Over the weekend I drove to a wedding with a bunch of strangers. We got to talking about our memories of middle and high school. One of us went to either a small-town public school or a private religious school (can’t remember which), one to a single-sex Catholic school, and two of us to an intensely progressive private school. And none of us had had any kind of sex ed that struck us as even marginally relevant or insightful.
So look, if fools didn’t rush in, would we even need middle-school sex ed? Thus I offer to you four possible alternative frameworks for teaching the youth about sexuality. I am not sure how serious I am about any of these, but I hope thinking in these ways will help people who actually know something about young folk and the education thereof.
Notes and caveats: All of these are too abstract–they’re frameworks, not stories. If you want actually to teach kids maybe check out the Archd. of Phila.’s excellent catechism on the family. & here’s an earlier post about Catholic sex-ed follies.
Ecstatic communion. Why do we silo sex ed? Why not present sex as one of many forms of ecstatic union with one who remains Other? Mystical prayer, reception of the Eucharist, the kind of friendship that is like “one soul in two bodies,” and sex are all examples of this kind of union. Just as prayer reaches its fulfillment when it is Christian prayer, so sex is most itself when it’s within marriage; some other kinds of prayer and sex participate in the same ecstatic communion but do so less-fully.
Things I like about this approach: As I hinted, it doesn’t separate sex from other aspects of our spiritual lives. It offers an honored place for monastic and celibate loves, and names forms of ecstasy and intimacy to which celibate people may be especially open. It emphasizes communion over self-protection and joy over danger. It is actually sexy.
Things I like less: It maybe conflates different kinds of “missing the mark” (if we can rank sins at all, which iirc St Anselm says we can’t, receiving the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin is a lot worse than just basic fornication). It does not give much room for boring, exhausted comfort sex, or the liturgical equivalent, both of which are extremely normal once you’ve been in a relationship for a long time. It underemphasizes the real dangers of sex (and religion!). It does not talk about babies or diapers or money.
Relationship. This is a similar framework but maybe for a different audience. So much of the discourse around sexuality in contemporary US society focuses on identity or behavior. What if we acknowledged that those categories have their own importance, but made relationship the primary category by which we understand sexuality? Our relationship with God will determine how we live out our sexuality, regardless of how we identify; our relationship with God (and, sometimes, our relationships with one another) can be renewed regardless of how we have behaved.
Things I like about this: The emphasis on mutuality. The focus on relationship over time rather than discrete acts. Sex, here, isn’t something you “get from” another person. So much of our cultural approach to sex is about accomplishment and work (Drive Your Man Wild in Bed!). What I like in this framing is that you can’t “achieve” sex or “perform” or other workplace words.
This framework emphasizes choice-as-responsiveness rather than choice-as-self-will. God calls you, and you try to be open to His call. Based on your response to that, you also seek relationship with other people and groups, including but not limited to a spouse or a religious community or a friend. These people have their own calls from God and their own perceptions, and they may say yes to you or no, and that too is something you have to accept. Whether or not you end up with the kind of relationship with other people that you desire, you will always have God’s love and friendship.
Things I like less: A husband isn’t Jesus and you can say no to him. The parallel between marriage and union with God is obviously all over Scripture but when talking with teenagers I would super emphasize the differences, especially the difference in how consent works. Mary says “yes” to God because it’s the right thing to do; your spouse’s (or religious superior’s) desires don’t have the same moral authority.
There are, I think, two right answers. First off, obviously your body belongs to God. In work, in sex, in martyrdom, in liturgy, in nursing, in waiting, in suffering, you are His and your body is consecrated to His service. Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Rape and other forms of assault are an assault on God’s temple. These crimes cannot defile the altar–your body continues to be His holy temple even when it has been violated–but they defy God and His will for both your body and the body of your assailant.
Second, your body belongs to you. This is where the title of this post comes from, the utterly charming Renaissance bawdy song, “My Thing Is My Own,” which you might call an example of Christian feminism if you were enjoying yourself a bit too much. We are called to self-gift; and we can give our bodies because they are ours.
There will be times in your life when one of these forms of belonging will need to take precedence. When you are figuring out whether you should pledge yourself in marriage to a specific person, you need to listen for God’s voice but a lot of the time He’s not so chatty, and understanding that the gift of yourself is entirely in your hands to give may help you avoid saying yes under pressure. When you are facing an unwanted pregnancy, God’s will for your body and the body of the child growing within you take precedence. This is also true for the many forms of martyrdom, including the times when you’re tempted to use immoral means to relieve or end your suffering.
A teacher might even use this framework to open up questions about material possessions. Who do our belongings really belong to? What would it mean to say that they belong to God? To ourselves (this is true insofar as envy and theft are sins)? To those who need them? Do we act as though we are the only owners of our things–and how would our lives look if we acknowledged other owners with greater claims?
What I like about this approach: It gives appropriate emphasis to consent and assault. It can acknowledge and then resist other people’s expectations (my mom will be so disappointed in me if I have this baby; everybody expects us to get married, I mean we’ve already sent the invitations). It might flow from what teens already know the Church cares about (sex sex sex!) into areas where Church teaching may be much newer to them.
What I don’t like: The ownership metaphor. It works so well and yet it seems so materialist! Also, there’s an easy slippage between “belonging” and “ownership,” and I don’t want kids to think their spouse or even their child owns their body. Ah well, you are worth more than many sparrows.
Counterculture. I’ve said before that there’s a lot to be gained from looking at the world of sex-as-subordination into which Jesus was born. The early Christians were a sexual minority. Their sexual practices, from lifelong virginity to rejection of abortion and infanticide, were deeply countercultural. In their sex lives as elsewhere they stood against the empire of their world.
What would students say if you asked them where the Christian sexual ethic stands against contemporary social power and social institutions? You’d probably have to start them off with some suggestions, but there are plenty of options: pornography, obviously. Misogyny. Any form of contempt for the opposite sex. Self-hatred, often born from the pressure to control oneself and achieve success in relationships. The economic structures that pressure people to move away from friends and family, or pressure women toward abortion. Delayed marriage, which keeps you available to your employer instead of tying you to your family. The rejection of celibacy and alternate forms of kinship.
What I like about this framing: Rebellion. An emphasis on structural sin.
What I don’t like: This is a moralistic approach to sex with little room for forgiveness or love of enemies. You’d need to explore what it might mean to love a pornographer, or an employer who takes advantage of your need.
So that’s my thought. Do any of you guys have comments, alternatives, howls of execration? firstname.lastname@example.org . And now, enjoy the Baltimore Consort: