The flaws of biblically-based sex education
(Originally published in PULP)
It’s no shock that teen pregnancy and other related issues are a big problem in this community. It’s been that way for a long time. Various people have offered ideas about why this is and what to do about it, but little ever changes. Children keep having babies, generation after generation raise little ones in poverty, grandparents step in as parents to grandkids and the nuclear family suffers because of it all.
Everyone seems to be on the same page about one thing: Our kids need some kind of education about anatomy, sex and sexuality. But as for when that should happen, how it should be accomplished and what should be included or kept out is incredibly divisive.
One of the biggest problems is the pressure to teach abstinence-only sex education. First off, that’s not sex education. It’s propaganda for a narrow social agenda that is in denial about reality. Generally, this approach goes hand-in-hand with conveying an aura of shame about one’s body and sexual urges, and suggesting that if you act contrary to the “just say no” ethos, you are a failure, and maybe a sinful one to boot.
I agree that it would be just swell if all of our young people waited for that one lifetime monogamous relationship to come along to have sex, but this ignores some basic truths about how our culture treats sex. While a health teacher or pastor is telling you not to do it, the rest of the culture obsesses about how awesome sex is. Somebody’s not being honest here.
Oh, and did I mention that comprehensive scientific studies have shown, with little room for ambiguity, that abstinence-only sex education hasn’t worked and continues not to work?
Many people claim the moral authority of the Bible for the basis of their argument for abstinence-only sex education. But let’s consider this in a little bit of a broader context.
For one, although women of the biblical eras were not allowed to have sex outside of marriage, there were lots of cases in which men had extramarital relations. So is it just girls we’re telling to say no? Do the boys get a free pass?
Also, the whole idea of no sex until marriage presumed a different way of life back when the Scriptures were written. Most young people were married off soon after they reached the age when they could reproduce. So the time between when most folks got the urge to procreate and when they had a chance to within the bond of marriage was not that long.
Nowadays, kids are not only are entering puberty at increasingly younger ages, but we’re also waiting longer and longer to get married, if at all. So whereas a young girl might have been matched up with a suitor within a year or so of being fertile in days of yore, now we often wait 10, 20 or more years to settle down.
So maybe the solution, if we’re so hung up on literal adherence to biblical rule, is to marry all of our kids off at age 13. Yeah, I didn’t think so.
It seems to me that if leaders in faith communities focused much more on the “Greatest Commandment,” not just rhetorically, but also in modeling how to conduct our lives as individuals and as community, we’d be much better off. For those who are unfamiliar, Jesus is asked (in an effort to frame him for blasphemy, mind you) which of the Judaic laws is the most important. His response: love God with all you have and all you are, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
What Jesus lays out in this relatively simple statement is a blueprint for an entire way of living. If we remain focused on love for ourselves and for others, as fellow creatures of God, this daily practice of doing so will inform all of our moral decisions. We don’t have to worry so much about checking off an exhaustive list of rules if we simply treat everyone else as if they were a precious gift from God.
Unfortunately this is not something we can simply drop on kids in a few hours when they hit seventh grade and hope it changes their worldview. They must be taught what it means to love their own bodies, and to love others’ bodies, hearts, minds and spirits, from the time they can speak, let alone have sex. We have to get over the shame and self-loathing for our bodies that many mistakenly seem to think equals piety.
The arguments about how to conduct sex education points to a deeper neurosis we have as a society about our lack of control over our children. Nothing – no matter what the message – can make kids not have sex. Ultimately it’s their bodies and their choices. Focusing on love, and on the responsibility that loving self and others carries with it, puts us at least in a healthier frame of mind for those heavy and important discussions.
Finally, if the Bible teaches us anything, it’s that people err. From Genesis on, we’re told one thing and then do another. But God’s response inevitably is to lean in favor of grace over condemnation. We’d be well served to follow such an example.