued or distanced from their partners, seemed to exacerbate the process.

Working with emergencies creates an inordinate amount of stress for first responders, particularly when an outlet to discuss occupational stressors in a supportive environment fails to exist. DeLongis and King remind us, in line with other research, that first responders who found that safe outlet in the context of their intimate relationship reported a significant higher quality of intimacy, connectedness, and empathy from their partners.

Couples therapy can provide an opportunity to improve connectedness and intimacy by providing a space to share stories of stress, burdens, disappointment, and heroism. First responders experiencing high levels of stress and burnout may perceive that they have limited emotional energy to engage with their partner, or that if they do engage, their partner will share some of their negative self-thoughts and distance or not understand them. We’ve discovered, through creating a safe space to share experiences, that partners often move closer to their first responder when learning of their anxieties and vulnerabilities, providing compassion, empathy, and support for their significant other.

Star-Crossed Lovers and the Stress of LGBT Couples

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From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star cross’d lovers take their life,
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents strife.

Romeo and Juliet, Prologue

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Image from fanpop.com

Montague and Capulet. Tristan and Isolde. Cyclops and Phoenix. Any time a mortal tries to fall in love with a vampire. (Or for that matter, any time someone riffs off the vampire/unrequited love theme and creates a story that makes us scratch our head as to how it remained on the NY Times Bestseller list for over a year.)

The socioeconomic and personality gaps (and ensuing conflict) between these couples draws us into their narratives. We want to see Romeo overcome all odds to connect with Juliet and stick it to those snooty Capulets. We connect with heroes who are misunderstood and castigated, and root for them to find happiness and show the world that they’re much more than what their races, social classes, and disfigurations might suggest. We are captivated by degrees of difficulties: The more barriers a relationship has, the more we root for them to triumph.

Unfortunately, as William Shakespeare suggests in the killing of his protagonist teenage lovebirds, relationships fraught with external conflict, coming from parents, friends, and/or society at large, often struggle to survive.

Ilan Meyer, professor of sexual orientation law and public policy at UCLA, identifies the minority stress model, where socially devalued groups expect the constant discrimination and mistreatment they experience to exist in future relationships, leading to negative appraisal of self and other and attempts at hiding the status of minority. (Meyer researched LGBT couples who have a greater ability to conceal their identity as a minority than, say, an African-American person, although this model extends to racial/ethnic minorities as well.)

Recently, Kristi Gamarel of the City University of New York and others expanded Meyer’s minority stress model to encompass the experience of both partners, asking, “How do the external stressors of an LGBT person transfer over to the partner’s experience?” In the article “Gender Minority Stress, Mental Health, and Relationship Quality: A Dyadic Investigation of Transgender Women”, published in August’s Journal of Family Psychology, Gamarel and other researchers interviewed 191 transgender women who were in intimate relationships with cisgender (or non-transgender) men, almost 80% of whom were also racial minorities.

Transgendered individuals provide an interesting contrast to other LGB couples because they have higher rates of poverty. Related, the National Center for Transgender Equality reports that at least 25% have lost a job either during or shortly after the process of sexual transformation, and 75% have experienced occupation discrimination, including sexual harassment, refusal to hire/promote, and privacy violations. A national survey reports that two-thirds of transgendered people have been victimized by assault. Poverty creates its own set of relational stressors; Gamarel and company estimated that low income increases the odds of her research participants reporting depression by 65%. (Research included being screened through an evidence-based depression scale.) In this study, 43% of transgendered women and 47.5% of cisgendered male partners met the criteria for depression.

Studying depression in couples can prove challenging because of the chicken-egg dilemma: Did a couple enter into a relationship already suffering from depression, or did they develop depressive symptoms throughout the course of their relationship? Depression is too complex to answer that question simply. However, Gamarel and company created a qualitative questionnaire to assess for relationship stigma, including the following questions:

  • How uncomfortable do you feel holding hands in public?
  • How uncomfortable do you feel going out to bars (straight or gay bars?
  • How frequently have you actually been harassed when w/ partner in public?
  • How often do you experience difficulty introducing your partner to friends/family?
  • How often have you had to hide your relationship from other people?
  • How often do you feel there is something wrong/feel self-conscious about being in this relationship?

Predictably, many couples reported feelings of self-consciousness, that they were doing something wrong both in and because of their relationships. Sadly, the researchers also determined that partners experienced higher risks of depression the longer they stayed in their relationship. After awhile, as Gamarel and associated suggest, partners lose the ability to distinguish the difference between pressure from the negative messages from outside forces (i.e. family members and friends) and pressure from within the relationship. Work with minority (racial or sexual) couples must have conversations about discrimination and the potential for transference–the expectation that one’s partner will treat you with the same negativity and contempt that others have treated you.

True Love Waits, Sexual Awakening, and Developing Your Own Faith (part 4 of 4)

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Our college presents an annual variety show each winter where the fraternities, sororities, and members of each class create three minute parody songs based around certain themes, complete with ridiculous lyrics, more ridiculous costumes, and choreography, but only movement from the hips up. (Practically speaking, there’s only so much movement that happens when you cram 100 people onto a set of risers.) Students audition for the role of “host” or “hostess”, who perform solo and ensemble numbers while the larger fraternities/sororities enter and exit the stage. During my last year of college, I was selected to be one of the six hosts.

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I attempted to emulate the guy on the right in college. I may or may not have mimicked his goofy face in this image while singing.

Each of us had a solo, duet, gendered number (the three guys did a song, the three girls did a song) and three or four group numbers. For my duet, I brought out my best Huey Lewis and sang “Cruisin” with one of the girls. (Still blows my mind to realize that Gwyneth Paltrow was the other end of that duet for the 2000 film Duets.)

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I attended a private, evangelical Christian school. The lyrics of all of our songs had to be approved by some administrative board, who required us to alter verbiage if themes became too explicitly “un-Christian.” For example, when I sang “Movin’ Out”, by Billy Joel, I had to say that Anthony worked “late at the diner” rather than became a bartender.

The administration apparently had a conniption fit when reading the lyrics of Cruisin. Not understanding the concept that Huey and Gwyneth want to explore something other than a hook-up in their relationship, the higher-ups asked us to sing “this is not a one time chance” instead of “this is not a one night stand”. Apparently the phrase “let’s open up and go inside” left too much to the imagination; “go for a ride” replaced the potentially risque metaphor.

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We’ve spoken this week about research from Dr. Leslie Gordon Simons and Antoinette Landor about the success of virginity pledges through programs like “True Love Waits” amongst university students. Most young adults who committed to abstinence in some capacity during their adolescence maintained their sexual “purity”, assuming that they also maintained a strong commitment towards other religious beliefs and values that they upheld in their youth. According to David Kinnaman, president of the Barna group, a for-profit research organization that assesses trends in the intersection of faith and culture, approximately 30% of young adults who grew up in the church stay committed to its beliefs and practices through young adulthood. However, we’ve also asked the question “Is maintaining sexual abstinence success?” from developmental and relational (both short-term and long-term) paradigms.

Simons and Landor discovered something potentially frightening: Those who sign virginity pledges but have low levels of religious commitment are more likely to engage in sexually risky behaviors. These students had more sexual encounters and partners on average than the 1000 students (the control group in the research project) who didn’t sign virginity pledges in the first place. These students also used sexual contraception at much lower levels than the control group, leading to a greater risk for STDs and unwanted pregnancies. Simons and Landor focused specifically on the transmission of STDs through oral sex (remember, oral sex is not coital sex, so if we give fellatio/cunnilingus, maybe we can maintain our status of “virgin”), resulting in infections of the mouth and throat.

The Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy group who specializes in sex education, reports that while a fair percentage of high school students have sex, sexual exploration really begins for most young adults once they enter university age. Ideally, healthily exploring sexuality consists of having some prior knowledge about sexuality. You learned about sexual anatomy and physiology in high school, your parents or other trusted adults discussed the politics/power dynamics of sexuality with you, sex educators taught you about the importance of sexual protection and demonstrated how to use a condom.

What if you have limited (if any) prior knowledge about sexuality? Perhaps your sex education class focused primarily on sexually transmitted diseases, worthwhile information no doubt, but also somewhat of a scare tactic against having premarital sex. Or, perhaps your sex education centered around this idea of “purity”, linking your sexual chasteness with the quality of your relationship with God, at the expense of learning about and validating your sexual anatomy and arousal process.

Simons and Landor’s research seems to suggest that students who maintain the religious commitment during college often uphold abstinence until marriage (or delay their initial sexual experience significantly), often at the expense of untold amounts of internal and relational anxiety in the process, while those who agree to virginity pledges in high school but drift away from institutional worship once they leave the home are likely to have more sexual partners, sexual experiences, and riskier behaviors than young adults who don’t commit to abstinence in the first place.

The church, for whatever reason (we can discuss this in later posts), has a huge interest in sexual development. Its rhetoric shapes the identities, individual and communal self-worth, relationships, and paradigms on intimacy for millions of Americans. Research continues to show that sexual abstinence programs do not work. I wanted to think about five ways that the church can improve the way that we discuss sexuality with adolescents and young adults.

1) Our bodies are inherently good. We are designed to experience pleasure. The clitoris‘ entire function seems to be enhancing pleasure and assisting women move towards orgasm. We have hormones, such as oxytocin, that are released during sex which increase the desire for attachment and safety. We can discuss the ethics and wisdom of premarital sex by reminding adolescents and young adults that we don’t want to forge that attachment with some random person off the street. Knowing that our bodies are good helps encourage us to make proactive statements about our physical and emotional needs, which, according to research, increases the quality of sexual experiences.

2) Since our bodies are good, let’s use appropriate names for parts of our bodies. For that matter, let’s use the appropriate names for the sexual response cycle. We dictate that our sexual bodies and needs are valid and healthy when we use anatomically correct terms. We minimize the importance of our bodies and need for connection when use ambiguous, child-like jargon. Or anything from Urban Dictionary.

3) There is not a causal relationship between sexual knowledge and sexual activity. Adolescents and young adults are going to experiment with sexuality regardless of the information they have. Sexual education must, along with explaining the anatomy and physiology, provide some conversation about sexual boundaries, generally through a combination of discussing contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and teen pregnancy. This graph ranks each state by highest rates of teen pregnancy. Sixteen of the top twenty states have government mandates requiring them to prioritize sexual abstinence. Fifteen percent of Mississippi infants were born to women under the age of 20 in 2010. For that matter, ten percent of infants born to women in states where abstinence is the mandated top option for sex education options were born to women under the age of 20.

4) We must eliminate “purity” from our vernacular. Period. A client who strove for sexual abstinence told me that when she had sex, she felt herself distancing from God. I rhetorically followed, “Does that mean God is distancing from you?” The assumption that God turns His back on those who have premarital sex creates faulty theology, diminishing God’s ability to accept and love. Too many men and women have suffered from intense shame and relational withdrawal because of this theologically invalid assumption that having premarital sex somehow defiles the body in which God lives.

5) We must critically think about decisions to have premarital sex and premarital abstinence. There are pros and cons to both. It’s interesting that we talk about the health risks and emotional fallout about premarital sex. We should. But we should also identify the emotional fallout for those attempting to maintain sexual abstinence while still seeking closeness and physical pleasure. Feelings of guilt, shame, and rejection may coincide with physical ramifications while attempting to set sexual boundaries creates dangerous precedents for the future of your relationship. The church must provide comfort and healing for those who experience this awful cycle while “trying to do the right thing.”

True Love Waits, Sexual Awakening, and Developing Your Own Faith (part 3 of 4)

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Dr. Leslie Gordon Simons and Antoinette Landor, authors of the article “Why Virginity Pledges Succeed or Fail: The Moderating Effect of Religious Commitment vs. Religious Participation”, which appeared in August’s Journal of Child and Family Studies, make an important distinction amongst their research participants: religiously committed and religious participants. Religiously committed individuals, according to the researchers, prioritize upholding their known religious values and social structures and practicing religious behaviors, such as prayer and Scripture reading. Religious participants attend church from time to time. They are not apostates who reject religious teachings altogether, but de-prioritize commitment to religious structures.

Many writers–hurt, disappointed bloggers, the New York Times, even contemporary spiritual leaders–have recently written about young adults leaving the church. David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group, an organization that specializes in mass research of spiritual and cultural trends, reports 59% of young Christians leave the church either permanently or for an extended period of time after the age of 15. In You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church, a compilation of data and commentary following four years of research, Kinnaman categorizes these young adults into three groups. Apostates, or “prodigals”, as Kinnaman labels them, account for only 11% of young adults who grew up in the church. The highest percentage of young adults (approximately 40%) drift away from institutional worship. Nomads, as Kinnaman categorizes this group, still identify as “Christians” or believing in God, but decrease their involvement in religious activity. Simons and Landor would probably refer to these students as “religious participants”. Kinnaman defines an in-between group, “exiles”, who want to maintain religious involvement but choose/desire to display their spiritual commitment outside of the church (i.e. service organizations, justice movements). Around 20% of young adults surveyed fit into this category.

Simmons and Landor’s research shows that students who signed virginity pledges, sexual abstinence “oaths” taken in high school through practices such as True Love Waits, are 46% more likely to have delayed their initial sexual experience or completely maintain abstinence. Most of these students report having high levels of religious commitment (approximately 30% of young adults who grew up in the church, according to Kinnaman). We’ll talk about the sexual experiences of religious participants/nomads tomorrow, but for today, religiously affiliated sexual abstinence programs appear to be quite successful as long as the university student maintains his/her religious commitment through college.

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In 1981, James Fowler, director of the Emory Center for Ethics, published Stages of Faith, where he utilized developmental psychological trends to chart the religious experiences and needs across the lifespan. Fowler suggests that faith development begins for infants and toddlers, as the initial bonding experiences between parent/caregiver and child sets the precedent for children to be able to trust their surroundings with limited anxiety. A child learns about religious stories, practices, and a basic theological understanding (namely, “Who is God?”) starting around age 2. Fowler identifies the developmental shift as coinciding when a child has the ability to separate between fantasy and reality. At this stage, the “mythic-literal stage”, which occurs for most during the middle of elementary school, children begin to create literal (as opposed to imagine-driven/metaphorical) understandings of Biblical stories and develop a sense of justice.

Teenagers begin to identify with the Christian faith by combining the literal understanding of stories with conformity to the belief systems of their parents or other adult religious leaders. Fowler calls this stage “synthetical-conventional” and suggests that adolescents develop a strong emotional allegiance to their faith and have challenges thinking critically. Emotionally-charged programs that demand dedication, such as youth rallies and “True Love Waits”, works so well with teenagers because they desperately crave something to identify with. Fowler states that many people remain stuck in this stage and unable to accept the challenges of the next faith stage, “individuative-reflective“.

During this fourth stage, which starts in young adulthood and coincides with the introduction of consistent abstract thought and the acceptance for gray area, a person critically examines his/her belief structure and makes personal choices about the way he/she wants to practice faith. Matt Baker, author of the chart mentioned above, cheekily writes, “Ironically, the Stage 3 (synthetic-conventional) people usually think that Stage 4 (individuative-reflective) people have become “backsliders” when in reality they have actually moved forward.”

I find an interesting conundrum as I read this research. On the one hand, I have a high ecclesiology. I am a millennial who finds value in experiencing spirituality in a communal context, particularly a loving, non-judgmental one (something the stereotypical church, millennials would argue, often lacks.) On the other hand, I value differentiation, the ability for adults to make decisions independent from other emotionally-charged systems, a process that begins happening during Fowler’s individuative-reflective stage.

I’m committed to the idea of sexual abstinence as an option for young adults to explore their sexuality. My concern is that often, the decision of sexual abstinence by religiously committed young adults is not a differentiated decision, but one that’s based subconsciously around the fears created by theologically unsound principles (i.e. God will be disappointed with you or flat-out reject you because you had premarital sex, thus defiling the existence of God’s Spirit inside of you and making you “impure”.) I think that the church has put such a strong emotional charge behind sexual abstinence through programs like “True Love Waits” that I wonder if it’s even possible for sexual abstinence to be a differentiated decision. (For that matter, having premarital sex by actively/passively rebelling against church teachings by having premarital sex is not differentiated either, which we’ll discuss tomorrow.)

How can Christian young adults make differentiated decisions about their sexuality and sexual practices? I’d be curious to hear from those who have struggled and attempted to make sense of what’s become a powerful dichotomy, physical pleasure vs. abstinence and purity.

Also, as Christian educators (be they therapists who are Christian, such as myself, or professors at religious institutions), how do we define spiritual success and growth? Is a university student successful because they’ve adhered to the expectations of the larger religious authorities (i.e. maintained abstinence until marriage) or because they’ve allowed themselves to think outside the box, challenge authority, and/or work toward developing their own understanding of faith and religion?

True Love Waits, Sexual Awakening, and Developing Your Own Faith (part 2 of 4)

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It’s important to note that Dr. Leslie Gordon Simons and Antoinette Landor published the research we discussed yesterday at a public university.

At public universities/non-religious private institutions, the administration monitors sexual activity by promoting sexual safety: reducing sexual harassment, developing strategies to handle the staggering relationship between alcohol and sexual hookups, and preventing sexual assault. Religious private institutions are concerned with this too, no doubt; many, such as the one I attended, have a dual agenda of monitoring sexual activity by promoting sexual abstinence.

Religiously-informed sexual abstinence places teenagers and young adults (particularly women) in a physiological double bind. On the one hand, there’s the cognitive/emotional commitment to a virginity pledge that you’ve made with God, so that if it gets broken, you’ve “sinned” and God becomes disappointed with you. On the other hand, research shows that women experience higher rates of sexual fantasy and arousal while ovulating. The more likely that pregnancy is possible, the study suggests, the more likely a woman is to experience these fantasies. Adolescent and young adult women, as a rule, are incredibly fertile; women between the ages of 18-24 have a 90% chance of getting pregnant if they have routine unprotected sex over the course of a year.

Sexual abstinence promoters attempt to address this paradox by asking the question, “How far is too far?” For instance, one of my youth ministers attempted to establish a “neck and above” policy, which meant that I could pleasure my girlfriend at the time by kissing her lips and neck and playing with her hair, but touching her boobs or her butt was a “party foul”. (I was a bit of a goody-two-shoes, so I adhered to these rules regardless, but again, the response to pushing the boundaries established by our religious leaders was far less emotionally charged for guys than it was for girls.)

Lauren Winner, professor of Christian spirituality at Duke, addresses this issue in her 2005 book Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity. My wife and I, both Christians with high levels of religious commitment, stumbled upon this book as we negotiated our way through sexual abstinence prior to our marriage. Winner encourages premarital couples interested in maintaining abstinence to “not do anything sexual that they wouldn’t be comfortable doing on public property” (p. 106). For instance, we can make out to our hearts content, but I know that we’d be uncomfortable making out on Boston Public Garden half-naked. Winner would suggest that’s our “too far” and to draw the line there.

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This week, we’re thinking about the research of Dr. Leslie Gordon Simons and Antoinette Landor, who furthered prior studies that note the general failure of religiously-themed sexual abstinence programs. Simons and Landor added a wrinkle through their research: while a mere 35% of university students who took virginity pledges in high school identified themselves as 19-21 year-old virgins, 23% of these students reported not having oral sex. (Simons and Landor did not assess for anal sex and mutual masturbation, though I’d be curious if the amount of students who did not participate in those activities was lower than 35% as well) All of this begs the question, “What is sex?”

Forgive the big question here. Are we defining sex just as intercourse, or are we including other types of genital stimulation? Let’s say that I’m sexually aroused–a tingle down my neck, an erection–while making out with my girlfriend. Doesn’t that mean that I’m participating in the sexual process? A fair number of research participants believed that as long as penises weren’t inserting into vaginas, they didn’t go “too far” and could maintain their status as “virgin”.

The “how far is too far” component establishes several dangerous precedents for future sexual experiences. Note that in this conversation, I’m defining “sexual experience” as any kind of physical interaction that evokes sexual arousal.

1) Sexual communication focuses on what I don’t want, rather than what I do. If I hope to maintain my virginity pledge, my number one priority is establishing limits. Don’t touch me here. We can’t lie down together and make out. This assumes, of course, that the premarital abstinent couple has even had this conversation; if many couples in long-term committed relationships have challenges talking about sex, I can only presume few premarital couples establish explicit boundaries. Sexual boundary setting, as a rule, is incredibly important in the early going, especially as sex is a significant way couples establish trust. The BDSM community, participants in liberal, kinky sexual practices, establish safe words, stop signs that prevent the other from being hurt. However, many couples have a challenging time breaking out of this preventative script of “Don’t”. Healthy sexual communication involves couples freely exploring their bodies and physical sensations and asking what they want from their partner–how and where they want to be touched, what they want to hear, how they want to be visually aroused, etc. The transition from a script of “Don’t” to a script of “Do” is incredibly challenging on a practical level.

2) Sexual experiences are filled with anxiety. This may be a given, as most sexual relationships have some level of anxiety. Asking for vulnerable, sexual needs risks rejection–the other person may say no to your advances, setting off an anxiety-ridden process around initiating sex. Michael Kimmel and other researchers remind us in The Sexual Self: The Construction of Sexual Scripts that couples who experience higher levels of sexual anxiety are more likely to have rigid sexual interaction patterns, reducing their ability to explore new ways of engaging sexually. When couples therapists explore sexual scripts, they generally search for the interactional and behavioral process around sex. However, our bodies have visceral spasmic reactions when we perceive that our explicit/implicit physical boundaries are being crossed, sexual or otherwise. We prepare ourselves for a car collision or a sports tackle by tensing up certain muscles. Similarly, a diversity of musculature (including back and pelvic regions) tense up when we perceive our sexual boundaries are about to be pushed. (Most of the research exploring the physiology of pushing one’s sexual boundaries involves sexual abuse. I hypothesize that men and women who have high levels of religious commitment/desire to uphold virginity pledges experience similar muscle spasming if they perceive they are going “too far” sexually.) Sexual scripts remind us that our bodies have muscle memory. The physical representations of anxiety, such as muscle spasms, that occur if a premarital couple “goes too far” in exploring their sexuality tend to repeat themselves in future sexual interactions, including marital ones, where sex is supposed to be “sanctioned”.

3) Sexual experiences are filled with guilt. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not the person to describe experiences of guilt and shame around sexuality. Samantha Pugsley at XoJane and hundreds of other women and men attempting to escape the damaging implications of True Love Waits and other religiously-sanctioned abstinence programs speak to the pain far more successfully. “I went too far. I broke my virginity pledge. I let myself down. Worse, I let God down, disappointed Him. Who else will I let down because of my body?” seems to be a common internal process, particularly for those still highly committed to their faith. High amounts of guilt and shame generally correlate with low levels of assertiveness and higher levels of passiveness/passive-aggressiveness, resulting in the inability to actively express sexual needs and boundaries. If you’ve experienced the third precedent, the most dangerous one, in my mind, please don’t hesitate to ask for professional assistance. Many therapists (including myself) are trained to work with individuals and couples to remove guilty and shameful perceptions of self out of the relationship so that you can experience more connectedness and intimacy.

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Simons and Landor consulted two groups of university students for their research: those who took virginity pledges in high school and have a high level of religious commitment in college, and those who took virginity pledges in high school but have a low level of religion commitment once they reach university. This blog post speaks to those who have high levels of religious commitment and hoped to maintain sexual abstinence until marriage. The next two blog posts speak to those who signed virginity pledges at one point but have lower levels of religious commitment in young adulthood.