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.

True Love Waits, Sexual Awakening, and Developing Your Own Faith (part 1 of 4)

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I’ve mentioned before that my childhood was significantly dictated by my experiences in the conservative Evangelical church. Now that I’m geographically separated from the Bible Belt, it’s a bit easier to reflect and deconstruct some of the messages I received from church. For one thing, I’m still committed to the church; I value its narrative (I’ll leave it as that as I want to avoid theological conversations on this blog to the best of my ability) and its desire to create community. But there are still some visible scars that I’ve recently began tending to. This four-part series has involved more editing than most of my posts do because I want to make sure I’ve eliminated as much of my emotional baggage as possible, sticking to a scientific and philosophical exploration of the value of the church’s teachings on sexuality and abstinence.

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5060066746My youth group didn’t participate explicitly in “True Love Waits“, a program designed to promote abstinence until marriage amongst Christian adolescents. A company called The Bradford Exchange markets purity rings with the slogan “My Daughter’s Faith and Love“, as if the success of her Christian faith revolves around ability to prevent lustful boys from touching her sexually; some people in my youth group wore purity rings to represent their pledge to virginity, but I don’t remember an overt encouragement from our youth directors to sport these $99 pieces of premarital bling.

There were subtle forms of participation in the True Love Waits culture. My church promoted premarital abstinence, and during one discussion, we rationalized (my denomination is quite cognitive) reasons for waiting until marriage to have sex. My 16-year-old self mentioned not wanting to get a girl pregnant. Another student talked about not wanting to get an STD. One student raised his hand and responded, “Because God said so,” and then proof-texted his answer. The facilitator of the conversation seemed so proud of this kid for his answer (and I remember even then being quite aggravated.) We turned to 1 Corinthians 6 and let the apostle Paul’s bashing of the Corinthian church provide our model for contemporary sexuality, focusing specifically on our bodies being temples for the Holy Spirit, with the assumption that if we have premarital sex, we’ve violated and defiled God.

In some ways, I’m not the person to comment upon the painful experiences of the True Love Waits culture, as material seemed to be heavily focused on making sure teenage girls remained “pure”. Samantha Pugsley, blogger at XOJane, writes the following about her experience:

“The church taught me that sex was for married people. Extramarital sex was sinful and dirty and I would go to Hell if I did it. I learned that as a girl, I had a responsibility to my future husband to remain pure for him. It was entirely possible that my future husband wouldn’t remain pure for me, because he didn’t have that same responsibility, according to the Bible. And of course, because I was a Christian, I would forgive him for his past transgressions and fully give myself to him, body and soul.

For more than a decade, I wore my virginity like a badge of honor. My church encouraged me to do so, saying my testimony would inspire other young girls to follow suit. If the topic ever came up in conversation, I was happy to let people know that I had taken a pledge of purity.

When we got home [after our honeymoon], I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. Everyone knew my virginity was gone. My parents, my church, my friends, my co-workers. They all knew I was soiled and tarnished. I wasn’t special anymore. My virginity had become such an essential part of my personality that I didn’t know who I was without it.”

I don’t remember virginity being an identifying adjective during my religious sex education, but I’m not a woman. How many young women share Samantha’s story of dedicating their lives to Christ, becoming deeply involved in mission projects and emotion-filled youth rallies, with the caveat of pledging to virginity as a sign of their commitment to Jesus? If you have sex with someone, you fail. If your church was like mine and relied on metaphors of being “the bride of Christ” (again, this only pertains to women) to symbolize marriage not just to your partner, but also to God, a non-virgin arrives before Jesus as defiled, broken, shamed. The implicit (unfortunately, in some cases, explicit–one girl in my youth group who got pregnant was asked not to come to youth group events) implication is that Jesus is disappointed with you and may reject you for not keeping your vow. (Much more to write about the messages of virginity in future blog posts.)

Here’s the problem. Most people that take virginity pledges fail to keep them. For instance, Antoinette Landor of UNC and Dr. Leslie Gordon Simons of the University of Georgia interviewed almost 1400 university students, approximately 400 of whom owned virginity pledges, about sexual behavior and commitment to church and religious beliefs. In “Why Virginity Pledges Succeed or Fail: The Moderating Effect of Religious Commitment vs. Religious Participation”, an article published in July’s Journal of Child and Family Studies, the researchers discovered that 65% of virginity pledge owners did not follow through on their pledge. 77% of virginity pledge owners reported having oral sex.

My hope is that learning of the ineffectiveness of abstinence-based programs, even when they are couched in religious language, is not news. Numerous studies have defined the ineffectiveness of abstinence programs (government-funded and otherwise). Bible Belt states, such as Mississippi and Texas, not only promote abstinence-based sex education, launched by the fear that teaching teenagers more about sex will convince them to have sex, but also have higher levels of teenage pregnancy and STDs (and in Mississippi’s case, higher levels of general sexual activity from teenagers.)

Landor and Simons’ research provokes some really interesting questions about the intersection between religion and adolescent sexuality that will be explored in the next three blog posts. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the gray areas of virginity and the concept of “how far is too far”. Landor and Simons identify that virginity pledges are more likely to work for those with higher levels of religious commitment; in Monday’s blog post, we’ll explore the consequences of virginity pledges “working”. And on Tuesday, we’ll explore Landor and Simons’ discovery that college students who signed virginity pledges as adolescents but have lower levels of religious commitment have more sexual experiences and partners than those who didn’t sign virginity pledges in the first place.

Bilingualism, Undocumented Immigrants, and the American Dream (part 2 of 2)

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Ana Garcia shares an experience of many first and second-generation immigrant teenagers. She studies and makes good grades, even catching the attention of her English teacher Mr. Guzman, who encourages her to apply to universities. Ana gets accepted to Columbia University, and many in her community celebrate with Ana as she prepares for life in New York City with the chance to study with some of the most brilliant professors. Everyone except for her mother, Carmen. Carmen is educated as well, and longs to teach her daughter how to sew, be a supportive wife, and take care of a house. She becomes anxious when Ana develops a romantic relationship with Jimmy, a Caucasian, upper-middle class boy at their suburban high school. Everything that Carmen knows from her upbringing in Mexico clashes with everything Ana learns and experiences in Los Angeles:

The 2002 Sundance Film Festival award-winning Real Women Have Curves takes viewers to the barrios of east Los Angeles, where Carmen (played by Lupe Oliveres) and Raul (Jorge Cervera Jr.) attempt to create an improved life by immigrating to California from Mexico. Though they’ve lived in the United States for some time (Ana, their oldest, is a senior in high school), they’ve had challenges establishing themselves professionally, as much of their income depends on Carmen’s sister’s sewing factory. The film focuses on the tension between Carmen and Ana (America Ferrera in her on-screen debut), which results in Carmen challenging many of her daughter’s educational, professional, and relational decisions. Ana explores the convergence of both cultures, working at the sewing factory with her aunts during the summer while also pursuing her academic gifts (with the help of Mr. Guzman, played brilliantly by George Lopez) and exploring her sexuality. Real Women Have Curves is not just Ana’s story; it narrates the evolution of the Garcia family as they struggle to collaborate national (Mexican, in this case) and American cultural norms and expectations.

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Dr. Meifen Wei, psychology professor at Iowa State University, and Stephanie Carrera explored relationships similar to Ana and Carmen in their research project ““Bicultural Competence, Acculturative Family Distancing, and Future Depression in Latino/a College Students”, published in July’s Journal of Counseling Psychology. Their subjects, Latino/a university students, grew up in immigrant families: at least one parent (and numerous immediate family members) were born outside the U.S., English was spoken second, if at all, and families defined clear, if not somewhat rigid, expectations for mother and father, male and female. Wei and Carrera observed the differentiation process (the ability of a teenager/young adult to live interdependently from their families of origin) of these teenagers. Keep in mind, differentiation supports the values of the larger Western culture–independence, personal achievement–and may come in conflict with the values of Latino (and other collectivist) cultures–the group before the individual, cohesion.

Depression of young adults is often linked to challenges with differentiation. Ana, for instance, wants to go to college out-of-state but meets strong resistance from their family of origin, who “encourage” their child to stay closer. (The “encouraging” process may be rationally driven–out of state tuition tacks on an additional 40-50% of an already expensive collegiate experience, or emotionally driven–the parent frequently reminds the teenager how much they’ll be missed or how things won’t be the same without them, a message tinged with a bit of guilt. Ideally, the encouraging process is strictly rational, but is realistically usually an emotion-driven process.) Ana’s decision to go to Columbia carries a risk: mom’s disappointment and the coinciding criticism/reminders of her disappointment. However, her decision to go to Columbia was also a differentiated one, as her decision was not controlled/affected by either the emotional process of her mother or the desire to upset her mother. Had Ana decided to blow off Columbia to stay in Los Angeles for the sake of her mother’s happiness, perhaps she’d experience lower self-esteem, higher regrets, and a greater risk for more serious risks of depression.

A parent launching their teenager out of their home and into adulthood is emotionally challenging enough. Imagine that you’re sending your teenager/young adult into a community of “other” that doesn’t share your values, your language, the prioritization of religion or community. The difficulty of an immigrant family launching their child increases exponentially due to differences in their culture and American culture.

As stated in part one, Wei and Carrera discovered that immigrant families with bicultural paradigms, exploring and validating two cultural groups without sacrificing the beliefs and values of their original culture, had a greater likelihood of launching healthy, confident teenagers into university, while students whose parents/families struggled with accepting the practices of both cultures were at greater risk for depressive symptoms. They refer to the research of Teresa LaFromboise, professor of sociology at Stanford, who has spent much of her career exploring the resilience strategies of immigrant families. Successful families, “biculturally competent“, to use LaFromboise’s terms, meld the cultural norms and expectations of their countries of origin with their immigrant nation in six ways:

1) They have sufficient understanding of both community’s values and beliefs. For example, these families may intentionally spend an equal amount of time pursuing individual and familial goals. They identify and practice family values from both communities.

2) They have positive attitudes toward both groups. These families spend quality time with members of both community groups and give family members the ability to explore relationships with people in both groups. They also seem to experience limited social injustices, either interpersonal or systemic.

3) They believe that they can participate in two groups without losing one’s cultural identity. The New York Times reports that approximately 1.2 million Hispanic Americans re-identified themselves as White or some other race between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Nate Cohn provides some interesting explanations for this trend. Bicultural families still identify themselves through their country of origin, even as they participate in a diversity of cultural experiences.

4) They are bilingual. Spanish may still be the primary language at home, but English is widely used. Older generations agree to learn English, either through ESL education or watching English-language forms of media, and identify clear rules around language. Some families prefer speaking at home while speaking English in social situations, for instance. Much has been written about the anxieties of children who have to interpret for their uni-lingual parents.

5) They have flexible social and gender roles. Stereotypically, Latina mothers are responsible for housekeeping and child-rearing duties, while Latino fathers contribute through working and establishing some kind of statesmanlike authority. The male is overtly powerful, while the female covertly. Bicultural families establish a greater equality amongst adult partners concerning work roles, providing their children with a diversity of ways to explore their masculinity/femininity.

6) They initiate and create social networks in both culture groups. Perhaps their family’s athletic pursuits are with a multicultural population, while they choose to practice religion with a Latino community. Bicultural families also step outside of their extended families to create these social networks.

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Creating a bicultural paradigm for immigrant families involves entire communities. Racism, sexism, and systemic injustices prevent these families from succeeding not only during their acculturation process, but also in launching a generation of healthy, self-confident second- and third-generation immigrants. The process around undocumented immigration and naturalization seems to result in the same. Though documentation doesn’t necessarily result in greater financial gains, families may have a challenging time creating diverse social networks, cultural experiences, and positive attitudes towards their host country if they fear deportation or feel compelled to keep their naturalization status secretive.

Politically speaking, I’m not sure what the solution is to the problems around the Texas-Mexico border. On the one hand, we could create a slightly more attainable naturalization process by funding English and government courses and more organizations (for-profit and non-profit) that provide professional skills to the unemployed. We definitely need to eradicate stop-and-search and other profiling practices that overtly perpetuate the idea of “other”.  On the other hand, does a steady increase of immigration result in a limited amount of resources for a nation already struggling to find employment and healthy food options for a sizable portion of our population? I do think that participating with immigrant communities in creating bicultural families will increase the success of the acculturation process and the self-esteem of generations of immigrant families.

Bilingualism, Undocumented Immigrants, and the American Dream

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Rick Perry is at it again. A month ago, Perry, the governor of my home state, enlisted 1,000 National Guard members to help shore up the 1200 mile border Texas shares with Mexico. Two days ago, the New York Times reported that Perry’s administration has since hired game wardens, generally responsible for enforcing boating, hunting, and fishing regulations, to help make arrests and deportations of illegal immigrants. The Times also reports that Texas has spent $500 million in the last ten years on immigration policy and enforcement.

Immigration, particularly from Mexican and Central American citizens, presents an interesting ethical conundrum. What do we do when destitute internationals escape national poverty and violence, cross our borders (with or without appropriate documentation) and seek to participate in the “American Dream”? Do we accept these people with open arms and help them acculturate? Is the U.S. even structurally capable of accepting millions of immigrants a year when it struggles to provide consistent employment and adequate housing and healthcare for many of its own? I disagree with the process by which Governor Perry enforced his solution, but at least he presented a solution, something many in border states claim Washington has been arduous in providing. I don’t envy Perry’s position, as his state hosts approximately 1.8 million undocumented immigrants, accounting for around 7% of the population and 9% of Texas’ labor force.

Governor Perry’s cries about immigration have recently been the loudest (surprise), but many states have been affected by a recent influx of immigrants. Massachusetts, for instance, has around a million residents that were born outside of the United States, approximately 17% of which are undocumented. Governor Deval Patrick has offered to host thousands of Central American children, leading to a recent protest at the State House, where hundreds of Bostonians held up signs such as “Americans before Illegals”. While it’s easy to blame President Obama’s administration for recent border woes, in reality, as the above chart, presented by The Migration Policy, suggests, the current immigration anxieties seem to be a culmination of a 40-year long trend. In the 1990s, for example, approximately 12 million immigrants (the above chart assesses for both documented and estimated undocumented immigrants) arrived in the United States, so that by 2000, over 10% of American residents were born outside of the U.S., a number that’s increased a few percentage points this millennium.

Many policy conversations seem to center around how to stop the bleeding by sealing up the borders or increasing deportation, After all, as Reuters reports, approximately 70% of Americans believe that undocumented immigrants will take away American jobs, beliefs, and customs. (There haven’t been studies done on one’s ability to distinguish between documented and undocumented immigrants, though I hypothesize that many Americans tend to lump them, particularly Latin American immigrants, together, especially recently.) Few policy conversations have discussed long-term care and development for immigrants.

Immigrants utilize their strengths and cultures to participate in the U.S. job market. Immigrants begin families in the U.S. Anna Brown, analyst at the Pew Research Center, reminds us there were approximately 800,000 more Latino births than deaths in 2012. The median age for Asian immigrants falls close to the national average (late 30s), while the median age for Latinos is 28. (Note: Undocumented immigrants provide statistical challenges for researchers. Brown analyzed data from the Census Bureau, which only counts documented citizens. We can only provide estimates for undocumented immigrants, which range between 12 and 20 million. Nevertheless, these people start/relocate families into the United States, creating second-generation immigrants, or people born in the U.S. to immigrants.)

How can we create policy and social structures that ensure that immigrants attain and maintain a high quality of life, with successes passed through generations?

Family research provides a wonderful venue for assessing how current immigrants describe their sense of self and ability to succeed. Dr. Meifen Wei, professor of psychology at Iowa State, and her student, Stephanie Carrera, gave approximately 240 Latino/a university students, 63% of whom were second-generation immigrants, and 70% of whom were Mexican, a diversity of assessments regarding their personal and familial acculturation process, differentiation (the ability to separate and live interdependently from one’s family of origin with limited anxiety), and depression levels. In “Bicultural Competence, Acculturative Family Distancing, and Future Depression in Latino/a College Students”, published in July’s Journal of Counseling Psychology, Wei and Carrera discovered that Latino/a students with low risks for/levels of depression were more likely to come from bicultural families, families that lived comfortably within two cultural groups without sacrificing the beliefs and values of their original culture, while families that struggled with biculturalism were more likely to produce young adults who struggle with depression and anxiety.

Biculturalism seems to play a significant part in a Latino (and potentially other recent immigrant populations) child’s success. In the next post, we’ll think a little bit more about attaining biculturalism, including how undocumented immigrants and families may struggle to attain it. But for now, I want to return to the current immigration conversation. Acculturation decisions lie mainly in the hands of immigrant families–which language is to be used at home, how homogenous a family’s social network is, etc. I’m curious about the effect of our current conversation about immigration, specifically the process by which some are having it, on immigrant families. If biculturalism is a key to success for immigrant families, what role do American nationals (including myself) play in helping immigrant families achieve it?

60 Hours of Work

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Some of the couples that we work with can pinpoint the reason for their struggles to a specific event–the affair, the moment of intense, violent anger, the relapse. However, many of our couples enter the first session with exhausted expressions. Both partners have full-time jobs, a growing trend (both partners work in 59% of two-parent American families), but also a necessity for survival, as Boston is one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. These couples play multiple roles–partner, parent, and employee–and struggle with juggling each of these tasks. One of these roles (generally, the role of partner) often takes a backseat to prevent a stressful situation from becoming completely overwhelming.

The Pew Research Center recently published a chart that highlights the stressful schedules that dual-income families keep. On average, dual-income fathers work more than 40 hours a week. The average dual-income mother works almost as much to maintain the needs of the house and children as she does in her actual paying job. The average father spends an hour a day in activities strictly devoted to his children; the average mother spends just under two hours a day connecting with her children. This chart accounts for almost 60 hours a week.

Notice that the chart doesn’t account for time partners spend together. Perhaps the Pew Research Center didn’t assess for that in this particular survey. Nevertheless, as dual-income couples attend to the needs of their jobs, homes, and children, often their relationships suffer as they want to spend their remaining hours decompressing in isolation or sleeping.

Many of our couples try to justify their prioritization strategies, claiming that the extra shift they pulled, for example, is to provide for the family. The reality is, dual-income families, particularly those with children, require tons of effort as adults shift in and out of the roles and expectations of partner, parent, and co-worker. Here are some tips that can help couples find a balance between these roles, with the ability to reduce stress and increase the amount of time you and your partner can spend together.

1) The relationship with your significant other comes first. Many families establish their calendars around work and children’s obligations, while hoping to find gaps in their schedules for date nights. Prioritize your schedule so that date nights are the first things that enter your calendar each week, and organize other family events around shared partner time.

2) Identify core beliefs about what it means to be a good parent and partner. How much time and money should be spent with/on the children? How much do we want to rely on a support network to help us rear our children? Is organized childcare worth the financial and emotional investment? These core values should establish future decisions about the details of daily decisions, such as whether or not to pick up the extra shift at work.

3) Identify your village. There’s a tendency to think that others are just as busy as you are and may not have the time or willingness to help your family, an assumption that prevents many families from opening their social network. Who are people that can provide babysitting services? Who can pick up your children in case of an emergency? It’s important to mix your community with family members and non-related friends. Many families fear asking others because they don’t want to be a burden; overcome that by offering to reciprocate services

4) Initiate flexibility in your job. How flexible can your schedule be? Is it possible to work from home? Can you work four longer days and take Fridays off? Depending on the flexibility and family-friendliness of your office, you can define your schedule so that one of you can leave early to begin the afternoon with your children or carve out some time during the day to share breakfast/lunch together. Many people don’t realize the flexibility in their occupation because they don’t talk with their boss or management about their needs. You may discover you have limited adjustability with your schedule, but the only way you’ll find out is if you ask.

5) Strive for equity with your partner in the decision-making process. Define clear parenting and housekeeping expectations for you and your partner. If you can’t take time off together, alternate duties such as picking up the kids and running errands. Many couples develop unproductive patterns where one partner perceives they do (or actually do) more than the other, which increases the potential for blame.