Teaching Chastity to Middle Schoolers
When addressing sexuality, let us begin with the end in mind.
As ministers, we desire to participate with the Spirit in forming happy adults who are satisfied with their lives, including their sexual lives, within loving, committed relationships built on faith. In this context, there is no room to frame sex and sexuality as the “forbidden fruit” for which paradise might be forfeited. If sexuality is to be presented as fruit to middle schoolers, it must be in the context of roadside produce that is a wonderful gift from God, but one that remains to be fully ripened at this time.
We must be able to address young men and young women together regarding chastity and sexuality. They have a common need along with our pastoral imperative for education on right relationships. Our starting point here is the beginning: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:27) The sexes were created equally, and there is a worth and dignity demanded for one created in the image of God. There must be life-giving sacredness in the sexual union of two who have been created in the image of their Creator.
Expressing this message to middle schoolers often seems an insurmountable challenge. There are few ages of greater developmental disparity between genders than early adolescence. Making order from the chaos of the various needs of young boys and girls when addressing sexuality is certainly beyond a six day task. Hopefully, it will not leave participants in either fig leaves or shame.
Fewer young people are experiencing their initiation into sexual activity in their high school years.1 Teen birth rates in 2000 were significantly lower than in 1991. More and more young people are getting the message that it's in their own best interests to delay sexual intercourse. Media campaigns splash across billboards, “Virgin: Teach your kids it's not a dirty word.”2 The federal government is now funding abstinence education programming.
Yet the challenge regarding chastity education remains. Despite the promising news above, the United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the fully industrialized world.3 We have a moral imperative to begin to counter our cultural impact upon the rest of the world, especially regarding our sexualized society. There's a pandemic of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa that accounts for 70 percent of the total worldwide population of people living with HIV/AIDS. Our African brothers and sisters find among them 80 percent of the children living with HIV in the world, and they've buried over three-quarters of the more than 20 million people who've died of AIDS.4
Today's Early Adolescents
“I want to be different…exactly like all of my friends.” Younger adolescents are all trying out identities of different sorts. The same seventh grader who is wearing all black in November may resemble the cover of J. Crew in January. This regular identity switch often reflects images of sexuality. Through clothing change, a young person may attempt to project asexuality, or may wish to come across as provocative. Peer groups and the sexual norms that they accept may be altered during these transformations.
Early adolescents are beginning to think in different ways, no longer seeing their moral maps in black and white but in conflicting, confusing colors. They no longer accept easy answers such as “Don't do it!” handed down to them. They sometimes choose attractive answers that are easy for them, but they are willing to assume the tasks of making moral decisions as well.
Early adolescents within our faith communities are on the brink of their development into adulthood, facing physical and emotional changes, and boys and girls face them differently. What they do have in common, however, is that they must also face the challenges of an evolving attraction to one another—with wondrous joys and the stunning grief inherent in the process.
One of the battle cries of the feminist movement was Irina Dunn's “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” This becomes relatively apparent when you gather middle schoolers: the eighth grade young woman has little time, need, or care for that pathetic, geeky, sixth grade boy.
Young women, however, do need relationships. For them, it's not about the utility of the fish or the bike; it's about the sense of balance within their own lives. They need to explore and understand intimacy. They achieve their sense of identity within relationships. They desire intimacy but can be harsh judges regarding one's value and worth. Considerable study has occurred regarding the impact of today's media and culture on young women's self-perception related to physical attractiveness.
Young women develop faster than boys in adolescence, and they have a need for programming that affirms them beyond physical appearance. The earlier a young woman begins to physically develop, the more likely she is to have lower self-esteem. Often she doesn't have the capacity to process and filter the attention she may receive for her appearance.
Young women desire to engage in social settings where they're treated as equals among their peers of both genders. Character development programming and rites of passage that uniquely affirm their social and emotional development as young women are terrific.
In the movie, My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins protests, “Why can't a woman be more like a man?” Talk about taking all the fun, mystery, and wonderful differences out of romance! We need young men, and we need young women.
Boys can be a tricky audience for sexuality information. There is the sixth grader who would suggest (with cracking voice) that if women are from Venus, guys must be from Uranus, and then offer a Beavis-style snicker. Guys often receive esteem-enhancing attention for their physical development and prowess. They're also more quickly recognized for their choices regarding behavior and misbehavior.
They are wired for a sense of autonomy as well as morality. They are interested in morality, and they will attempt to do what is expected of them and what is right—if it is clearly identified for them. Beyond that, if adults and peers are capable of recognizing and celebrating their abilities and accomplishments, they will do so proudly.
Early adolescence is an age where respect is not often shown—by peers, by parents, and by society in general. Early adolescents need to experience the unconditional loving embrace of the faith community before we can ever hope to talk with them about the loving embrace of sexuality.
Equality. Worth. Dignity. Life. Holiness. These are the foundations of forming young disciples around right relationships. Young people are likely to be more concerned about the emotional impact of a breakup than about something so trivial as condom breakage. Violence within dating relationships is likely to attract more attention than the violence of abortion. We're not saying we need to dismiss some topics, but let's begin with issues that speak to young people's hearts rather than address those that weigh upon our own.
Young people need to learn the skills of relationships: saying yes, saying no, making decisions, and discerning whom to trust. Early adolescents have far too much accessibility to graphic examples of love and sexuality within movies, television, and music. They must be equipped to read the sexual scripts within the media for their false messages or trivial consequences. Kids should be encouraged to listen to a Top 40 love song, and then question to themselves and their peers if the love that has merited music is the same love about which angels would harmonize.
The love stories that are found within our faith communities and families must no longer remain under a bushel basket. Early adolescents should be made aware not only of some local legends—of the passions of real and flawed people within their community—but they should also be encouraged to uncover the tales of the true romance of their own parents.
Teaching young people that right relationships can be “other” focused is essential. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) The Christian lifestyle is one that is to be lived for others in order that we might have abundant lives. Young people should know that, as Christians, we're determined to foster abundant life for those created in the image of God, even if that person is our latest crush, boyfriend, or girlfriend.
A commitment to “true love” should be a pledge beyond choices for both a young person and their future spouse. Middle school programming that emphasizes a “good for others” focus, such as team sports, justice and service programming, and community interaction, all have implications and connections for chastity education. If a young person walks away from our chastity programming with an “abundant life for others” mentality, we will have made great strides. In hope, we, together with our younger adolescents, move towards a time when teen pregnancy, alcohol and other drug peer pressure, abortion, date rape, and break-up related suicides are only present in history books.
1“During 1991—2001, the prevalence of sexual experience decreased 16% among high school students.” www.cdc.gov/ mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5138a2.htm
2This might make a good picture. This is from Campaign for our Children and can be found at www.cfoc.org
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.