When I became sexually active (which I’ll loosely define as when I started trying to kiss and touch girls), here’s what I’d been told:
- School: there are tons of diseases you can get so don’t have sex
- Parents: If you have sex, make sure you use a condom to protect from aforementioned diseases as well as unwanted pregnancy. Because if you get the girl pregnant you’re dropping out of school to take care of that baby
- Church: The only proper sex is between husband and wife. Also, masturbation is a sin.
Of those, the only practical advice came from my parents. (The school helped, but I’ll elaborate on where they could have done more momentarily) In the end, I did not have intercourse until I married my wife so I guess all the authority figures in my life “won”. To be clear, my position is that the optimal sex is that between a married couple (whether you be straight or gay) or at least a deeply committed couple. Why? Because whether or not you have a religion that tells you to wait or even have a religion at all, I think sex is a special act between two people. I think sex requires trust because you’re making yourself ultimately vulnerable – you have no clothes to hide behind. Your body and your performance will be judged. And I think that the best sex is sex in which each partner is focused on the needs of the other, not their own. This is more likely to happen in a relationship than a casual hookup. And perhaps the biologists will just tell me that it’s oxytocin or some equivalent brain/body chemical, but post-sex I usually feel extremely close to my wife as though something has occurred on the metaphysical level.
That said, I think the schools and the church failed us as teens and continue to fail our children and grandchildren. Let me start with school first. Sex education, as it was taught to me in Florida (starting around 4th grade), primarily focused on sexual diseases. I think sexual diseases are a very important thing to focus on. Many of our STDs/STIs are incurable and some of them have important detrimental effects on children. And some of those that used to be curable are developing drug resistance. So, in essence, once these diseases are contracted, that person will never be able to have normal, unprotected sex again with anyone who doesn’t have those diseases. However, it ignores some important things. First of all, if kids responded to the whole “You’ll get sick if you do this” tactic, we wouldn’t have any more new smokers. Second, there is a lot about healthy sex that is important to learn and which I only learned from conversations with my parents. For example, they warned me that sex as depicted in movies and pornography was not realistic. Movie sex, for example, tends to ignore realistic female orgasm as many women can’t orgasm on thrusts alone. And, while I’m not into watching porn, everything I’ve read online talks about how it makes men think certain weird sexual behavior is the norm. Another thing they did badly was to focus on getting all these diseases from vaginal sex. Oral sex and anal sex were presumed not to exist. Yet study after study has proven that when kids learn that they should have vaginal abstinence, they tend to move on to oral and anal sex and think those don’t carry the potential for disease. I, for one, didn’t realize the potential for disease just from kissing. I think the education needs to be a bit more comprehensive. I’m not suggesting they do something like this:
But they do need to recognize that the goal should be educating the kids in safe sex so that IF they choose to do it, they will not be at risk for getting hurt – whether that means disease or through incorrect notions of what sex is.
Now for the church. I think it is perfectly alright for the church to advocate that sex should only take place after marriage. The church also needs to realize that a) teens have sexual needs (sexual needs are at a pretty important place in Maslow’s Pyramid) and b) people are getting married quite late in life and continue to have sexual needs from the teen years until they get married. You might say “needs schmeeds, humans are better than animals – we can overcome our base instincts”. Perhaps. But I think the experiences of my High School Youth Group at church is quite telling as well as quite common. You see, church tends to be a hookup scene for teens. They’re spending a ton of time there with a bunch of their peers. They’re told that everyone out there is wrong and a sinner and so it naturally makes sense they’d want a boyfriend or girlfriend from the church community in order to be with another holy person. Within our church group of around 100 teens, nearly everyone hooked up with everyone else. We used to divide into tables based on the school we went to (so we could help each other out at school with spiritual support as well as know we weren’t alone there) and at one point I had dated a plurality of the girls at one of the tables. (This will be an important point later) To help illustrate how strong these needs were – there a bunch of us who hung about – about a group of 20 who used to go out to each every weekend after church and did other activities together. Within this group, there were three of the most godly teens I have ever known. In every aspect of their lives they were as close to Jesus as one could get. Every aspect other than sexuality, that is. (At least according to current church doctrine) Whenever we would confide in each other to try and help each other grow spiritually, they would always admit they were struggling when it came to sex; doing things they knew they shouldn’t be doing. One, that I can clearly remember because of the distress expressed, had engaged in mutual masturbation with the partner in his relationship. I know I was constantly struggling and asking God to keep me from giving in to wanting to do anything more than just kissing.
But, alas, it was a girl from church who was the first girl whose breast I ever touched. Interestingly, I didn’t instigate things – we were just kissing when she took my hand, lifted her shirt and firmly placed it under her bra on her breast. And remember that table of girls? When I was later dating another girl from church she broke up with me and when I asked her why, she said, “The other girls had spoken of you doing x and all you want to do is kiss?” (I had been, at that time, trying to stay faithful to what I thought God wanted from me)
Now, given how sexual teens are, the fact that the church doesn’t want premarital sex, and the fact that refraining from sex would also protect kids from STDs/STIs, you’d think that the church would at least encourage self-love. In what I years later realized was a highly inappropriate situation, when the leader of the High School Youth program was driving us to eat at a restaurant, he asked all the guys in the car when was the last time they masturbated. Someone admitted to having done it and we all received a lecture on how wrong it was. And it permeates quite far up the chain in America:
Many progressives were bewildered by Antonin Scalia’s blistering 2003 dissent in Lawrence v Texas, in which he warned that state laws against evils such as “adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, and bestiality” might be invalidated as a result of the decision. Why, liberals wondered, was masturbation included on that list? The answer is simple: masturbation remains not only a grave sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church to which Scalia belongs, but its acceptance as benign and healthy is perhaps the foundational error of modern sexual culture. – Hugo Schwyzer in Masturbation Is at the Root of the Culture Wars
Yes, as Hugo mentions in that article, it has its roots in the Old Testament, but the Catholic and Protestant dogmas against it seem to have their roots in the waste of semen – something that biology has taught us is ridiculous. Lots of Native American (and, if I remember correctly, some old Asian traditions) also though that a man’s essence could be sapped by too much sex. We now know that, unlike women, men produce semen and sperm until the day they day (although of decaying quality due to aging) Really, the modern church view against it has to do with an odd sense of control and an apparent love of contradictory positions. Your one way to help men and women comply with your edict on no sex before marriage is RIGHT THERE. Just let people deal with themselves. Unfortunately, I think it goes to that weird place in American evangelical thought that if men and women didn’t have to have each other for sex they’d never get married. Which is bonkers. It’s like saying that gay marriage leads to the end of straight marriage.
But, really, sex shouldn’t be a reason for marriage. I wonder if it’s not at least part of the reason for the high divorce rate among the churchgoing? After all, many people suffer sexual issues (and tons of studies have shown that some ridiculously large proportion of women have trouble reaching orgasm). So if the whole point of being married is to be able to have sex and then the sex sucks, isn’t that just horrible? People should get married because of love and/or because they wish to be legally recognized as a union. It’s like the comment I heard so often growing up about why women should not have sex with a man before marriage: “Why would he buy the cow if he could get the milk for free?” Again, it limits the point of getting married to being able to have guilt-free sex, it presupposes that the only reason a man will marry is for the privilege of sex, and it undermines all the others reasons for getting married. Think about it, women, if you have to withhold sex just to get married, is that really a strong union?
Hopefully, as things continue to evolve, we’ll end up with a school and a church attitude towards sex that makes sense and protects people. Again, I think it’s perfectly fine to advocate abstinence, but I think it’s folly to ignore the sex drive that starts with puberty and continues until late in life. Make sure those who don’t believe in it are equipped with the best knowledge. And make sure those who DO believe in it are able to alleviate the situation somehow so they can remain holy without needless guilt. After all, the need is so important that ancient armies would keep their men celibate so they’d be ready to rip someone’s head off (metaphorically AND literally) when war came – that’s a pretty powerful urge.