This dire statistic led the news this week: according to a recent study, 1 in 4 teenage girls has a sexually transmitted disease. About twice that many are sexually active. Educators are aghast, while parents are shocked and dismayed, and why shouldn’t they be? After all, this is the enlightened age of comprehensive sex education, where condoms are passed out during health class and the safe sex mantra is splashed across prime time television in funny commercials and serious public service announcements alike. Students in public schools are presented with all the facts about intercourse, conception, and STD prevention at a very young age, armed with the knowledge which proponents of such education swear will keep young people safe from the traumas of sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy.
Except it isn’t working.
May I respectfully suggest that something is broken in the way we talk to kids about sex?
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely believe in comprehensive sex education. I just don’t think ours is comprehensive enough.
Information about STD prevention and contraception are important, but too often our treatment of human sexuality in relation to teens stops there, light years away from finishing the picture and telling them other things they need to know about having sex–like how it can impact their emotions, their relationships, and their futures. For example, studies show that teenagers who are sexually active are almost three times as likely as their non-active peers to suffer from depression and to attempt suicide. There are correlations between teen sexual activity and a broad range of negative experiences, including increased drug use, higher dropout rates, and less successful marriages later on. In contrast, teenagers who abstain from sexual activity are 50 percent less likely to drop out of high school and twice as likely to graduate from college. They are less likely to engage in other risky behaviors and tend to form healthier, more emotionally mature relationships in adulthood. Even among teens themselves, there is a growing realization that early sexual activity is a mistake. Over half of teenage boys and nearly three-fourths of teenage girls who have engaged in sexual activity report that they wish they had waited. Sex is a whole lot more than a simple biological process; it’s also a complex mental, emotional, and spiritual act, and to ignore its far-reaching effects would be irresponsible.
There’s a pretty hot debate raging between proponents of current “safe sex” education and the “abstinence only” group, which believes that teaching kids about contraception and disease prevention is tantamount to sending them out in pairs with hotel keys in their hands. While I truly believe in teaching the whole truth of sexuality, I am concerned with the underlying anti-abstinence tone of those who tout “comprehensive” sex ed. From schools, from entertainment media, from politicians, the message a teen often hears is: “We know you’re going to have sex no matter what we say. With all those hormones swirling around, you just can’t help it. And frankly, if you don’t do it, we’ll think you’re a little weird.” It’s as if abstinence has been taken off the table as a realistic choice in today’s world. We need to challenge that assumption.
As a Christian, I’m teaching my children, as I was taught, that sex is wonderful, exciting, fun, and intended to be fully expressed only within the boundaries of a loving marriage. I knew, when I was growing up, that I was expected to wait, and though I sometimes struggled to honor that expectation, I did wait. Believe me, I experienced the same desires, the same passions, the same hormonal surges that teens everywhere experience, but I knew that I wasn’t a puppet of those forces. I always believed, because it was what I’d been taught, that I was capable of controlling myself. I made choices, I drew hard lines in my relationships with the opposite sex, and I didn’t step outside of those lines, though the temptation was definitely there. At age 22, I came to the marriage bed a virgin, and twelve years of great sex later, I don’t have a single thing to regret in the experiences I passed up as a teenager. I truly hope that my daughter and my son will be able to say the same.
I realize I’m in the minority. And maybe you don’t agree with me that sex is meant for marriage, but can we at least agree to stop setting teens up for the fall with our message of helplessness and victimhood? Let’s empower them to make their own decisions about sex–first, by acknowledging that the impact of human sexuality reaches far beyond the physical to touch the very emotional center of a person; like a pebble dropped into a pond, it ripples out to effect every other part of a person’s life. And second, we can empower teens by showing our confidence in their ability to choose abstinence and self-control, even in the face of physical and societal pressures. Sure, they should know all the facts about protecting their bodies from pregnancy and disease, but they should also know that in the end, having sex is a choice, and not a biological inevitability.