What did I learn about sex from the church?

For The Flyer, James Newton Poling, Jan 11, 2011

What did I learn about sex from the church?

This was the question we posed to 16 students at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary during the fall semester, 2010. The students from several generations represented European-American, African American, and Asian cultures.

Professor Lallene Rector and I were surprised at the answers they gave. Most students said, “I did not learn anything from my congregation about sexuality except — Don’t do it.” Many went on to say, “That was not enough to help me cope with what I was hearing from the media, internet, and peers.” Later one student said she learned that Christian faith was not relevant to issues of sexuality. “We were not allowed to speak on Sunday morning about what we did on Saturday night.”

On the other hand, most students did remember events in church that influenced their views of sexuality. One student remembered the gossip when a prominent female lay leader left the church after she had an affair and left her husband. Another student remembered an adult youth leader who tried to talk about sexuality, but did not connect with the teenagers’ world. One student told the story of how a gay member had been shunned until he left the church. Several students attended “Promise” workshops where they made abstinence pledges to wait for sex until marriage. One male student wore the ring he received at the workshop for two weeks and then threw it away. The result of this mixture of silence, gossip, and awkward attempts at indoctrination was confusion. When they hit college, most students confessed they had no theological ethics of sexuality to guide their thinking and decision-making.

The small class project confirmed what we read in Sex and Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses by Donna Freitas (Oxford U Press, 2010). After interviewing dozens of college students on six university and college campuses, Freitas described two cultures facing undergraduates – the hook-up culture and the abstinence culture. In the hook-up culture, young people have sex first and then decide whether to date. The result is a total disconnect between sex and Christian faith. In the abstinence culture, virtue means waiting for intercourse until after marriage. For some students this includes waiting until marriage for kissing and fondling. But for most students, anything short of intercourse is possible. As Bill Clinton famously said, “I did not have sex with that woman.” One result of both cultures is violence against women. Whether women take responsibility for abstaining, or whether they join in the hook-up culture, women face various kinds of pressure, abuse, and violence for which they have few resources for coping.

“What can we do to improve the quality of conversation about sexuality in local congregations?”

This was a hard question for our students to answer. They were keenly aware of the hyper-sexualized culture in which we live and the inadequacy of most attempts to address this problem. We read important books such as Miguel De La Torres, Miguel, A Lily Among the Thorns: Imagining a New Christian Sexuality,( Jossey Bass, 2007)Margaret Farley, Margaret, A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. (NY: Continuum, 2008). And Stanley Grenz, Sexual Ethics. (Westminster John Knox, 1999).

Students also sampled curriculum from some of the major denominations including United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and found helpful ideas.

We concluded in our last session that there are no easy answers to the questions about sexuality in congregations Today most young people are not receiving competent information and faith perspectives on sexuality that will help them cope with the United States culture. There is no substitute for well-trained leaders who have survived their own struggles and know how to talk with teenagers and young adults.

Until there is a lively and respectful conversation among adults in local congregations, most young people will be left to figure sexuality out for themselves.

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