I was recently honored to appear as a guest speaker for Heritage Community Services, a secular agency dedicated to teaching character-based life skills. The topic was abstinence.
The gist of the engagement: For much of western civilization a monogamous union under God was considered the central institution of our society. To protect this institution, moral standards were developed, including the taboo associated with sexual activity outside of the marriage. This handy taboo helped protect the sanctity of the family unit by stressing the "specialness" of a loving union under God. Sadly, over the last few decades, in the name of testing the extremes of our personalities, these common standards of morality have largely been ripped to shreds.
We are told now that indulging our sexual whims is life affirming.
So what has been the result of all this sexual affirmation? Well, let us recap: Divorce has skyrocketed. Abortion is legal.
The Guttmacher Institute revealed a dramatic spike in the incidences of oral herpes and gonorrhea amongst teen-agers and traditional family values are breaking apart as increasing numbers of children choose to bypass the hard emotional work of love and opt instead simply to have sex.
Mind you, these children are not nourishing a love of the emotionally deep and fruitful variety. Often, they are not even engaging in mutual interaction. After all, most young children often lack the emotional component to understand sex. Rather, they are simply treating each other as objects to be prodded.
Such inglorious and awkward interactions can lead to a lifelong confusion between sex and love.
"Kids today are growing up without any understanding of the incremental steps of getting to know each other," observed Patricia Hersch, author of "A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence," in a recent USA Today interview.
"We assume they do, but they just don't. They have no way of knowing how to explore their first inklings of wanting to be with each other."
According to a 1995 State Department of Education survey of 2,314 high school students, 73 percent of teens say that peer pressure led them to become sexually active. Perhaps this answers a rather disturbing question posed by Ellen Tift on her "Steps Toward Premarital Abstinence" Web page: "If you've had sex, did you cry after your first time?"
Donald D Robinson, assistant pastor at my church here in Washington, D.C., compares sexually active teen-agers to a wad of gum: "If you are prematurely sexually active, by the time you have become married, you're like a chewed up piece of gum - all of your flavor, freshness and sweetness is gone."
Premarital sex is not only bad for emotional "freshness," it is also bad for health. The Guttmacher Institute reports that cases of oral gonorrhea amongst teens are up, while 10 percent of all 15- to 19- year-old females become pregnant each year.
Meanwhile, more than a thousand teen-agers a day have abortions.
These trends effect not only the private lives of millions of people, but they also have a devastating effect on society as a whole. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged children, wrote in their spring 2001 newsletter: "...when teen-agers have babies, the consequences are felt throughout society. Children born to teen-age parents are more likely to be of low birth weight and to suffer from inadequate health care, more likely to leave high school without graduating, and more likely to be poor, thus perpetuating a cycle of unrealized potential."
For all of these reasons, premarital sex is a matter that must be handled delicately -especially amongst teen-agers. It is important to know the reasons for engaging in sex before going into it. Sex is not something to be treated lightly.
Perhaps then, the best protection that we can offer children, as it regards to sex, is information. Beyond the ubiquitous "plumbing lesson" (Dr. Jocelyn Elder's metaphor) in human anatomy that most children receive, parents should also focus on the psychological components of relationships. Though frank and honest discussion on this topic may be uncomfortable for some parents, they must be careful not to slam the door on their children's burgeoning sexual identity. By the same token, it is not enough to simply tell a child to abstain for the simple reason that children do not grow up in a vacuum. Adolescents will move beyond the advice of their parents and construct new social meanings based upon their environment.
Should this rousing fact cause parents to simply threaten their children (e.g., don't have sex because I said so), then the parent's message will be accepted only in symbolic terms, As a result, the child will focus more on how to avoid getting caught, then on making an informed decision about his or her relationship.
A wiser approach would have the parents balancing refusal strategies with an understanding about the truly beautiful possibilities of human interconnectedness - the act of two people guarding over each other, body and soul. By stressing the joy and satisfaction of being obedient to God, by placing enough value on one's being to treat ones body as something more than an object to be prodded, and by stressing how it is your - and only your - decision to have sex, parents can provide their children with a meaningful perspective with which to navigate the powerful and often confusing realm of adolescent companionship.