...are the ones that make the biggest difference


When Statistics Become Real

For the last 2 weeks (and probably for the next 2 weeks), I've been talking about sex & romantic relationships with the kids in my youth group. The first Sunday we focused more on dating and the reality that these relationships, particularly for junior highers, will not last and will only cause a lot of pain if we put too much into them and expect more from them than they can deliver. It was a very good discussion with the junior highers and a fairly good talk with the high-schoolers. This Sunday we talked more specifically about sex. I have found that many of the Christian resources that deal with teen sex seem to mostly focus on scare tactics about pregnancy & disease and spend very little time dealing with positive reasons to wait for marriage. I wanted to avoid the scare tactics, but still wanted to present some of the statistics because they are striking and I thought they would help get the discussion moving. I also wanted to give them a chance to talk about what their peers say, think & do so we could talk specifically about that.

I must admit, even faced with the statistical evidence that over a quarter of freshmen girls & boys are already sexually active as well as over half of their senior counterparts, I was unprepared to hear the news that there were several girls at the junior high level that were pregnant. I was unprepared to hear that junior high girls are performing lesbian kissing shows for their male peers. I was unprepared to hear that oral sex was pretty common. And I was unprepared for the ordinary way in which junior highers discuss the sexual activity of their peers and the level of focus that sex & relationships seems to occupy in their social system. I mean, I knew this stuff went on, I knew it was happening across the US - it just catches you off guard when you realize that some of the kids sitting right in front of you may already be sexually active at the age of 12 or 13. And if they're not, some of the kids they've invited to our activities might be. I think I could almost make a show like "When Animals Attack!" - "When Statistics Become Real!" It could be a hidden camera show, catching the reaction of adults, especially parents, when they realize that their 11 year old son or daughter may have already had multiple sex partners (a real statistic, by the way), or that their little girl got pregnant and is looking for an abortion doctor at the age of 14 (almost 2/3 of teen pregnancies end in abortion).

Unsurprisingly, the situation described by the high school group was significantly worse. Most seemed to think that the numbers (52% of senior girls and 59% of senior guys being sexually active) were actually too low. When asked how long a couple had to be in a relationship before it was expected they would have sex, the most common answer was that, in fact, they did not even need to be in an exclusive relationship for sex to be the norm. One girl, who attends a magnet high school attached to the local university that students have to apply to get into, said that oral sex was more common than intercourse, but again, it was treated very casually. All said that condoms were not much of a priority and that the most feared consequence of having sex was having your parents find out - not disease, not pregnancy, not emotional pain, but being grounded. Even then, however, some parents apparently support their kids behavior by putting the girls on the pill. Some have even allowed their kids to have sex in their home.

Aside from the media's portrayal of teens and peer pressure, none of these kids (in either the junior or senior high) could think of any particular reason why sex was such a big deal or why many were so eager to particpate in it. None could identifly any emotional or spiritual problems that would lead kids to do this, though they did allow that the most promiscuous girls probably had self-esteem problems. I realized as we were talking about this, and as I was talking about Ephesians 5:31-32 - focusing on the mystery of the correlation between marriage and Christ's relationship with the Church, that in all reality, this is an issue that is well out of my hands. I did the best I could to describe the depth of love & commitment demonstrated by Christ, and how that is supposed to characterize marriage. I tried my hardest to explain why sex is meant to be confined to the marriage bed for this reason, because it has a greater spritual reality than what we see or think about. But its out of my hands, particularly for the high school kids. I have one hour a week with these kids, maybe 2 if they come to an activity - how am I, in that time, supposed to counteract hours upon hours spent in the distorted social system of their peers, or watching misguided media, or the time spent with parents who will not listen to their kids or take the time to instill the right values? I know I can have an influence, and I'm sure that I'm reaching some of these kids, but I feel that in a lot of ways parents have abdicated any responsibility for their kids and would rather live with their heads in the sand than face the truth of the world their kids inhabit. And what do I do about that?


alana said...

One thought that popped into my head for the first time ever while reading this post:

If marital sex icons the ecclesia being in union with Christ, would one's ecclesiology (and the ecclesiology of the general Christian culture) have an effect on the sexual activity of young people being raised in that millieu?

I'm asking, just thinking out loud...but you know where I"m coming from, and yes, the fact that I've become Orthodox is influencing my thinking here.

Nathan said...

alana -

"If marital sex icons the ecclesia being in union with Christ, would one's ecclesiology (and the ecclesiology of the general Christian culture) have an effect on the sexual activity of young people being raised in that millieu?"

That is an excellent insight and an even better question! I found myself, in attempting to paint the picture of the mystery described by Paul, having to define things in order to proceed. I had to spend several minutes defining "church" in such a way as to make this verse make any semblance of sense, since I don't think for a minute my current organization conforms to the biblical description - at least not to the youth. That's one thing I'm trying to develop - and something stressed by that Hurt book I described earlier; a welcoming, family-like community. In fact, Hurt says that, developmentally, early & mid-adoloscents aren't really ready for or able to deal with abstract theological concepts and that the focus should be off of teaching and on community development. I'm trying to figure out how to do that in this situation and/or what to change. I know a big part of that change has to start with me - I'm too "head"-y sometimes and need to reorient myself towards better praxis, which is where I consistently fail.

Anonymous said...

We were discussing middle school situations today. Many teachers whose children have moved on to the middle school are just in shock. The movie "Clueless" provided the idea that students can practice oral sex and still "technically" be virgins. So, at our nearest middle school, students were arranging to sign out of respective classes at a certain time, meet in a restroom, have oral sex, and then the boy and girl return to their classrooms. Another issue has been that some parents will "sponsor" a party; answer calls from other parents about when/where/etc., but on the night of the actual party, they go out and leave the house to the kids to show they trust them.
I can relate to your dismay at having one hour a week or so to have an impact, and how hopeless that really is in terms of lasting effect on behavior and choices, especially when peer pressure ensues. Parents need classes on how to parent, how to say no, and not to give in when it's easier than staying firm. But no one is signing up for those.
The kids don't see sex/relationships as sacred or special; it is an activity, no big deal. One of my students became a father in 7th grade. I have a student currently whose mother gave birth when she was 14. Sometimes the culture of acceptance obliterates any other possibilities, and the cycle continues. But as educators we aren't allowed to discuss birth control,refusal skills, how the students life will be changed, or the responsibilities of parenting. Doesn't that make a lot of sense? "Just say no" does not work.

Noah said...

When advising the willful (adolescents included), it is usually necessary to provide some means of support for one's argument. If you can't show the reason why pre-marital sex is harmful then you're not likely to convince anyone of its danger.
Adolescents aren't mentally and emotionally ready for deep spiritual considerations, but they are ready for pleasure. Until society can offer teens a match for the pleasure of sex, teens will often choose sex. At what point do we see the benefit in educating them about their choices without prejudice? If they know about safer sex are they more likely to practice it over unsafe sex? If they understand the danger and disadvantage of teen pregnancy or the pain and anguish of abortion are they likely to behave more responsively?
If they weigh their options and decide that pre-marital sex is worthwhile, will they abandon the Church for its contrary position? Do the statistics make bad Christians out of all those teens? Is it even possible for a teen (without the capacity for deep spiritual understanding) to be considered a true Christian?
One thing adolescents can usually see is a lie or a coverup. If all we (as elders and authorities) try to do is convince them not to have sex for reasons they can't understand, they will only come to see us as disingenuous and unworthy of their trust. This is at least as great a danger to society as non-virgin brides--a whole generation of teens growing up with no respect for their elders...