The Safest Sex Ed. Isn’t Safe

October 7th, 2009


A case for aggressive, church-based sex education where you can talk about anything—or at least about more than you probably talk about now.

Mike Boyle attended his first church service when he was seven days old. In spite of sleeping through it, Mike actually did grow up with a tremendous hunger for and love of the spiritual. He willingly participated in church events, considered scriptural strategies for problem solving, and rarely missed his nightly prayers…until he was 16.

Although prized for his size by his fellow football team members, Mike felt out of sync with many of his buddies off the field. Throughout his sophomore year, he had successfully straddled a fine, uncertain line between nodding approval and actual participation in sexual play and drug and alcohol use at after-game parties. After a particularly sweet victory he shared with his teammates in the fall of his junior year, however, the high spirits suddenly focused on Mike as his teammates teased and cajoled: “Try just one drink.” “What harm can one drink do?” “You think you're better than us, Mike?”

This time finesse, bluffs, and excuses didn't bail him out. To the delight of his friends, Mike toasted the victory with his first beer. Mike's guilt and confusion were interrupted by the cheery voice of Carla. “Hi, guy. Great game!” Mike was flattered to be noticed by such a cute girl. Buoyed by his beer-assisted perspective, he put his big arm around her. When he met no resistance, he thought to himself, What's the harm, just this once.

Easing down the hall into an empty bedroom, Mike felt an explosion of desire ignite within his body. Carla's body seemed to meld into his. Suddenly he heard his youth pastor Tony's voice: “How far would you like someone to go with your future wife?” Startled, Mike pulled back, half expecting Tony to be in the room, but only Carla was there looking a little startled herself at the sudden change of mood. Using all the determination he could muster, Mike disentangled himself from Carla while mumbling, “Excuse me. I've got to go.” And he all but ran down the hall and out of the house.

Mike's troubled year came to a head when he made a choice regarding the part that God—his God—was to play in his life. No longer would the unquestioned beliefs of his parents or his church direct his behavior, but his own personal relationship with his Creator would steer him. Mike's sister, Melissa, adored her big brother. Like Mike, Melissa's nonschool activities were mainly centered around church, where people enjoyed her happy disposition and innocent joy of life. For some reason, though, any discussion of sex embarrassed her. Although she listened politely, she was obviously relieved when the topic changed.

During the summer of her fifteenth year while attending her usual denominational camp, to her embarrassment and delight the camp hunk singled her out to be his girl—at least for those two weeks of summer. She had no experience with anyone like Steve. He seemed so mature and innately sexy—not like those silly boys from her church that communicated by making obnoxious armpit noises and who lusted only after extra s'mores by the campfire.

Be My Woman 
Unable to resist both Steve's appeal and her acquired status when she was seen with him, Melissa let herself get drawn into greater and greater physical intimacy. After several days of playful and occasionally passionate kissing, Steve's hand made it up her T-shirt. She felt shocked and guilt-ridden. “What are you doing?” Melissa demanded. Steve immediately backed off. “I'm sorry,” he said sincerely. “It's just that you are so beautiful—you're everything I've ever wanted in a woman. I can't keep my hands off you.”

The word “woman” made Melissa's knees buckle. This wasn't supposed to happen with Christians. Why hadn't someone warned her about how powerful her physical desire for him could be? Looking straight into her eyes, he dealt his final card: “Melissa, can you really tell me that something that feels so good is wrong?” Preying on her confusion, he continued. “We both love God. We're both spiritually committed; this can't change that. Our feelings and the chance that we could come from so far and be here together now are proof we were made to be together.” The dinner bell jarred them back to reality—or was this what was real? At that moment Melissa wasn't sure.

We face few things in life for which we receive so little instruction as the profoundly complex experience of our sexuality. Sexual behavior is at least as significant as driving; yet for individuals attempting to navigate sex, society imposes no age limit, only sporadically offers specific education, and cannot hinge our participation on passing written and practical tests. If irresponsibility or ignorance on the road is hazardous, sexual behavior not rooted in knowledge and responsibility is even more threatening.

Although the American Psychological Association has concluded that adults and adolescents approach decision making in the same way, and that they have the same ability to make good decisions, substantial research indicates that this is simply not so. The following was revealed when teenagers were asked to participate in a moral decision-making experiment:

  • Teenagers were less capable of seeing the solution from the perspective of others.
  • A younger teen, more often than an older teen or adult, is more likely to consult a variety of people when wrestling with a decision.
  • Teens making pregnancy decisions and estimating their ability to have and raise a child use different criteria than adults.
  • Adolescents are less likely to consider the future and less likely to procrastinate in making decisions than an adult.

In other words, teenagers need guidance and input from mature individuals outside their home. Less than one in four high school graduates has abstained in sexual encounters. While Mike's story affirms that many young men overcome the pressures to be involved sexually, Michelle's story illustrates that parental instruction in morality doesn't guarantee children will remain morally pure. Naivety and embarrassment over personal sexuality leaves a person vulnerable.

Although kids are more involved sexually than we would like them to be, not everyone is implicated or active with multiple partners. Instead of asking “Have you had sex?” a survey would deliver a more accurate (and hopeful) picture if it asked “How many times last week [or month] did you have sex?” or “Excluding forced sex, have you had sex?”

One study in particular compared data from before 1970 with data collected between 1970 and 1980; it indicates that, although 15-to-19-year-old boys of the latter period of time were more likely to have had sex than 15-to-19-year-olds before 1970, they had fewer partners and less frequent intercourse—with only 20% having had a sexual partner in all of the preceding 12 months.

The point is that policy makers, school officials, and parents must resist approaching discussions of sexuality assuming that every student is having intercourse.

Researchers have observed that certain behaviors are precursors to having sex. When Johnny or Jenny insists on loosening ties with family in favor of friends, that is a normal stage of growing up. But when a young person begins valuing independence to a point of participating in nonconventional behavior (indulging in marijuana or alcohol, for instance) and rejecting or indicating less interest in or involvement with conventional behavior and institutions (like bringing friends home or attending church), the odds of sexual involvement increase.

Particularly for young women, the attitudes of their friends influence their stance about the appropriateness of premarital sex. Although a higher social class tends to curtail sexual activity (perhaps because they have hopes and dreams for the future that seem attainable), girls from this class who grow up in homes where sex is presented negatively and whose parents would be classified as very strict proved more likely to become involved sexually than girls from homes with a more relaxed attitude about sex—a truth that should not be overlooked by any youth pastor whose priority is to influence behavior rather than produce guilt. Sexual misconduct is not just sexual sin; it is alienation from God and his plan for how people are to love one another.

Having misjudged and misinterpreted reality, Melissa certainly felt shame and guilt. Sensing no setting within her church family where she could discuss her experience without total rejection, she kept her pain hidden. Melissa's sexual behavior following the incident reflected the unresolved issues she struggled with. Her ensuing participation in sexual intercourse was for distinctly nonsexual reasons. She attempted to sexually please her dates in order to receive relief for her wounded self-image. For a moment she would feel in charge and empowered. Temporary fixes are just that, however—momentary. Too bad she hadn't felt free enough to talk about that first disturbing experience. If kids are to bring their “mistakes” out to be processed, understood, and then forgiven, the church must contain youth workers and other caring adults willing to walk the tightrope of practicing unconditional love while at the same time upholding sexual standards.

Melissa had been exposed to an affirming message about the appropriateness and beauty of sex. Her parents modeled a strong and loving intact marriage. They encouraged her to achieve and to believe in herself. They provided some excellent resources and information about sexual functioning. All these experiences statistically increase the chance of responsible sexual behavior. Her church and her family didn't impart to her, however, the truth that neither spiritual orientation nor religious context provides ironclad protection from misuse of sexuality by others or oneself. “Because I believe, this can't or won't happen to me”—this simplistic message has tripped up many otherwise fine pastors, let alone naive young people.

Still, church attendance remains a useful analytic indicator of potential sexual activity. Few social scientists, for example, dispute the body of evidence that indicates a significant negative correlation between church attendance and the frequency of sexual involvement among teenagers. It is unclear, however, exactly what aspect of religious behavior and belief makes the difference in teenagers' sexual behavior. Furthermore, the more fuzzy a church makes its teaching on sexuality, the less impact church involvement will have on a teenager. In other words, youths will be less susceptible to cultural influences if they clearly understand the alternatives and the reasons for them.

(It should be noted that many studies that rate religious teenagers as basically “unhealthy” and assign a negative component to their sexuality do so because such teenagers typically admit to being self-disciplined and altruistic, and to valuing humility and obedience to authority.)

Like cream rising in milk, internalization of a personal belief system is the rich ingredient that regularly surfaces.

One ironic observation about the effect of religion on adolescent sexuality: Church-attending teens who do become sexually active are less likely to use contraceptive devices or to seek medical attention in choosing a birth-control method. Which means that sexually active church-attending teens put themselves at greater risk for pregnancy and disease than the average teenager would.

Now for the good news.

Young people who know what they believe and why—and who are supported by a reference group that reinforces morality—are regularly motivated by that reference group to modify their behavior to reflect their group's values. A values-laden sex education is the only approach that really does what it says it does: actually change behavior instead of merely instruct. Kids avoid becoming involved sexually because they see meaning and purpose in not doing so.

Good leadership facilitates a realistic outlook of what it takes to live life in a way that is considered downright strange in today's culture. The task of staying out of dishonoring sexual situations is made harder or easier depending on a young person's previous choices and on the situations in which the teen is regularly involved. Realistic role playing of sticky situations has been shown to be effective and practical in educating teens. Sexually responsible kids have been taught that their spirituality is not all they need to keep them out of trouble; they recognize the need for support from others who have trodden the same path.

What about teens who have been driving (sexually) without a license? They need an advocate to love them, someone open enough to help them know the God of second (and more) chances, the God who is teacher and friend. Think about it. To whom can young people turn for counsel in a young person's best interest? You are irreplaceable when by listening you facilitate honest evaluation of what a young person chooses and why, and when you encourage teens to take responsibility for their choices.

The payoff for your ministry is enormous. Contrary to conventional wisdom, research affirms that religious young people who are encouraged to examine and integrate their spirituality increase their odds for making responsible sexual choices as youths and consequently increase their odds of having a healthy marriage, of remaining faithful within it, and of enjoying their sexual relationship.

When as the representative of the church you present the message about human sexuality without embarrassment and with openness and honesty, kids can operate less on mislearned information and miscommunication and will be less likely to fall for abuse and misuse of sexuality. Healthy sexuality encompasses freedom from both compulsion and repression; it encourages creativity, joy, and peace; it risks vulnerability and relationship. Young people are lost to religion when church leaders remain silent, timid, and negative about an issue so basic to teen lives. Beyond directive teaching, leaders must model the much-needed openness. Youth leaders' lives must reflect satisfaction with marital sexuality and acceptance of themselves as sexually vital people. Doing so does not diminish their experience of God.

Youth workers, who are among America's religious leaders, have every reason to make the connection of faith with human sexuality. The evidence that faith positively impacts marriage and sexual relationships, and consequently the stability of the family, is strong and factual.

This article is adapted from a forthcoming book about sexual abuse, tentatively titled Behind Closed Doors.


A licensed marriage, family, and child counselor, Mary Ann Mayo has a private practice that concentrates on women's issues, with a focus on sexual therapy. She has written several books, including the student bookCaution: Sexual Choices Can Be Hazardous to Your Health.



More Stuff

“Bring In Adult Panels”
by Mike Woodruff

You're probably spending most of your time trying to keep high school kids from doing what high school kids spend most of their time wanting to do, so I will not keep you long. Besides, I know how difficult a job it is, especially in an age of high school clinics, condom ads, Playboy videos and 900 numbers. But there is hope. The following strategies—while not fail safe—have been field tested and, properly administered, should help you keep your youth group's testosterone level within reason.

Teach about sex.

Despite what the media lead us to believe, most high schoolers are clueless when it comes to love and sex. They may have a biological understanding of the mating habits of a frog, for instance, and many spend hours pouring over pornography or experimenting in the back seat of someone's car. But as a group they are miles away from a healthy understanding of intimacy and sexuality.

So teach on sex. Once every three years I devoted a quarter to a series entitled “Love, Sex, and Marriage: Not Necessarily in That Order.” The talks are funny—humor relieves the tension—and specific. I want people to realize that this topic is not dirty or embarrassing to God. My main goal, in fact, is to convince them that their Creator is not only in favor of sex, but that it's his desire that people experience an exciting and dynamic sex life, free from shame or worry. It's my belief that if people view sex as a tremendously positive gift from a loving and protecting Creator, they will be more likely to wait.


  • Hold a separate session for men and women. This helps everyone feel more at ease talking about lust, masturbation, accountability, and the like. Let them hear firsthand from the opposite sex, however, by bringing in a panel of women to speak to the men's group and a panel of men to speak to the women.

  • Teach on what to look for in a mate. I've entitled a three-week miniseries “How to Pick a Partner.” Talks include the following:
    “The Spiritual Dynamic”: Why Christians should only date and marry other Christians.
    “Common Sense Compatibility”: What qualities will really matter in the long run.
    “Animal Magnetism and Other Factors”: What mistakes people make in choosing a spouse.

  • Assemble a Q&A panel of two men and two women. Encourage people to send in their questions, then bring in the panel to provide as many answers as they can. The panelists should include both married and single people, as well as a person who is divorced and at least one person who didn't wait until marriage before having sex.

Conduct surveys.

Do a survey to find out—

  • The students' level of sexual involvement.
  • What they are looking for in a partner.
  • How much they really understand about sex.

Ron Ralson, a traveling Campus Crusade for Christ speaker, has surveyed thousands of college students and uses the results in a popular talk entitled “What 20,000 Women Are Looking For in a Man.” Tim Downs, also of CCC, has used a sexuality quiz as the basis for an outreach talk. He distributes the multiple-choice quiz at the beginning of the meeting and gives them time to fill it out. During the next 45 minutes, he not only gives the correct answers—complete with quotes from all of the popular magazines—but he also weaves in a positive, biblical perspective on sex.

Hold preengagement classes.

We stopped offering a premarital class once we realized that by the time they showed up at our workshop, it was usually too late to talk them out of a bad match. Now we offer a preengagement seminar in its place. Originally the class was six weeks long and included a variety of speakers. Now it's a weekend workshop led by a local therapist. The workshop covers everything from communication and conflict resolution to finances and sexuality. (Make a workshop like this an outreach tool by advertising it in your local newspaper.)

Speak in the students' classrooms.

Current high school curricula often include a family-life course—where students get married, have children, and file for divorce…all within a week-or special classes on sexual education. Volunteer yourself as an expert in the field of relationships. You may not be able to share the gospel, but your perspective will come through, and some students will seek you out after class for counsel. Additionally, many of your own students will realize that you're not as much of a drip as they thought.

Host a parent-education workshop.

Chris Renzelman, a veteran youth pastor in the Seattle area, asked his youths which of their parents did a good job teaching them about sex. Only two students out of 60 raised their hands. He asked those two if their parents would speak to the other parents in the group. That was the genesis of a parent-training workshop. By equipping parents to educate their own children, you can stop a lot of problems before they start. (Besides, the parents will love you. They're desperate for help in this area.)

Suggest a premarital purity covenant.

I ask couples that I'm going to marry to draft an agreement—one that they sign and hand back to me—listing what they will and will not do sexually between now and the wedding. This is not only a great way of helping them set limits, but it provides an easy way for me to hold them accountable to righteous standards. (I occasionally give them the covenant back after their wedding rehearsal and suggest that they rip it up and burn the pieces.)

Do the sex talk.

It's easy to assume that everybody—including most kids in your junior high group—are having sex more often than the elders in your church, but by God's grace at least a few aren't. Those who do save themselves for marriage deserve the best start we can give them. Thus…the talk. During the last session of our premarital counseling, I sit down with the groom-to-be and my wife sits down with the bride-to-be for a frank, no-questions-barred session. I almost stopped offering these talks because of the awkward moments leading up to them—I'd rather speak to 500 kids about sex than to one—but the truth is, they don't know the truth. And who else can they ask?


Mike Woodruff writes from his eight years as a campus minister in Bellingham, Washington. He is a regular Youthworker contributor.



Even More Stuff

“Answer Their Hard Questions”
by Miles McPherson

What are we trying to accomplish when we teach young people sexual abstinence? To scare them away from having sex? To help them fight the temptation of having sex? To look down on their sexually active classmates? To teach them that God looks down on their sexually active classmates?

We must teach kids how to exercise the adult responsibility they want so desperately to wield. Here's how I do it.

I study sufficiently to answer hard questions.

Though you don't need to be an expert on every topic (being a know-it-all usually ruins your credibility), you should be aware of current events pertaining to teenage sexuality. Drawing from the many available resources, present to kids the whole truth, but without exaggerating facts to make a point. For instance, dismissing condoms as hopelessly worthless protection against sexual disease simply isn't factual. Be willing to admit that while they do offer some protection, they can fail. And fill the kids in on the potential consequences of condom failure.

Instead of guaranteeing kids a bad reputation, a broken heart, and mental trauma from memories of premarital sexual encounters, establish your credibility by realistically presenting possible consequences: single-parenting or facing the abortion or adoption question; risking AIDS, which although it may have few immediate manifestations will kill at some point—and maybe not just the carrier.

I've learned what sex has become to kids.

What are the latest terms among adolescents, on TV shows, and in schools? Are school-based sex ed. classes discussing homosexuality? Equip yourself with an intelligent, nonjudgmental argument that informs kids in their decision-making process. Do you understand what “outercourse” is? What is a Jimmy Hat? (A condom.) Are you prepared to discuss anal sex? (Many kids participate in it, thinking it preserves their virginity.)

Until you can discuss these things without getting sick to your stomach or making faces, kids won't come talk to you. And the longer you avoid addressing topics distasteful to you (under the banner of “using discernment”), the Enemy prowls, finding plenty to devour.

I hold that sexual sin is the worst kind of sin.

Because sexual sin is done against a person's own body, it's the worst sin to commit. What STDs are sexually active kids in danger of contracting, and what are the effects of the diseases? Do people die of AIDS or of resulting diseases, and how? Why does sexual intercourse cause people to be so emotionally attached? Is sexual intercourse different from kissing, holding hands, hugging? How? When does a baby become a person? Can you explain the developmental process? Can you explain how having sex during the teen years can harm a baby during a much later pregnancy? How can having sex jeopardize fertility? What diseases have no symptoms?

Don't back down from speaking the truth in love-and in plain English.

One of the devil's weapons in the sex-ed. battle is secrecy. (Remember what the apostle John wrote—those who commit acts of unrighteousness do them in darkness. And darkness and light have nothing in common, wrote Paul in 2 Corinthians 6.) One of our jobs, therefore, is to bring sin into the light.

Following a high school assembly, I took all of three minutes to explain to a couple girls why they shouldn't have sex. All they wanted was an intelligent rationale for abstinence. When I finished, they hurried across the auditorium to tell a friend, “You have to hear this—he told us why we shouldn't have sex.”

A mother's teenage boy was secretly reading pornographic magazines and masturbating. When she asked me what she should do, I suggested (among other things) that she take the secrecy out of the problem by laying out all the magazines on his bed when he was out—and then preparing herself to be vulnerable and ready to really talk when he came home.

Open discussion in which kids explain their views exposes the teenagers in a healthy way to their peers—and often to the faulty logic or naivete upon which their views are based. Kids can become accountable to each other in discussion groups, forming covenant groups that create positive peer pressure.

Field trips help me drive home my point.

Teach them the delicacy of life in a hospital's birthing center or nursery—many kids have never seen newborns, much less preemies, crack babies, and infants in other critical conditions. They see with their eyes possible consequences for having sex.

Or try a “reverse field trip.” One week invite teenage mothers to share their experience; the next week ask in married couples to do the same. Ask both groups what difficulties they face caring for their children. Why did they get pregnant in the first place? What are the expenses involved in having and taking care of babies? What misconceptions did they have about being a parent?

Such interviews dispel myths about parenthood propagated by much of the entertainment industry.


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.