Recently, during an open question box activity in a secondary school, I came across a question that really made me think. Among the usual questions about STIs, oral sex, masturbation and contraception was a simple statement: ‘I don’t get why sex is such a big thing.’ How would you respond to that question? Why is sex ‘such a big thing’? Young people today are swamped by messages and images to do with sex and sexual activity. Social media, 24-7 television and unlimited internet access mean that young people can find out about relationships and sex from a multitude of places. However, I’m not convinced that the Church has caught up with this. Within the Christian community, there is no doubt that sex is a ‘big thing,’ but I often worry about how the Church approaches teaching and talking about sex, especially with young people.
Playing the field of dreams
In the schools I work in, the majority of complaints from parents about sex education have come from the parents who state their Christian values. Facilitating sessions on sexual health in schools is like walking through a minefield, even though guidance from the Secretary of State for Education recommends that all schools provide it. How much harder it is then to open up discussion and awareness with young people in the church community.
I think the most common concern within the Church is like the famous line from the film Field of Dreams, ‘If you build it, he will come.’ The way some churches view it is, ‘If we talk about it, they will do it.’ However that attitude is not realistic in today’s culture. With information about sex and relationships being abundant from so many different sources, I feel it is paramount that the Church gets on board and starts really helping young people to discern why sex is a ‘big thing’ and to start discussing how they can make proactive and positive decisions around sex.
A different field
I think we need to start from a different point of view. Many churches and youth groups are so concerned about open discussion that they fall back on the traditional way of teaching about sex in the Christian setting. This mainly comprises of someone shouting, ‘DON’T DO IT!’ and leaving the room. This is like asking someone not to think about a big red balloon – how many of you are now thinking of a big red balloon? We can’t just keep saying ‘DON’T’; we need to help and support young people navigate through the issues around why ‘DON’T’ might be an extremely good option. The young people I meet regularly amaze and inspire me with their insight, understanding and attitudes, yet I feel that the Church often overlooks their wisdom and experience and falls back on the paternalistic attitudes of shelter and protection, thinking the best way to achieve this is by withholding information. In today’s society, this is short-sighted.
How about discussing what makes a good lover or what sexual pleasure is?
So how do we talk about sex with young people? Here, in true Anglican style, are three ideas that I’ve found really helpful:
Puberty and adolescence
This fabulous time in a young person’s life is when they start the journey to sexual maturity, from a child to an adult. Many young people find this a really weird time in their lives; they are physically changing in ways that they might find tricky or even distressing. Emotionally, everything is up in the air with bizarre mood changes and attitudes. And then the icing on the cake: they are becoming sexually aroused and interested in other people. However, from my experiences with young people, they get a miniscule amount of information on this process of change. At school it will be covered in biology from the scientific angle, at home they may be lucky and have parents who discuss it with them, but this is not as common as I would hope. At church, they probably get nothing. If anything, they start getting the talks about sexual sin and immorality.
So what does this mean to a young person at this crucial stage of development? The worry is that it makes a connection in young people’s minds that growing up and going through puberty is bad or not a desirable thing, as it stigmatises being interested in sex. In the 21st Century, we have ever-growing issues with body image and mental health, which are often linked to body size, shape and perceived attitudes to what is sexually desirable. Those within the Church are not immune to this and we need to help young people to build resilience and appreciation for their bodies. The passage from Genesis 1:27 is often quoted in teaching to emphasise many different points, ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’
I would love to use this passage to start emphasising to young Christians that being made in God’s image is a fantastic image to have of oneself, to help them see more of what is good in them than what is bad or undesirable. So could I suggest that we start becoming ‘puberty positive’? Let’s encourage young people to see this time of change as a positive thing and support them in developing into confident and responsible young adults. Let’s help them unpick what concerns them about growing up and also what excites them. Let’s discuss growing into a sexually mature person as a positive step forward and not mix up becoming sexually mature with becoming sexually sinful.
The real world
Let’s put our teaching on sex and relationships into some context of the world young people are growing up in. The majority of young people we meet today have had some contact with sexual imagery or conversations around relationships. It might range from simply seeing a sexy advert for perfume on a billboard to unfiltered access to hardcore online pornography. Even if a young Christian teenager is attempting to steer clear of sexually explicit imagery or make decisions about relationships that reflect an attitude of delaying sex until marriage, I can guarantee they will have friends and acquaintances who will not have made the same choices. This is a tough place to be. Often these teens are great friends and very supportive of their mates, especially when those friends are struggling with the outcomes of those relationships and choices. They often feel stuck between a rock and a hard place because they feel uncomfortable about discussing it with older Christians in a position of authority, as sex is such a taboo subject. They worry that an older Christian will disapprove of their friends and this gives them conflicting interests. At a moment when a young Christian might really need the advice and support of an older Christian, they can feel isolated and guilty.
Not talking about sex stigmatises it and makes a connection in young people’s minds that growing up and going through puberty is a bad thing
We need to be talking about things more realistically and not in a one-off, separate session, making it an exclusive or somewhat illicit topic. I suspect many youth workers and teens have a love / hate relationship with having to deliver / attend the ‘sex talk’.
Honesty is, honestly, the best policy
We need to be honest with ourselves about the objective of delivering talks on sex and relationships to young people, especially in the church setting. Time to be truthful: is the objective to stop them having sex, no matter what and by whatever means possible? If we’re honest, an unplanned pregnancy in the youth group will be judged by many as a disaster, a failing on behalf of the young people involved, their families and the youth leadership. How harsh and upsetting for all involved.
Instead, could the objective be to encourage young people to be accurately informed, knowledgeable, empowered and respected in the hope that this will encourage them to make good choices because they see the benefits of sexual awareness, committed relationships and, possibly, just possibly, sexual abstinence?
Christian teens have told me (and I remember myself from being in the church youth group) that they see little benefit in being talked ‘at’ by someone who said they did it all wrong and that these young people shouldn’t do the same! Often the young people are astute enough to realise that the speaker has many unresolved issues about their past experiences and that although the talk was delivered with all the best intentions, it didn’t give them any strategies or reasons for delaying sexual activity, it simply stated, ‘Don’t go there!’
This makes it extremely hard for young people to feel able to come for support and help when they do ‘get things wrong’ or are struggling with issues around sex. There is a fear of shame and judgement. Surely we want to offer love and redemption.
There is now a huge amount of good evidence from organisations such as the Sex Ed Forum and the PSHE Association, as well as the NSPCC, that talking honestly about growing up, relationships and sex actually equips young people with knowledge that helps them delay sexual activity. Possibly more importantly, it also helps them stay safe. Talking about sex and relationships also helps address the massive issue of safeguarding. Historically, this is something that the Church has not had the best track record on. I am an ardent supporter of safeguarding, even though it is a drag doing all the paperwork and causes some people stress. But it’s definitely a positive. We need our young people to be able to recognise what is acceptable behaviour and what is not and we can only do this by talking with them and creating a place where they feel free to talk to us.
So let me ask you a question. If you are a church leader or a youth worker, what do you think the reaction would be if you devoted a whole term’s programme to discussing relationships and sex? Obviously within that programme you would discuss the theology and biblical aspects of sex and relationships (good luck on that one) but what about having a guest speaker (a suitable professional) come in to answer their questions on contraception and STIs or another speaker to discuss sexuality and orientation? How about discussing what makes a good lover or what is sexual pleasure? Or a frank and open discussion with strategies to help young people cope with issues around pornography? I suspect you might now be feeling slightly apprehensive for a number of reasons. But I want to encourage you to be bold. Ask yourself, how can we support our young people in getting information about sex and relationships? Honestly ask about whether, as a church, you are meeting their needs.
Going back to that original statement – sex is a big thing. It has the potential to affect all of us emotionally, physically and spiritually, so we must talk about it. I appreciate that I have the training and experience to talk confidently and freely about such topics but I didn’t always have these things. I want to encourage you to get more information and training in this area too. Do check out ‘secular’ organisations such as the FPA (Family Planning Association) and the SEF (Sex Ed Forum). Esteem Resource Network, a fabulous faith-based organisation also runs training, as do Oasis College and Romance Academy. Let’s be proactive and positive and help young people to see how they are truly amazing and that they have the opportunity to make great things happen, not through fear or lack of knowledge, but through discernment, respect and support from the wider church family.
Esther Hardy works as an independent relationships and sexual health educator in schools around London and the Home Counties. She became involved in sexual health after becoming a volunteer with a crisis pregnancy centre at her home church. allaboutsre.co.uk. We continued this conversation on the new Premier Youthwork Podcast, available at premieryouthwork. com/podcast.