Boxers or Briefs? The Loss of Innocence

Youth Specialties
October 7th, 2009

The other night I was watching TV with my wife and there were two attractive young women sitting on a park bench, trying to figure out if the guys passing by were wearing boxers or briefs. I was intrigued; how do they tell? Type of guy? Type of pants? Type of…what? I asked my wife, “Do women do that?” “Of course not,” she said incredulously.

Reflecting back, I realize that my wife and I come from a generation for whom underwear was not an acceptable topic of conversation unless you were shopping for some. But I’ve been exploring this issue, because as a youth ministry professional for almost thirty years, I definitely need to be up on the current culture. This “boxers or briefs” thing is everywhere. After all, ten years ago, candidate (soon to be president) Bill Clinton was quizzed about his underwear on MTV. Why does anyone ask? Why does anyone care? And whose business is it anyway?

Why is our youth culture obsessed with these types of concerns? I think we’ve lost our innocence, which is showing up in lots of ways.


I’ve heard public school teachers talk about the vulgarity in the hallways, I’ve heard it in our church van, and I saw the article on 20/20 about students and their language. I’ve seen the ongoing controversy about song lyrics. Why should we be surprised? The movie The Blair Witch Project only used the “F” word 79 times. As I write this, a new movie has premiered andScreen It! tells me it uses that word 129 times. These movies are rated R but seem to be either full of teenagers or are on teen’s “must rent” list as soon as they’re released on video.

I learned from a student culture group that one of the more popular weekend activities for some high school kids is to watch pornographic movies and try to copy what they see. Didn’t every youth worker in America weep over PBS’s “The Lost Kids of Rockdale County,” but know that those could be our students doing the same? Where did their innocence go? They’ve lost it.

Going Numb

Unfortunately, many of us have become numb to these constant assaults on our convictions; we’ve had to counsel students who’ve been raped, abused, victims of incest, you name it. I’ve had molested kids, promiscuous straight kids, promiscuous gay kids—what’s left? One high school boy was severely addicted to masturbation. I quit counting how many girls have gotten pregnant. I’ve been called to a gay motel in the middle of the night to rescue a very foolish 15-year-old. Are there any innocent kids left other then home-schooled recluses whose parents have overreacted and decided that no cultural exposure beats bad cultural exposure?

Don’t misunderstand me, home schooling is definitely the answer for many kids and families, but if we totally withdraw from the culture, how will we impact it? I know that many home schooled students are aggressively reaching into their cultures, but I seldom see innocent, fresh-faced students as I speak across the country. Was it Tony Campolo who said, “It’s never been so tough to be a kid!”?

Making a Mess

This past summer I was speaking at a youth camp. At this point in my ministry, I didn’t think I could be surprised anymore, but a 15-year old boy asked to speak with me. He was small-framed, blonde, and blue-eyed, actually rather fresh-faced. He shyly shared with me that he had been having sex with men since he was 12. He didn’t know how many men; at the mall, at the movies, in his home while his parents were away. I wanted to take him home with me, so my wife and I could re-parent him, to protect him, and perhaps restore some vestige of innocence to his tattered soul.

How does a kid from a church-going family get into such a mess? He didn’t fit any of the patterns I knew might set him up for a promiscuous, dangerous lifestyle like this; he had lost his innocence, and lost it badly. I wept for him and for what he and so may other kids have lost. Any child who becomes sexually active and so promiscuous so young is in trouble.

And the Dress…

I’ve seen middle school girls at school and in the mall that are all dressed like Britney Spears (who, interestingly, says she’s a virgin and a Christian, yet often looks like a prostitute). Last week, I watched an interview onGood Morning America with Britney’s fashion consultant who was telling mothers how to buy their middle school daughters school clothes that were “sexy” but “not too sexy.” Are there really mothers who think this is good advice? There must be—the clothes are selling like crazy.

According to teen culture, sexy rules! If you don’t have “it,” you’re nobody.

What About the Guys?

When I was in high school, one of the major fashion mistakes a guy could make was to publicly expose the waistband on his Fruit of the Looms—but not anymore. I read somewhere that this trend of wearing low slung pants with underwear exposed came from the prison culture. The prisoners purposely wore larger pants so they could be ready for a “quickie” with another convict at the, uh, drop of their pants. Many Rap performers adopted this because they had relatives who had been in prison, and they wanted to be cool. The trend then spilled over from the urban culture into the mainstream through Hip Hop/Rap music. Just check out the Hip Hop videos on MTV.

I shared this with a student group at a retreat last year—mostly urban kids, and the guys were definitely hip. Watching basketball was strange; most of the aerobic activity came from pulling up their jeans. I’ve never seen so many “Tommy” boxer waistbands. At a session dealing with cultural influence and our biblical response, I explained what I had learned about the baggy pants look. The guys all jumped up, frantically yanking up their pants. I noticed the girls reacting positively to this and asked them why. One girl yelled out, “We don’t like to see guys’ underwear!” which drew emphatic female applause.

In the Shower Room

One of my former students who is now a youth pastor told me a disconcerting experience he had while on a retreat with some of his high school guys. He came out of the bathroom after his shower wearing only a towel and the guys freaked. One actually fled the room. When he asked what was the big deal, they told him that nobody did that. You had to get dressed in the bathroom. When he told them about taking showers in the high school locker room after sports practice, they really freaked and accused him of being gay. I can recall some great locker room times; the roughhousing, the laughter, the secret realization that you were “normal” compared to all the other guys, the sense of masculine acceptance.

Has our culture turned our adolescent guys into homophobes, terrified that someone will think them gay if they are ever, for any reason, naked in the presence of another man? And we wonder why violence towards gays has escalated. It fascinates me that the seemingly total lack of modesty in the culture has caused a paralyzing modesty in young men.

Where Does it Come From?

1. Our students have been exposed to an increasing diet of nudity, not only in television and films, but pornography is not uncommon to many. What woman could ever live up to those airbrushed beauties in Penthouse? What man could ever compare to those cinematically-enhanced studs in the porn flicks? Although most of my speaking is to “churched” kids, when I mention pornography, I know that the look I see on their faces is more than shock, it’s often guilt and shame from knowing what I’m talking about.

We’ve lost our innocence. Never before in youth ministry have we had to deal with these types of concerns. But deal we must.

For some of us, it’ll mean confronting our own demons of moral compromise. I’ve personally had to get rid of my internet service provider because I cannot handle the barrage of temptations that are readily available.

Did you get the half-naked Britney Spears in your email box? Have you been tempted to visit www.enlargeyourpenis.com? Aren’t you just a little curious? Haven’t you told yourself, “I need to know what’s there for the ministry’s sake?” Yeah, right.

2. Today’s parents are baby boomers and busters, raised in the post war, postmodern culture of moral relativism in which everything of moral substance was up for grabs. The boomers were the first generation that pretty much had everything, but at the cost of desertion by their parents’ desperation to get them all that stuff. Then came the busters, the first generation that can’t remember when there wasn’t television, who were just getting over being stoned, whether on pot or power, as they began to have children. This has all helped to make our students the most morally rudderless generation in recent history.

3. Our culture has been invaded with homosexual information and comedy, causing many teenaged guys to wonder about themselves and their friends when they otherwise wouldn’t have. Remember Jerry Seinfield saying, “What? Me, gay? No! Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” By trying to normalize homosexuality, have we made heterosexuality seem abnormal? Do our kids ask, “Am I gay?” when they otherwise wouldn’t.

I first noticed this in the mid ’80s while doing youth work in Florida where there was a large and politically powerful gay lobby. I do think we need to be aware and sensitive to students who may struggle with sexual orientation issues and to minister effectively to them and work with them as they sort out this part of their lives. However, we mustn’t let the culture hold the church captive to political correctness. Start counseling ministries and support groups, but don’t make our young men feel shameful for being normal.

What Do We Do?

We must search our hearts, lifestyles, bookshelves, and video storage cabinets (Ps. 139:23-24) to see if there is any area of compromise that God wants us to face before we confront the situation in our ministry.

We’ll have to take biblical stands on cultural issues. Some of these stands will make us uncomfortable, and our students, their parents, and even our leaders angry. As youth ministers, we must know what the Bible says on any cultural issue. If it isn’t clear, then what does it imply? If it doesn’t imply anything, then what principles can we derive from what is in God’s handbook for “life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3-4). We’ll have to face the fire of public opinion, the angry elder, the elder’s angry daughter, the elder’s angry wife, and maybe even the pastor. And always remember, it’s a Medal of Honor to get fired by some people.

We’ll have to require our workers to have a higher standard than the culture requires of them. A 20-something youth pastor that I’m mentoring sent me a covenant that he wants all of his workers to sign. It’s very strong on biblical purity and dress standards for the youth leaders. He knows he’ll catch some flak, but he says it’s worth it to have adults who can become models of what he believes is God’s standard. Granted, there can be differences of opinion, based on theology, geography, and personal discretion. God gives us liberty to choose as long as it doesn’t cause our brother or sister to stumble (1 Cor. 8:9). As youth workers, we have a wonderful privilege to teach, model, and sometimes defend God’s perspective on morality. We must do that without reservation, which can only be done with biblical knowledge, personal conviction, and the willingness to sacrifice job security and pension benefits.

We’ll have to face the angry parents of the angry kids who’ve already spent a gazillion dollars on school clothes that we think should be recycled into dust cloths. We’ll have to do this with love, compassion, and willingness to compromise, if necessary, to keep a measure of unity in the Body of Christ.

So don’t be surprised or blindsided. Be brave in this battle, fellow youth workers. Only God can give us the courage to take this stand. And our choice of underwear doesn’t matter.

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MICHAEL HOLT retired from Youth Ministry after nearly 40 years as a youth pastor, a youth communicator, and a professor of Youth Ministry at Columbia International University. He no longer accepts speaking engagements, but does offer free advice and counseling to youth pastors. You may contact him at mjholt3@juno.com or on Facebook.

Youth Specialties

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