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Thursday, March 07, 2013

Ask the Matriarch - Between "Just say no!" and "Figure it out yourself!"

Our question this week cuts to the chase, and I will too. Here 'tis:
As part of my ministry, I work with both teenagers and young adults. When I was a teenager, my church very explicitly taught that premarital sex was wrong; I learned the same in my college fellowship. I personally no longer believe that premarital sex is *always* wrong (I think there is a big difference between a 15 year-old and, say, a single 25 year-old). My church also makes no explicit statement on this and has not been in the habit of teaching youth or young adults really anything about sex or sexual ethics. Surely there is something to say between "everything is always wrong until you get married" and "figure it out yourself." Do any of you have any resources you would recommend for helping teenagers and young adults think about these issues, and especially about how their faith should help inform their decisions?

This is surely one of those issues that many churches don't want to talk about. But our matriarchs didn't shy away. Here's what they had to say.

Anne writes:
I'm all ears.  I have used Pam Stenzel's DVDs - and been able to invite her live a couple of times! - info, "Sex (still) has a price tag."  She takes the no sex before marriage approach.  I have two daughters who have gotten married in the last three years.  Neither of them lived with their fiance' before marriage.  I find myself almost embarrassed to say that.  (And I know that to really be the case, because I was the one encouraging them to get to the doctor to discuss birth control options because neither of them wanted to risk getting pregnant right away.)  Our youngest daughter had a three month engagement because she and her fiance' didn't want to live together, but they REALLY wanted to be together.  They figured they could 'hold out' for three months.  I'm really proud of them for waiting.  The divorce statistics continue to bear out that it is better for marriages if couples chose not to live together; or to only live together if they are engaged with a date set.  That is information from Prepare / Enrich counseling which I have been trained to use.  I can't pull up a source and exact quote right now because of all the piles in front of me.  But there it is.  I know my stance is not a popular one any more.  And I don't advertise it, but I do still believe it is the best option.  Where I serve, it would not be a popular sell - where the teen pregnancy rate is about 40%!  

Pam Stenzel talks a lot about STD (sexually transmitted diseases) and the difficulties of sex before marriage.  I don't agree with her ultra-conservative approach, but I appreciate a lot of what she has to say.  And she does it with great humor!  She usually targets middle school and high school youth, and travels around the world with her teaching.  Her home base is in Plymouth, Minnesota.  She can tailor her talk for schools or churches.

All that being said, I'm in my 50's, and I know most of my daughter's generation has a different take on this.  So, I'm all ears.

Sharon offers:
I applaud you for wanting to go beyond "just say no"!
Does your denomination offer any study materials?  The United Church of Christ has a sexuality curriculum called Our Whole Lives.  There are different ones for different ages and stages, including youth and young adults.  Description:  "The resources are written by professional sexuality educators and provide accurate information for parents, teachers and pastors to be used in the affirming and supportive setting of our churches."
I have never used it, though, because getting everyone on board to do "sex ed" in church has seemed like more trouble than it's worth.  What I have done, though, is to look for teachable moments in the midst of other conversations and classes and groups.  They can think through what it means to respect one's own body, to love as Christ loves, and even counting the cost of actions before taking them.  You could also ask them if they think "the rules" are different for a 15 year old and a 25 year old, and not just about sex!

Martha Spong at Reflectionary adds:
I would highly recommend "Our Whole Lives," a curriculum on human sexuality across the age range developed by the UCC and the UUA.

With my own children (now 27, 22 and 17), I stressed applying the Great Commandment to personal situations. Do your choices show love for God and self and other? I neither forbade not encouraged. One of my children described this approach as having made sex seem far too important to take lightly. Since that was my point, I think it worked.


Wow! Sounds like the UCC is on top of this! What about the rest of you? Are your denominations dealing with sex proactively, reactively, or not at all? Do you feel equipped to handle issues of sexuality, especially with youth and young adults? Our matriarchs also speak out of their experience mothering young adults around this issue - do you have anything you would share as a mother in addition to as a minister? Please join us in the comments section and share your experiences and wisdom!

And, as always, send us your questions at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com. Only one question in the queue at this point, so we will be dealing with new questions soon!


  1. One thing I would suggest in considering these questions is to make sure to talk about the positive side of relationships, sex, marriage etc. not just the things to say no too. If all your curriculum talks about is the negative than not only will your audience tune you out (especially if they are already having sex and don't think its a big deal) but also in the long term you doing very little to help them learn what a healthy positive relationship looks like. (Since just getting married does not actually guarantee healthy relationships)
    Lauren Winner has a book on sex that might be good for the young adults you work with. I appreciate that it acknowledges that women have sexual urges not just men and she does lay out a theological foundation for her arguments.

  2. We did a homemade curriculum a couple of years back (reminds me its probably time to get it out again for the next group coming through). We did several sessions including:

    * a factual "what has happened to my body?" session led by one of the doctors in our church (he's a grandfather and has a great "way" with kids, so they asked him all the stuff they were embarrassed to ask their parents or teachers.)

    * a separate girl/boy one about self-image, anorexia and media-pressure for the girls and self-image and pornography for the boys.

    * a joint one about "sex is really important and can have big consequences, so THINK first".

    We got complaints both from the "just say no" parents and from the "do it if it feels right" parents, so I think we got it about right.

    The whole thing was at the initiative of one of our younger couples, and they led the 3rd session. Background being that they had found themselves with a "surprise" baby on the way while still in college. They talked (among other things) about how challenging it was to become parents at such a young age... Options including abstinence and contraception were discussed.

    We are in a culture where pre-marital sex and co-habitation is 100% the norm, including for the under 30s in our baptist church. Being an old lady of 46 this bothers me somewhat, but my daughters tell me its because I'm "out of touch". So I'm trying to focus on thinking about consequences and not letting themselves be pressured into anything they're not comfortable with.

  3. The issues that I discussed with my children (now young adults were)
    - sex is God-created and part of that "very good" part of Creation (they always blush and laugh)... in other words, it is meant to be part of a bond in a couple's relationship, AND it can be self- destructive
    - we talk about self-destructive behaviors as it relates to sex: promiscuity, STDs, pregnancy, lack of trust,
    - we also talk about "serial monogamy" and how it is hard on present and future relationships, that expectations can be really really hard to deal with
    - we don't insist on "no sex" but we do encourage thoughtful "pre-sex" conversations... and if a prospective partner finds the conversation part unnecessary or unimportant, we ask out loud -- if it is more than just biology and hormones (which they agree it is) and if someone does not want to discuss "what it means" in terms of the relationship, then it should be a cautionary flag

    One of our children remains celibate at 22 but that is that child's choice because so many friends were sleeping with their "flame of the week" and they saw the self-destructive part of that.

    The other two were in committed relationships before marriage, but took a step back from the physical side to talk about the future -- faith, children, income, etc. before getting engaged and married.

    The sad part about this is that AT MY CHURCH I am only allowed to give the "just say no" doctrine. I got my hands slapped big time. Now I only talk about sex in closed, confidential settings and I tell my counselees what "the church says" and what *I* think is a better approach.

    1. That's such a shame because it sounds like you have so much widsom to share.

      I have the outline of a sermon on the Song of Songs in my head that goes something like "sex is great, God invented it and we're supposed to enjoy it". One day I'll have the opportunity to preach it :-)

  4. A side note to all of this-- I've been hearing from a few women in their 20s about "Red Tent" gatherings. Apparently, drawing on the popular book of the same title, women (mostly outside the church) are getting together to create spaces where women, especially young women, can safely talk about, and celebrate, the sacred gifts and challenges of full embodiment.

    I have been daydreaming, since I heard about this idea, and imagining what such a gathering would look like in the context of Christian community. What would it be like, for our young people, if there were special "coming of age" retreats where they could address issues of sexuality in a joyful, sacred context that takes sex seriously? Such a retreat could draw on our heritage of "mystic union" poetry, like the Song of Songs and the writings of the Beguines, who wrote passionate love poems to God... it could be a wonderful environment in which to emphasize the weightiness of God's gift of embodiment, emphasizing that self-care and intimate relationships reflect God's covenant with us.

    For some, structures and attitudes in our congregations or denominations may prevent such an event from happening...still, it's wonderful to imagine how it might alter some young lives for the better.

  5. I would recommend Margaret Farley's "Just Love", if you haven't read it already. She proposes a framework of mutuality, equality, commitment, and justice when thinking through sexuality. While it's not a curriculum, it's a good place to start - I find her framework a good basis when talking about sexuality.

  6. We do an every-other-year retreat for junior high kids on sex/dating/relationships. I highly recommend the retreat setting since it allows for time to build trust, which is really important for the conversation. We've mostly made up our own curriculum, but we also try to talk about sexual orientation, since 'wait until you're married' is kind of hard to imagine if, say, you're not going to be allowed to get married (although my state changed that last fall, woohoo!).

  7. Another book that might be helpful is Making Sense of Sex: Responsible Decision Making for Young Singles by Michael Duffy. I haven't actually read it yet myself, but from listening to the interview with Duffy on the Westminster John Knox Press podcast (, it sounds like it might strike exactly the balance you're looking for -- not assuming that young people are going to "just say no," but neither therefore assuming that "anything goes."

  8. Thank you, all, for your rich and thoughtful contributions to this conversation. So many good resources and ideas here!!


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