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I asked my students if they experienced any helpful conversations about sexuality in church or youth group. Most said no. They may have learned about abstinence and purity. They may have heard sexually active people described in metaphors of chewed gum or tape that lost its stickiness or a flower whose petals have been plucked. They may have been told to just say no to building the fire of sexuality outside the fireplace of marriage.
They do NOT receive much help in discerning what makes a healthy relationship, or how to say no when they feel pressured, or how to identify the stage in a relationship when it might be okay to say yes. How might the church help its teenagers think about some of these questions?
Their culture shows them rom-coms where two beautiful people work out a conflict and live happily ever after. Instagram shows them women who are thick and thin in all the right places and proportions. Porn (yes, some are watching it) shows them mechanical feats of sexual prowess without real relationships. A hook-up culture suggests that they can have the sex without the trouble of dating and emotional connection.
Often the only sex education they receive in school is abstinence, and this is frequently taught with unhealthy doses of fear. “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant or a sexually transmitted disease, and if you get an abortion you will be scarred for life, and if you have sex you will be ruined and no nice man will every want you.” I am not making this up.
Perhaps the church could provide some healthy alternative models. We might start with the Song of Solomon, interpreted literally as a love poem, rather than metaphorically as a discourse about God’s love for the soul, or Christ’s love for the church!
The Song features two lovers who do not appear to be married, because they are always looking for each other and a place to be alone. They delight in one another’s beauty and bodies, although they do have a weird way of expressing it. (“Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes …”) While some references to sexuality in the Old Testament sound perfunctory, (“he took her and went in to her,”) the Song actually celebrates the joys of romance and discovery.
Timing, is important, however, and at one point in the Song the woman says, “Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready.” But that’s the tricky part, isn’t it? How do we know when love is ready? What are the stages of relationships? What is required for intimacy? How well should couples know each other?
Before this conversation, though, should be a discussion of what makes a healthy relationship. Is there trust? Honesty? Connection? Can they be themselves with a partner? Can they work through conflict in a healthy way? Can they talk about birth control?
Since many relationships are unhealthy, teens should be aware of the danger signs. Is a young person feeling pressured? Is one partner constantly putting down the other? Is there any hint of violence? Is one partner unable or unwilling to speak openly with the other?
Parents might dismiss adolescent relationships as starter boy/girlfriends or as puppy love, but if the early relationships are unhealthy, there is a good chance that the later ones will be also.
The Bible contains some significant stories about sexual violence and incest and lack of consent, and those can lead to some powerful conversations in youth group.
I once met with a group of teens to talk about some of these stories (Genesis 34, 38, Judges 19, 2 Samuel 11-13), and the students seemed uncomfortable and did not say much. I concluded that it was not my wisest move to spring such challenging stories on students I did not know. I learned later that when they met that evening with their youth group leader, they had an honest and extensive conversation about the issues raised by the texts. When teens feel safe, they will talk.
It is also important for the church to provide teens with a more realistic view of sexuality in the Bible. The culture of the Bible was very, very different from our own. Women in the Old Testament were property. They belonged to their fathers, until such time as the father handed them over to their husbands. Women did not have much choice about who they married or what they did. Their main role in life was to produce children. Rules about sexuality were designed to preserve a woman’s purity and financial value. Since we no longer sell our daughters for a herd of cattle, perhaps we could update our ideas about abstinence.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Genesis that women should marry at fourteen, and men at sixteen or seventeen. It didn’t matter if they were poor, Luther said, because God would provide. That is not advice most of us would give to our children today! As the culture changes, our guidelines about relationships need to change also.
My students want to feel affirmation and love. Don’t we all? That affirmation should start in the family, and be reinforced by the church. “You are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely.” (Song of Solomon 1:16) When they hear themselves valued for all their many gifts, not just external beauty, they will learn to value themselves and others, and this will form the basis for healthy relationships in the future.
And one day they might utter these words of love from Song 4:1. “Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.”