Towards a True Sex Education

One thing that became clear during the roundtable discussion on Abstinence-only sex education is that it’s easy to pin-point what people do wrong when talking about sex. But knowing the right way to speak to our kids about sex can be a daunting task.

One mother called into the show wondering about how to present the Theology of the Body to her ten-year-old daughter.

My answer, or rather, my non-answer was that Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body was developed over a series of audiences during the seventies and eighties. It makes for complex and sometimes difficult reading, and many intelligent minds disagree on its practical application.

I think it might be a mistake to use Theology of the Body as a starting point for thinking about or talking to our kids about sex. It makes great material for further study and reflection, but for the average Catholic parent who is not a theologian, the Church has made available many other resources that you should already have on the bookshelf in your home, primarily, the Bible and the Catechism, both of which are a roadmap for living out the Theology of the Body, even if we don’t understand why or how that’s so.

So I’m going to break down a few really simple things that I think are necessary for a true sexual education.


1. The Bible:

It’s all there–”Faith, hope, love, but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13)

  • Our Faith recognizes that God is the Author of life and the Creator of the natural laws that govern right sexual relationships.
  • Our Hope leads us to bear the temptations and sufferings of this world patiently in expectation of the next. It also leads us to repentance when we have fallen.
  • And Love…All of the Church’s teachings regarding sexuality are based on what shows the most love. It can be an interesting exercise to allow an adolescent to make the connection between the Church’s teaching on sexuality and how love informs it. We love people enough not to tell lies with our bodies; to protect the freedom of others others and avoid ensnaring them with our own temptations. Kids might enjoy discovering how the Christian view of love is different from the secular understanding of love. Godly love gives, builds, serves, sacrifices. Worldly love seeks personal satisfaction, wreaks havoc in families, separates the “lovers” from community, and often causes internal discord. Love for God above all else is the foundation of chastity. We keep our hearts pure by letting nothing else come between our relationship with Christ.


2. The Catechism: Get it, read it, show the kids where you keep it. Let them know that if they have any questions about what the Church teaches on anything, they can find it there. Sometimes kids like to know “the rules.” Even after they’ve discerned that love informs the Church’s teaching, they might want to know why, say, masturbation is wrong when it doesn’t appear to hurt anyone else. Sometime when you’re not hovering nearby, they can go and look up what the Church thinks about it.

There they will find these words:

“By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.”138 “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.””

A “gravely disordered action” that uses the sexual faculty in a way that is contrary to its purpose. Alrighty then, No-Can-Do.

It may be a good idea to highlight some passages in the Catechism regarding the virtue of chastity, so that they are easy to find. It sends a subtle message that this path to adulthood is well-traveled, and that their questions have been your questions at one time or anther.

This is one of my favorites quotes:

” 2339 Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.”

Read through the sections on sexuality and see which ones speak to you; they will likely speak to your kids as well.


3. Don’t diss the “rules-based” approach.

Of course we want to encourage our kids to develop a loving relationship with Christ through Eucharist and prayer, where chastity is a natural outcome of that relationship. But sometimes, for whatever reason, this relationship is not fully developed in adolescence. Kids are looking for rules or guidelines just because they want to do right, not necessarily because they are overflowing with love for Jesus.

It’s O.K.

Sometimes you’ve got to fake it til you make it. Even when you’ve developed that relationship as an adult, the consolations occasionally wane and you have to keep doing right out of a sense of duty rather than delight. It would be nice if we all did things for the right reasons. In a fallen world, we can do things for “good enough” reasons, and God will still bless it, and hopefully bring us into full communion with Him in his time.

4. For the married folks, display affection towards your spouse in front of your kids. Kiss, hug, smile and flirt with each other, within respectable boundaries. The kids can tell whether or not you like each other. They can also tell if you think physical touch is icky.

Show affection towards your kids. They need to know, deep down, that children– the outcome of sexual relationships– are very, very good. With lots of kids, it’s easy to become greedy with your personal space because you have so little of it. It’s worth the effort to smile at your kids when you don’t feel like it, to pat them on the shoulder, ask them questions, listen to a really boring story that uses far too many words, and even if you don’t do it every night, hug them spontaneously, and let them know that you love them.

When I was researching my chapter for Style Sex and Substance, I took an informal survey of women who were raised in the Church, and felt that they had healthy attitudes about sex. Overwhelmingly, their parents’ attitude towards sex was a factor in their own healthy relationships. You can read a few testimonies on this issue here and here.


5. Relax.  If we think we must fit all the kids need to know into a very awkward fifteen minute lecture on what goes where and why, it’s no wonder we freak out about doing it wrong. “The Talk” is overrated, and puts sexuality into a box.

“Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” 2337

Therefore, to develop the virtue of chastity, this integration of our sexuality will comprise a series of ongoing conversations, and really, a way of life that we may be learning alongside our children.

We tend to choke up talking to our kids about sex, or we adopt a really precious tone that makes our sexuality seem “other” than all the precious aspects of our person.

If we believe that our children’s happiness in life depends on getting this One Thing right, then we may unintentionally convey to them the same message that started this whole conversation–that making mistakes concerning sexuality ruins you and places you beyond the reach of grace.

Slip-ups are practically guaranteed during this process, which is why the Church calls it an apprenticeship in self-mastery and not a performance review. Therefore, the sexual maturation of our kids is also an apprenticeship for the whole family in love and forgiveness.

If there is one attitude that I think is “a must” for parents to display to their kids, it is the soul of Christ’s mercy. Always be reconciling. Teach them how to say “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” Go to Confession as a family. Practice the virtue of humility.

The one thing that it really is important for them to get right is their relationship with God. Point the way to Reconciliation and Communion.




Dr. Popcak has also posted on this topic and I believe other writers on patheos will weigh in as well soon.

Other related posts:

In Defense of Abstinence 

Redeeming Abstinence (part 2)

Sloppy Seconds Sex-ed

Dirty Sex

Sex Miseducation

Is Purity Culture Sexist?


Also, Bearing comments on Facebook:

“I think that although the entire content of the Theology of the Body doesn’t make a good starting point, a handful of principles derived from the TOTB do make a good starting point. Such as: The body makes visible the invisible. And marriage is an image of the Trinity, because it is a community of persons united in life-giving love. And a person is a being that the only proper response to is love; a person may never be used as a means to an end. And the purpose of sexuality is self-gift. Any sexuality education program that is rooted in these principles is off to a good start.”

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  • Quid

    Excellent post. It’s important to understand chastity is something good and beautiful in and of itself, not just “the absence of sex” which is the modern understanding of it.

  • tedseeber

    I would add, don’t lie.

    If you had sexual misconduct as a teenager- your teens need to know that and know why you now regret it- or at least why you regretted it enough that you are no longer with the person you had the misconduct with.

    I was recently discussing this on my blog with a parent who thought “all kids need is acceptance of their chosen lifestyle”- and I told him, in the case of homosexual males at least, that is direct promotion of sexually transmitted diseases, including some quite deadly ones.

    Kids need to know correct information at a young age than ever before- and the correct information is, the only safe sex is either marital sex or no sex.

    No need for dirty or virginity or purity- the facts are scary enough by themselves.

  • Pofarmer

    Why do I feel like with Catholics I’m in an alternate universe? One where tbe catechism and the catholic bible are allowed to conciously override our higher faculties? I can’t reconcile the catholic view of the world as wonderful if the teachings of the church were just followed, compared to the actual history of what has happend, and recently when those teachings are put in place.

    • SecularPatriot

      It’s fascinating that nowhere on this list of 5 points is, “Use medically accurate information regarding the physical and psychological aspects of sex.” But of course if your first two points are (1) The Bible and (2) The Catechism, then it’s pretty easy to argue that reality already lost.

      • Elizabeth Duffy

        Actually, you ARE in an alternate universe with Catholics. Sex is never just about sex for Catholics, so sex education in a Catholic family is going to have very little to do with mechanics, and very much to do with philosophy, theology and formation of virtue. The physical aspects of it are really more of a biology lesson, which we take for granted, will be covered at the appropriate time.

        • Pofarmer

          Unfortunately, the “appropriate time” often comes after someone is pregnant because sex has been mystified and birth control villified to the point where participants don’t make rational decisions.

  • Nancy

    Love this approach — especially the life-long need for chastity, whether that means protecting our eyes and hearts from explicit movies/TV show, or abstaining for a time for the health of one spouse. Too often, I think kids are sold the bill of goods that says that once you’re married, it’s a free-for-all, or when you’re an adult you can do anything you want. Our kids want more than that — a higher purpose or calling in this life — and they’re capable of aspiring to that. And I love your emphasis on mercy and forgiveness . . . we all continue to need that.

  • Reverend Robbie

    I may be in the wrong place to chime in, but let me share a thought as an atheist. I believe that we only live once. At age 36, I’m engaged and planning to spend the rest of my life having sex with only one person. But I’ve had sex with other people and I don’t regret any of that for a moment. In our one life, I have trouble with the idea that we must only experience sex with one single person. That seems like an unnecessary overarching rule. Doesn’t it seem reasonable if, in some circumstances, someone tries sex with a few people before committing to someone for the rest of his or her life?

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      It’s reasonable if sex is something that people consume just to pleasure themselves. Personally, I hate the thought of being sampled as an appetizer to someone else’s main course.

      Catholics believe sex is a self-giving act that should not be severed from the possibility of procreation, and as such, should only be had within a lifelong covenant.

      • Pofarmer

        A healthy attitude towards sex would indicate that sex in a committed relationship is natural. The catholic attitude mystifies and denigrates sex to the point that folks attitudes toward sex can become unhealthy, as you just indicated. Yes, the pendulum can go too far both ways……..

  • Bill S

    Wow. I think your post and your responses to comments refect the kind of Catholic that I would be if I were a believer. Most non-Catholic Christians are not opposed to contraception though. Catholics will never admit it, but the ban on contraception is what I call a “pope thing”. Based on the concept of infallibility, the ban cannot be lifted because that would make the popes who opposed it wrong. That can never happen. That is too bad for Catholic youth who desperately need to be instructed properly.