A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Conversations About Sex

This morning I read a thought provoking article about sex and sex education from the blog "Camels with Hammers."  This blog made me think two things.  First, it made me think, "Wow, I don't think I have ever blogged about sex.  Why haven't I tackled this difficult and somewhat taboo topic?  Huh."    Then, I reflected on the actual content of the above mentioned blog and began to wonder if the Christian church's focus on abstinence has discouraged conversations regarding sex and in the process harmed our ability to have healthy sexual relationships?

I have also been thinking, lately, about young people who might stumble upon my blog.  I wonder if the topics I write about are helpful to them.  Do I raise ideas which they are not ready to ponder?  Do I write about things of which their parents would disapprove?  Do I get myself unfollowed when I use four letter words in my blog or blog title?

I take these issues very seriously because I care about young people.  Yet I have come to the conclusion editing myself is not the answer.  I agree with the above mentioned blogger when he writes about "abstinence only education" not being education at all.  Withholding information from our young people is rarely the right answer.  When we withhold information from them how can we expect them to make informed decisions?  Often young people will find the information elsewhere and when they do, and realize adults have been withholding it from them, their trust in us is eroded.  This is true in regards to conversations about God, the bible, cussing, and yes, even sex.

Even within more progressive church circles without the push for "abstinence only education" there are so many conversations we are not having.  What constitutes a healthy sexual relationship?  What about all those other potential experiences besides actual sexual intercourse?  How does sexual behavior impact present and future relationships?  What are the emotional and mental health risks and benefits of sexual relationships?

Perhaps we think as long as kids aren't having sexual intercourse and hence getting pregnant or getting diseases, the rest they can just figure out for themselves like we did.  But I question if this attitude is not harming our relationships and perhaps even contributing to rape culture.  When I was a teenager, sexuality, for many of us, primarily consisted of boys continuously testing girls' boundaries regarding sexual behavior and girls refusing until self-esteem issues, confusion, weariness, hormones or desire (though few acknowledged the last one existed for girls) took over.  We were taught about abstinence.  We were taught about condoms and sexually transmitted diseases.  Maybe some of us avoided unwanted pregnancies due to this education but we certainly were a long way from receiving the information we needed to empower us to practice healthy relationships in these formative years.

I hope things have changed.  I hope we have a better understanding these days of mutuality, respect, and consent.  From what I hear in music and the media, I have my doubts.   But, if things have improved it is with little help from the church.  When sex is reduced to something forbidden until marriage on the conservative side or "if you must, at least take appropriate precautions"  on the liberal side we miss out on conversations about healthy relationships, we allow horrid behavior to be the norm, and we set our young people up for unhealthy relationships.  We need to be having conversations far beyond abstinence and pregnancy prevention.  We need to have conversations about mutuality, respect, and open dialogue.  We need to have conversations about mental health, emotional well being, knowing oneself, and  decision making.  We need to let go of sexist ideas and realize sexual behaviors can be healthy and desirable for all genders and are not uncontrollable impulses for any gender.  "Just don't do it" has been an ineffective teaching method since...well one could say since Adam and Eve.  "Whatever, just be safe," is little better.

What do you wish you would have been told about sex when you were a teenager?  If you are a teenager, how is your experience different than what I described happening when I was young?  What are the hallmarks of a healthy sexual relationship?  And will I get all sorts of unhelpful spam after using words like sex and sexuality in my blog?:)


Charlene said...

Ha! I saw your title and immediately thought of the Camels with Hammers blog post; I see you already saw that! ;)

What do I wish I'd been told about sex when I was a teenager? That, while sex is kind a a big part of growing up, it doesn't determine your worth as a person. That different people have different kinds of sexuality (ace, gay, bi, straight, etc.) and different levels of desire and that's ok. That it's ok to have sex even if you don't want to get pregnant (or are not willing to get pregnant) and realistic info on how reliable various contraceptives are (also that gay sex doesn't produce unwanted pregnancies, but disease is of course still an issue to consider). That some people NEVER want children, regardless of their marital status, and it's ok for them to be in sexual relationships if that's what they choose. That sex is just one of many kinds of intimacy--not even necessarily the most intimate, depending on how it's practiced. That women can desire sex for its own sake, and enjoy it. That a woman who desires sex may in fact have fine self-esteem, and that she gives nothing away by engaging in consensual sexual activity. That when we talk about "choice" in a sexual context, we mean that a woman has more choices than "none", "one", and "all"--she can in fact choose this person and not that one, this day and not that one, and she does not need to give any justifications for her choices. That lust is not, in fact, a problem: it's just another emotion that you have to learn to deal with so that it doesn't cause a problem. (Not that I was taught healthy ways of dealing with ANY emotions when I was growing up.) That men may have varying levels of sexual desire just as women do, and that's ok too (it's not a reflection on my worth or desirability as a person). That clothing (or lack thereof) does not ever constitute consent.

I could probably go on. I wasn't taught much about sexual relationships when I was a teen ("wait until marriage", and the mechanics of the act, are about all), and I think all of what I picked up from the church culture I was in ("gay is inherently unhealthy" "women just want emotional relationships" "men just want sex" "it's ok to get pregnant once you're married" "sexual incompatibility doesn't exist" "premarital sex will take away from your marriage" "lust is committing adultery in your heart") turned out to be completely and utterly untrue.

So what constitutes a healthy sexual relationship? That the people involved are honest (with themselves and each other), are communicating effectively, and are enthusiastically (not coerced-ly) consenting to everything that happens. That's it in a nutshell. What I'd like to see taught more in schools is tools for knowing yourself and your desires and for communicating effectively. That knowledge is (or was when I grew up) sorely lacking in the educational system, and is invaluable in almost every context as an adult, not just in sexual relationships. Also, if adults modeled more matter-of-fact conversations about sex, maybe it would be easier for teens to have the necessary conversations (about contraception and protection and diseases) before they get involved sexually.

Sorry for that wall of text. I could go on (and on). This topic is one about which I feel quite strongly, and one on which I think the church utterly failed me. I got most of my sexual education after the age of 30 (which is saying something, considering I was married at 28 and not a virgin then), from reading blogs by younger women.

Sheri Ellwood said...

Thanks, Charlene! You articulated that all very well. I so wish someone would have talked to us about the "enthusiastically consenting" part. So important and so not the message we received from media, peers, and the adults who could have been teaching us this were mostly conspicuously silent. I was fortunate to have a mom who talked to me about some of this but not all and that is one voice in a sea of other messages.
I like your definition of a healthy sexual relationship. This may be challenging for teens since it is difficult to be honest with yourself when you are still figuring out who you are. But maybe that is where the schools teaching more "tools for knowing yourself and your desires and for communicating effectively" comes in.

Charlene said...

Yeah, it probably is more difficult for teens to know what they want and communicate well, simply because they're still figuring things out. However, if that's presented to them as an achievable goal (and the tools to do so are taught), I think that would make it easier for them to say, "I'm not sure yet", "I'm not ready yet", "I think this is what I want, but I need to know I can back out if I change my mind", or any number of other true and honest things between "always" and "never".

Laurie said...

I wish someone had told me that, just because a guy wants tohave sex with you, it doesn't mean he is impressed with you. I wish someone had told me my libido would likely disapear as early as 30. I wish someone had pointed out that a man likely expects a certain amount of sexual activity in a marriage, and it is unfair to be uncooperative in that regard. I wish I had been made more consious of the giving aspects of sex, and less focused on myself. Good topic. I also like Charleen's point about not needing to justify one's decisions about sex

Sheri Ellwood said...

Laurie, I definitely agree about the part about a guy wanting to have sex with you is not necessarily because he thinks your great. Being groped is not a compliment either. Thanks for the comments!

Anonymous said...

For some interesting reading on the effects of being raised in the Purity culture, try Love Joy Feminism by Libby Anne.