This morning when I woke up, the morning talk show was throwing around a study that was just released, measuring the success of abstinence-based sex education. The study was apparently measuring sexual activity between two groups of teens: those who had pledged to remain abstinent and those who had not. Numbers seemed to show that in both groups, roughly the same number of teens became sexually active. The reporters stated that the main difference is that the teens who had intended to remain abstinent were far more likely to not use birth control. I say 'apparently' and focus on the reporting merely because a good portion of the time, the interpreted results of a study on a morning news show (or any news show or mainstream article) are not the real results of the study.
What really struck me as odd was the interpretation of the journalist who was reporting on it -- "It's great if you can do it, but most of us can't, so be prepared just in case."
Now, if someone is trying to lose weight, no one is going to tell you to carry a cheesecake around, just in case you can't do it. They tell you instead to make it hard. Get offending food out of your house, so that you have to go out and get something andhave more time to think. They advise you to have strategies -- know where you can go to get food that you CAN eat. Have food around that is good for you (I knew a guy who ate 8 apples before going to a Christmas party. He lost 150 lbs.). Have other options that will satisfy your sweet tooth. Find something on the menu of places that you like to go that will help you. When you think you are hungry, have water first...go for a walk...do something else, go to bed.
They also tell you to change your attitude...have a goal. Put up a picture of a skinny you on the fridge. Make a list of why you want to lose weight and post it on the bathroom mirror.
Also...be around people who will support you and give you good messages.
In short, change your environment, change your behaviors, change your attitude, and change your culture. These are probably very key to any behavior or value that one wants to support.
With teens -- and it wasn't SO long ago that I was in the dating realm, we don't do any of this with them or for them. Instead, the mantra that I heard from most parents is "I don't want them to think that I don't trust them" and this is used as an excuse to not give them the tools to succeed. And this journalist, as well as others, are maintaining that these kids should give it the old college try, but still have that condom in the wallet or go on The Pill, just in case.
Lauren Winner, the author of Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity, and keynote speaker at the Cranach Institute's conference "In the Image of God: A Christian View of Love and Marriage" talked about this in her presentation. When she and her husband were dating while in masters' programs, her campus pastor had advised them to keep away from behavior in private that they wouldn't do under the gazebo in the center of their college campus. What would they feel safe doing? Basically just kissing. Why? Because it was a public place. So then they changed where they met and what they did. They went to places where they could be alone but in public. They didn't go to each other's houses where they were really alone and tempted, and as always...this became harder the more in love they became, because romantic love causes two people to become completely absorbed in each other and to crave each other. Other than that, they went out with friends, participated in the college singles group, and kept friends around them that shared their values. (one of the intriguing things about her book is that she started writing it in order to prove that it wasn't important that Christians abstain. She found the typical arguments against having sex to be superficial and meaningless...yet her conclusions were that abstinence is very important. It wasn't the conclusion that her heart WANTED to find).
If the only reasons kids are given are only the should nots, they are almost doomed for failure. Messages like it's naughty, you can get pregnant, you can get STDs, don't hold up in the heat of passion or against the desires to be loved, wanted, and valued in the moment.
What they need to be told about are the beauties of God's promises. Why He created marriage. Why sex is beautiful and only truly wonderful between a husband and a wife - where they can truly be one and show real love and commitment to each other. My husband recalls how his pastor told him in confirmation how he shares a bond with his wife that he has never had with any other woman, and she has never had with any other man. That made my husband yearn for that, and gave him strength in truly tempting times.
When my husband and I were dating, there was also another realization there..that as wonderful as it would be to just forget it all and turn off our brains for a few hours, we were truly aware that if we did, we truly WERE sinning against each other, and were hurting each other. We'd had some small tastes of that hurt in our dating relations, enough to drive home that really letting go would be truly painful to each other, and our relationship might not survive it -- something else that pointed out that the true commitment wasn't there until the rings were exchanged.
Culture is a important also. We're in a culture that glorifies sex. Not only that, but glorifies SINGLE sex. We are bombarded with messages about how exciting and wonderful that surrendering, rebelling, and partaking of the forbidden fruit is. Married sex is supposedly tame, boring, and needs excitement. Our kids see this all over the place. They need messages from us that let them know that this is a BIG HUGE lie. Marriages don't need spiced up through fantasy, toys, and new positions. They are fed through love, respect, and honor. That wonderful comfort and familiarity is marriage's strength. We are taught to despise this very strength in the grocery market aisles, on t.v. shows, and in our self-help books.
Kids also need our support through setting limits...curfews, restrictions on where they can go, who they can be with, what activities they can do. These are loving. Our homes (our living rooms, anyway)need to be open to them, so they have a place where they can be alone, yet very much not alone..and they need to be taught to think and date in a manner that allows them to protect themselves. They need to be encouraged to possibly stay home through college, or their college environments need to be scoped out for more than simply the comfort of the dorms. I know many Lutheran parents who make it a point to check out the congregations that are supporting their kids'campuses to make sure they are preaching and teaching Word and Sacrament, and provide support for their teens. We need to help shape our kids' subculture to support them in their chastity, especially since our general culture tells them that sex before marriage is good and desirable. As my OB/GYN told me before I got married "you need to make sure you are sexually compatible before you get married."
Many cultures use arranged marriage to protect their children, others use chaperones, others use shotgun weddings and the threat of shame. A modern type of courtship is popular among some Christians right now. While some of these means are better than others, probably what keeps teens chaste is the combination of knowing what is right, feeling what is right, and fear of repercussions.
The Mormon "Church" sets up seminary buildings across from campuses where they have classes on all sorts of things including "creative dating," set up their own fraternity and sorority, hold all sorts of social activities, and even have specifically college-aged congregations (wards, they call them). In many ways, it is highly successful in creating a subculture within the college culture that supports their values, as one example.
To a great extent, I doubt whether or not abstinence based education can truly be successful if it is divorced from the Author and Creator of marriage, because it really can be no more than a program that emphasizes how sex has risks and tells teens they aren't ready for those risks yet. But knowing that there is an accountability before God, and that He made us, loves us, and knows beyond all doubt what is right for us is a completely different approach. All Christians have an accountability before God to support individuals in their quest to reach marriage as virgins in our friendships, our support, our prayers and in the structures we set up to support them in that.
But the idea that teens need to be prepared "just in case" is ridiculous. They need to be strengthened and supported in their resolve, forgiven and supported in doing what is right when they sin. And we probably need to take a good long look at our attitudes toward marriage. In general, American Christians have pretty much fully embraced the worldly idea that you go to college, get a job, and then when you are ready, you get married. If I learned anything in Utah, it was that it CAN be done differently. Most of my friends were married before they were done with college. Many had kids. As Christians, we need to seriously look at whether or not we are taking marriage -- something God pleasing and that He promises will bless us, and subjugating it to the gods of knowledge, money, career, and vast life experience.