Abstinence education, pledges, and real life

February 3, 2010

church / culture / marriage

Recently, for various reasons1, there has been a good deal of talk about the merits and failures of abstinence-only sex education. The idea is, for some folks, that it is unrealistic to expect anyone to avoid sex before marriage, and that abstinence pledges are ineffective and dangerous. The idea for other folks is that we have to expect everyone to avoid sex before marriage, and that to even teach teenagers about contraceptives is immoral and dangerous.

This is basically where the debate stands, at least within the church. Liberals on one side, conservatives on another. Just like so many other things. I’m interested in a third way, though. I’ve seen a few other people mention that they’d like a third way too, but it usually ends up fitting within either the conservative or liberal framework within which they find themselves. Maybe mine will too. Either way, it’s worth a try.

Context within pluralism

To start: abstinence-only sex education in a pluralistic society fails because it isn’t realistic for people without convictions that sex before marriage is wrong to avoid it. It’s just not. People without this conviction shouldn’t be forced to live as though they have it. But whether a conviction is from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, another religion, straight-edge (there aren’t many of those left, but still a few), or a sincere desire to focus on other parts of life is irrelevant – the fact is that there is a conviction for certain folks, and that gives things, at the very least, the potential of being different.

Fine. But of course, focusing on folks with that conviction doesn’t account for the multitudes of teenagers who sign the oft-mocked virginity pledges at youth rallies, indicating that they’ll be abstinent until marriage. We know that most of them aren’t. We also know that many of them do genuinely desire to keep these pledges and the convictions associated with them, and that when they don’t, many of them become burdened with guilt and self-judgment, sometimes affecting their capability to have healthy sex lives once they do get married.

The reaction to this is, for some, a belief that it is unrealistic and outdated for us to expect followers of Jesus to live lives of abstinence before marriage. Various interpretative stances are taken on various Scriptures, and we are left with a vague notion of teaching teenagers about contraceptives and how to have sex intelligently.

For other folks, of course, the reaction is a deeper entrenchment into the culture wars, stating that this is all the fault of the media, politicians, liberals, homosexuals, or whoever else can be scapegoated with the blame for the “failure” of youth to live up to the standards put upon them. This, of course, leads to more guilt, and it also (rightly) leads the people that are being scapegoated to have even more dislike for Christian culture than they already do.

A possible third way

So this third way, as I call it for lack of other things to call it, is for those who do, for whatever religious or cultural or philosophical reasons, believe that sex should exist within a marriage. It doesn’t necessarily depend upon a specific faith, though it would be shaped by whatever context in which it found itself. For this purpose, I’m writing for followers of Jesus, as that is the perspective from which my wife and I approached it in our lives, and the perspective from which I’d love my own kids to approach it one day.

My wife and I married as virgins. Seriously. Both of us are genuinely grateful for this, and can’t overstate the freedom that is present in learning how to live sexually and how to be vulnerable and seek to love one another, together, without needing prior knowledge. I can’t overstate how great an opportunity I think that is. This is not to say that we suddenly became sexual creatures when we got married because we never had thoughts or desires or temptations before that time, or that we immediately became amazing sexual masters when we got married. Neither is the case, and neither is a realistic expectation for people to have.

This journey of ours is one of the reasons I believe sex is designed to happen within a marriage. I think there are marriages in which sex shouldn’t happen without intense change, because there are far too many marriages in which it happens ignorantly, oppressively, and beneath its potential for both powerful love and vulnerability, and for glimpses of the sacred. But I do, still, believe that it is designed to exist and flourish within a healthy marriage. I’m familiar with exegetical and theological arguments that put such thoughts in the realm of biblical interpretations that we should resign to the past, and I disagree with them.2

I think it is preferable and realistic for followers of Jesus to live this way. Teaching it includes everything from how to deal with temptations while seeking to live a kingdom-focused life, to understanding why sexuality is relevant to such a life, to learning how to think about one’s spouse in an holistic and egalitarian way when marriage does happen. It also involves helping people to embrace the lavish grace that Jesus gives to us in order to, and when we fail to, treat sexuality as we should – both in significant and seemingly insignificant ways, and both inside and outside of marriage. All of these things have powerful potential to impact lives and marriages.

People who believe that an important part of following Jesus is waiting for sex within marriage don’t do it by signing a pledge at a youth rally when they are 12, 13, or even 20. It doesn’t work that way. They do it the same way anyone follows Jesus in any other area – day by day, learning the rhythms of grace. They do it by seeking to be in situations, and in relationships with people, that help them and empower them, and by seeking to resist things that don’t. They do it by living in communion with the Spirit, and seeking to reject sin and injustice, both personal and systemic, as the Spirit helps them.

  1. Including a recent study that indicated some success in a program that encouraged teenagers to abstain from sex. It is a small study, but it seems to have had an encouraging focus on dialog and honest discussion, rather than fear and hiding of facts. []
  2. Note that I’m not commenting on the biblical interpretations of homosexuality, as I feel that they are very complex, and I don’t know – or think I need to know – what the right answer is. Suffice it to say, at the moment, that I strongly support marriage for my GLBT brothers and sisters, and include their relationships as those that should have healthy, married sex. []