The Sex Lives of Christian Teens
- 2003 1 Mar
Editor's Note: This article features frank discussion of a sensitive theme that may not be appropriate for some younger readers.
On the radio, popular songs declare the thrills of casual sex. On the Internet, pop-up windows beckon Web surfers to erotic destinations. The fashion world touts midriff-baring designs, while prime-time TV rolls out one sexual innuendo after another.
Today's adolescents must navigate this cultural morass just at a time when hormonal surges and emerging feelings are making life confusing enough. But what happens when faith gets thrown into the mix? How does being a Christian affect a teenager's perceptions and responses in this sex-drenched society?
Much has been written lately about abstinence education and how more teens are choosing not to have sex.
Still, polls and studies only tell part of the story. Despite signs that things are improving, the reality of sexual temptation remains—and Christian young people are not inoculated against these pressures. Hearing their voices, in fact, suggests that their plight might be even more precarious than their non-Christian counterparts:
"I know the Bible says you can't have sex before marriage. But why can't you, if you're in love with the person? It doesn't feel wrong. —Kendra, 14
"My boyfriend and I don't want to mess around anymore. But how do we keep this commitment? I never realized how powerful passion can be." —Shari, 15
"Kids at school are pressuring me and my girlfriend to have sex. I want to wait until marriage, but I worry about how this makes me look." —Darryl, 17
"I feel cut off from God. I want to do what's right, but I can't seem to. Recently I had sex with a guy, thinking that it would bring us closer. I know now that was a mistake, and I feel totally ashamed." —Aimee, 16
A lot of Christian teens are having sex and suffering painful, sometimes devastating consequences. Meanwhile, those not having sex are thinking a lot about it, many of them wavering between fear and curiosity.
Parents, youth pastors, and other concerned adults might hope that the influence of biblical principles on their young would help them withstand the onslaughts of peer pressure, physical longings, and conflicting signals from secular voices ("Don't have sex, but when you do, use a condom"), but the several teens who spoke candidly with
At 17, John was a handsome and energetic high school senior with a charming smile and winning personality. Popular for his athletic prowess, he had learned that such recognition brought with it certain expectations.
"Of course, there was always a lot of pressure to have sex, from teammates and other kids," he says. "I was a football player, you know. And the girls—they really come after you. But the Bible is clear. No sex till marriage."
Now 18 and studying business administration in college, John says the main thing that helps him maintain a biblical standard of purity is a steadfast emphasis on his objectives. "I haven't given into drugs, alcohol, or premarital sex because I see where indulging has taken a lot of my peers," he says. "You have to stay prayed up and know what you want out of life. You don't want to limit yourself. Having babies or getting AIDS is not on your route. If you're focused on your goals, peer pressure shouldn't faze you."
Asked about Christian friends who gave in and became sexually active, John answers knowingly. "It starts out as curiosity. They want to know what it feels like. I want to know, too. I really don't want to wait. But I don't want to pay the costs of not waiting, either."
And John isn't just talking about physical costs. "I've seen some Christian guys and girls who start having sex, and they change. They still go to church, but their spiritual lives become fake. When you are consistently doing wrong and know it, your spiritual life becomes empty and you get farther and farther from God," he says. "Sometimes you end up not really believing in anything ."
It would be wonderful if young people like John, rather than the teens he describes, were the norm. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence often points in the other direction.
In a recent article for Charles Colson's
"A few of these freshman may have been part of a 'True Love Waits' campaign or had their parents give them a 'promise ring' along with the reminder not to sleep around until marriage," Duin continued, "but the other 90 percent hadn't heard much in the way of gripping reasons for staying chaste."
If Christian parents, pastors, and youth leaders hope to help Christian teens avoid the tragic consequences of bad sexual choices, the adults must help teens discover those gripping reasons for waiting until marriage for sex. But what is the best way to do this? Between proponents of value-free sex education on the one hand and champions of state-sponsored abstinence-only programs on the other, there is a lot of middle ground and room for confusion.
As a subset of America's youth, Christian teens are part of some alarming trends. According to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which measures the responses of nearly 21,000 teens, males and females in the seventh through twelfth grades report having had intercourse just about equally: 39.9 percent of boys, 37.3 percent of girls. And while a study by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation notes a solid 25 percent decrease in the teen birthrate between 1991 and 2001, 20 percent of sexually active girls ages 15 to 19 still get pregnant each year, and the rise in incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDS) among this age group indicates that teen sex is a problem that continues to vex society—and the church.
A growing concern surrounds definitions of what actually constitutes "sex." Many teens, it turns out, are using new, less-restrictive classifications to justify the acceptability of sexual activities.
"One of the new trends in adolescent sexuality that might be surprising for parents is the dramatic increase in oral sex," says Kara Eckmann Powell, a professor of Christian education at Azusa Pacific University and a youth pastor at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, California. "Largely because of the exposure it has received in the media in recent years, teens don't think it's sex, so they're experimenting more and more with oral sex. Often it's the girls who initiate it because they see it as a way to gain intimacy and connection with guys," Powell adds.
Specific studies of sexual trends among Christian teens have been limited, but all indications are that, on average, there is little difference between their sexual behavior and that of non-Christian youths, other than a tendency to delay their first sexual experience slightly longer. This is not to say that faith does not factor significantly in teens' sexual decision-making. In fact, according to a 2000 study conducted by the Kaiser Foundation and
As Marilee Friedrich points out in her 2001 book
Michelle, a quiet, attractive 16-year-old, says she enjoys school, loves God and her church, but finds her youth group a little dull. Asked whether the group talked much about sexual issues, she replies, "We don't talk about it at all." She wishes that her youth leader would address some of her and her peers' real-life questions—"Maybe if we talked about some of the stuff that's going on with us, then it wouldn't be so boring."
Michelle says it's not peer pressure but curiosity that led her to lose her virginity at 15 to a boy she barely knew. "I wasn't really thinking about how God would see it. And I didn't really regret what I did until later, when I talked to my mom about it.
"I didn't intend to tell her," Michelle continues. "She asked me, and I didn't want to lie. But after we talked, I felt a lot closer to her."
Michelle says she believes that it's better for teens to save sex until marriage, as the Bible directs, but she struggles now with her recommitment to purity. "And I have more questions about my faith now," she says. "I guess I need to study the Bible more."
Calvin, 18, is a college freshman and active in his church choir. He said that he experiences the most pressure to have sex from members of the opposite sex. "In high school, I decided to have sex, just to try it. I felt bad later, when I thought about what the Bible said. I've prayed, but I still don't feel forgiven."
He adds, "I want to have control over my sexual behavior and to not have to feel bad about it. But I don't know how to make that happen."
Maia, 16, was raised in a Christian home and has an older sister who became an unwed mother at 17. "My parents were so angry and disappointed," she recalls. "My dad especially was so hurt.
"I think about sex, too," she says. "I'm curious, especially after what happened with my sister. But all I know is that what she did really damaged our family. And my parents are, like, watching me, all paranoid now. I don't want to hurt God or my parents the way my sister did, or even by having safe sex."
Though their experiences differ, Maia, Calvin, and Michelle each rank their Christian faith, the influence of their parents, and the fear of pregnancy or STDs as the things that most drive their day-to-day decisions to abstain from sexual activity.
According to psychiatrist Lynn Ponton in her 2000 book The Sex Lives of Teenagers (Plume), "Teenagers often intuitively understand that their sexuality and sexual behaviors involve risk. [They] need the assistance of adults to better understand how to take on risks and assess the consequences, and with that acquired knowledge, make the best choices."
Like adults, teens are sexual beings, and how they come to acquire a healthy view of their own sexuality depends a lot on how their parents and adult leaders respond to that knowledge. Certainly adult Christians must communicate their standards, both by talking with teens and by setting a good example.
But one of the most important things for adults to understand is that the objective is not to keep teens from having sex so much as it is to help teens choose abstinence for themselves, as a principle as well as a practice. For that to happen, say the experts, adults need to establish a rapport with teens by communicating availability, acceptance, and love while providing a safe environment for ongoing dialogue.
Kara Eckmann Powell, who coauthored the 2001 book What Almost Nobody Will Tell You About Sex, Student Journal (Zondervan), believes that one reason a lot of abstinence programs fail is because they have too narrow a focus, both in time and attention. She and her coauthor, Jim Hancock, emphasize a broader understanding of the goals of abstinence education. "So many curriculums tend to approach sexuality from just a physical perspective," she says. "Dealing with students' emotional and psychological struggles is as important, if not more important, than addressing only their physical lusts.
"Too much of sex education in churches has focused on slogans and single commitments," Powell asserts. "While these are worthwhile, they aren't enough. An ongoing commitment needs to be reinforced throughout the year, in large- and small-group settings."
Rev. Dennis Talbert, student ministries pastor at Rosedale Park Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, agrees. "The problem with most abstinence-based ministries is that their message is focused on a single event or series of events; but between these special activities the kids are left on their own. There's no sisterhood or brotherhood that comes out of that to give the kids ongoing support."
Rosedale Park's response has been to form clubs for their teens, to provide year-round fellowship and accountability. "The clubs constantly present the kids with opportunities to challenge and encourage each other in their walks."
And that means more than just sexual purity, Talbert explains. "Your commitment to your body goes beyond the sexual and it has to be taught beyond that. It means abstinence from drugs and other negative behaviors, and respect for yourself as well as the opposite gender."
In an area where the infant mortality rate rivals that of a third-world country and children become sexually active as early as their elementary-school years, Rosedale Park's values-rich approach to sex-ed has met with enough success to attract the eyes of the state. Since creating the program for its own youth, the church has been invited to run its clubs as after-school programs in two local public schools—no arguments about separation of church and state here.
"Most urban schools are looking for help, and they don't care where it comes from," Talbert says.
Many Christian teens who are dealing with issues of sexual purity and God-honoring relationships have actively pursued resources to help them in their struggles. Books like Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker's Every Young Man's Battle (WaterBrook), Kay Arthur's Sex According to God (WaterBrook), and Josh Harris's I Kissed Dating Goodbye (Multnomah) are not only snatched up rapidly from bookstore shelves but many are commonly quoted and referred to in Christian teen chat rooms and online discussion forums.
That Harris would have a strong following among teens might surprise some, considering his unconventional stance against the concept of dating or any physical intimacy beyond handholding outside of marriage. But his higher call has struck a chord with a lot of young people who are desperately looking for direction.
"We need new attitudes based on scriptural values and a radically God-centered view of pursuing an intimate relationship with the opposite sex," Harris writes in his most recent book Boy Meets Girl (Multnomah). He adds, "To stand firm against sin, we can't simply intellectually agree with the merits of chastity. We must be captivated by the beauty and greater pleasure of God's way."
While these books focus on a diverse spectrum of human concerns from fetishes and masturbation to courtship and recovery from past sexual sins, their popularity signals an encouraging fact: Christian teens, whatever else they're after, are hungry for answers they can rely on. They're hungry for truth.
And as the Christian teens of this generation work out their sexual salvation in fear and trembling, it is up to Christian adults to come alongside them with encouragement rather than condemnation, honesty rather than hypocrisy, and biblical truth rather than awkward silence. It is time for Christian men and women to demonstrate in their own walk that sexual purity—in or out of marriage—is not a onetime vow but a daily re-commitment to seek God's grace for our failures, his power for our victories, and his best for our lives.