Wrongly understood, sex can orient us to our own fixation on pleasures, close down our ability to grow in love, make us violent and abusive toward others, create rifts in the human family, and spread disease and disintegration. I cannot help but recognize that much of our current pedagogy around sex today uses the word "protect" as if that were the highest good to which we ask our young people to aspire. That is a capitulation and a defect in our invitation to them to grow as human beings. Its implicit message is that if one protects oneself, then it's possible to have more fun.
It's time for a bigger message, a more hopeful message, a message that invites people to consider sex as having a purpose beyond self-gratification or even self-realization. Sex is not about the self; it's about relationship. Sex has a purpose: of bonding two people together profoundly, and its most beautiful expression is that between a man and a woman committed for life to raise children together. And if we ignore that purpose, we diminish sex, make it something we joke about and make stupid reality shows about. If we share that message, though, offer it as a hopeful compass point for sexual decision-making, we invite people to consider their sexual lives not as pointless wanderings, but rather as pilgrimages (with ups and downs) toward happiness.
For many, that happiness will be in marrying and childbearing, and we must remind ourselves that for a vast number of people in the human family that happiness is deep, lasting, and profound. For others, that happiness may not involve childbearing or even marrying, but will include relating to others as men and women and therefore as enfleshed and sexual beings.
Getting sex right today will mean naming our defective understandings of sex, talking about the possibilities of sex, developing creative imaginations of the hope in sex. It will mean growing beyond our clinical, biological treatments of sex and exploring its beauty. For only if young people understand something as beautiful and worth striving for will they understand that their difficult choices about sex will make sense. We must pay attention to the stories of those whose sexual lives have unfolded over decades of faithfulness, allow them to inspire us, and model for us the hope that sex can, if artfully practiced in the context of lifelong promises in marriage, represent a glimpse into the way that God loves.
Tim Muldoon is a Catholic theologian, author, speaker, and retreat leader specializing in the ways that Church traditions speak to contemporary life. He has written extensively on the themes of young adult spirituality, Ignatian spirituality, theology in postmodernity, sexuality and marriage, and adoption issues, and is a frequent contributor to Patheos.