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.
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.
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.”