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.”

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

  1. Nik

    I really enjoyed reading this series for its thoughtfulness. I wish very much that your 5 suggestions took root in really any religious community. We know from the evidence that the world would become a better place. I think I will send the link to your blog to my religious family members.

    I would also be interested in your reflections or rationalizations on why religions are so obsessed with sexual control. I certainly have my own thoughts, but I may not be the perfect person to address a religious audience.

    I would also be interested in why you put up with censorship in church and in college. I find this fascinating to watch. Maybe I am more sensitive, coming from a country that was once run by monarchs and later a dictator, but it remains a mystery to me. Surely you agree that censorship is an instrument of oppression and fear- mainly the fear of those in control that they may lose said control turning to oppression of the masses. It seems to me that it is no coincidence that censorship of free speech and censorship of sexuality appear together and are both pillars of religion. Your thoughts?

  2. I think any organization, once it gets too big, has some level of censorship. I’m thinking about the office I used to work at. Twenty-five years ago, there were six or seven therapists that decided to open a practice that specialized in providing counseling services to the poor. Wonderful principles, wonderful goal. The six or seven multiplied into twenty therapists. That group got too big, so they decided to open another office, which became another four or five offices. The nets were cast wider–let’s provide psychiatric services as well. The organization got too big for one person to monitor, so the founder had to create a human resources department and an administrative subgroup which set regulations on the way that therapists practice. The group continues to grow, but so too the censorship and regulations placed on staff members. Sociologically speaking, the bigger a system gets, the more challenging it becomes to manage, and the more you need to rely on censorship to create control.

    I think one flaw of Christianity is that this has been going on for 1700 years since Constantine converted to Christianity. Constantine spoke about wanted religious freedoms for all, despite his conversion, but the long-term effect of the Council of Nicaea resulted in a theocracy, where by the 400s, the tenants used at the Council ended up governing the entire Roman empire, resulting directly/indirectly in Dark Ages and eventually the Crusades. We’re in an almost two-millenia-long cycle of using religious tenants to govern (America, anyone?) that is incredibly difficult to break.

    As I stated in my first post in this series, I don’t think I’m necessarily the person to speak about religion and sexual control because I’m not a woman. Women are usually the victims when religions (namely Christianity and Islam) place constrictions around sexuality, giving men more power. Sexual control ensures that the elite (in 21st century America, middle/upper-class white men) will maintain control in future generations.

    I think that James Fowler speaks well as to why so many adolescents (myself included) put up with the censorship of sexuality and gender in church: Developmentally speaking, we don’t know better. The church fits our need of wanting to belong to something while giving an incredible amount of structure and confines. (There’s a “danger of youth ministry” blog post somewhere in here, but I don’t know if this particular blog is an appropriate venue.) Fowler and other developmental psychologists agree that we don’t really begin thinking abstractly and developing our personal goals and values until our early-to-mid-20s. Some do it earlier, some do it later. Many millennials, at this stage, recognize the pain, inconsistency, lack of checks and balances, and hypocrisy of the church and decide to walk away or take an extended break. My wife and I both experienced, but we were fortunate enough to be surrounded by a small community who experienced and recognized the pain and stuck with the church in spite of it. They showed important values of Christianity of love and acceptance by allowing to have our doubts and experiencing our pain and disappointment with us. That specific small group played a significant role in keeping me engaged in the church. I think few millennials who grew up in the church are that lucky.

    Thanks for your thoughts Nik–please send this to your friends and family. I’d be interested in hearing what they have to say.

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