Last week, while I was on vacation, several of my Catholic Patheosi colleagues were engaged in vigorous discussions on abstinence education that were precipitated by Elizabeth Smart’s negative comments on the, frankly, unhealthy approaches some abstinence programs take to promote their message.
The conversation is continuing among Catholic Patheos bloggers, and earlier today, it was proposed that we all reflect a bit on what a “true” sex education would entail giving lists on what we think that should look like. My book, Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids addresses that exact question in depth, so I thought I’d briefly throw in my .02.
Sex Ed: What Does the Church Say?
First, I would encourage every parent to read the Pontifical Council for the Family’s document, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality. I think any reflection on this subject that doesn’t take the Council’s recommendations into account would be seriously lacking. It is very accessible. It contains a lot of practical wisdom on what the Church actually expects of parents when it comes to the sexual and characterological formation of our children. That text forms the framework of a lot of what my wife and I included in Beyond the Birds and the Bees.
I’ll probably end up doing several posts on this so I want to keep this short. I’ll save citations to Church docs and studies for future posts if necessary. That said, I need to begin by defining what sexuality is. Here is how the Catechism defines it.
“Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others” (For more, go here.)
In other words, sex, and sex education, has to be about more than doing the deed, as it were. It has to be about the formation of the whole person. That’s why I would argue that a proper, healthy and comprehensive sexual education actually has very little to do with the sex act itself. Obviously, at some point, information about the sexual act and its physical and spiritual significance has to be addressed, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. As you know 90% of the proverbial iceberg is actually below the water. THAT’s the part that really counts, especially when it comes to the sexual education of persons. If you don’t have that element (what the Church calls “remote preparation” i.e., character/relationship /spiritual formation) then nothing you say to a person about the dignity of sex and the importance of saving sex for marriage will make a hill of beans worth of difference. They might learn some interesting concepts, but they’ll end up doing what their gonads tell them to do–or they’ll end up hopelessly repressed trying to run away from what their gonads are telling them.
Sex Ed Requires Forming the Person First and Most
The most important part of sexual education is training in what it means to be a loving, prayerful, joyful, healthy person. When parents model and teach their children how to live as loving and prayerful people, they are engaging in the sexual education of their children. The Church teaches that sex is the one person communicates the intimate core of their personhood to another person. In other words, to have healthy sexual attitudes, I have to be a healthy, virtuous person capable of intimacy with both God and the people he has placed in my life. To that end, in Beyond the Birds and the Bees, my wife/co-author and I describe 8 virtues that impact our ability to have healthy sexual attitudes and behaviors. The more parents help their children cultivate these virtues in family life from birth through young adulthood, in all the interaction with brothers, sisters, parents, friends, authority figures, etc. the more complete, comprehensive, and healthy their children’s sexual formation will be.
8 Virtues that Constitute a Healthy Sexuality (and a healthy person)
Here are the virtues with a brief description of how they relate to sex (I have an entire chapter dedicated to this in Beyond the Birds and the Bees so please realize this is the briefest of summaries). As you read these virtues, don’t just think of them in the abstract or as they relate to sex alone. My point in listing these virtues is to show that when parents actively work to teach the behaviors associated with these virtues in any context in their day to day interactions as a family they are actually, albeit unknowingly, engaging in the sexual education of their children.
1. A capacity for Self-Donative love– i.e., the ability to look for opportunities to work for the good of the people in my life and to actively seek out ways to use my time, treasure, talent, and physical abilities (i.e., body) to make the lives of those around me easier, better, and more enjoyable. Relates to sex in that it helps me see sex as another way to work for the good of another person as opposed to viewing sex as mere recreation.
2. A capacity for Responsibility–i.e. the ability to delay gratification, to set worthy goals and meet them, and to understand how to set priorities so that everything I have and do asserts the value of people and relationship over things. Relates to sex in that I must be able to see that sex is a good that deserves to be saved for marriage, and that the things I have–including my body–are not ends in themselves, but given to me as a gift from God to be used to work for my well-being and the good of others.
3. A personal and prayerful Faith life–i.e., the ability to see that there is more to life than meets the eye. That God loves me and has a plan for my life and relationships and that I know how to understand that plan through intimate communication with God in prayer. Relates to sex in that it is impossible to see that sex is about more than pleasure if I cannot see the spiritual significance of every day life and that God has a plan for every part of me including my sexuality.
4. A healthy sense of Respect for myself and others–i.e., the ability to know what I and others are worth in the eyes of God. The ability to demonstrate respect for myself and others communicates a gut-level sense of my awareness of my dignity and yours. Relates to sex in that in order to have a healthy sexual relationship with my spouse, I must be able to see myself and my partner as a son and daughter of God. I practice this attitude by being respectful in all my interactions with others.
5. A capacity for Intimacy— i.e., intimacy is the deepest call of the Christian life which is ultimately about spousal union with God and participation in the communion of saints. My ability to make myself vulnerable in a healthy way to another person, to share my needs, feelings, fears, hopes and dreams AND to receive the gift of the other’s needs, feelings, fears, hopes, and dreams will largely decide whether I am capable of living out the Christian vision of sex or if I will be tempted to compulsively engage in a series of pleasurable acts of friction that may or may not have anything to do with relationship.
6. A capacity for Cooperation–i.e, the ability to work for the common good. To know how to meet my needs in a way that is considerate of the other person’s needs as well. Relates to sex in that a healthy sexual relationship largely depends upon my ability to know how to express my needs honestly and receive other’s needs willingly so that we can work together to create something beautiful, intimate, and fulfilling.
7. A capacity for Joy–i.e., the ability to celebrate life to the full. To be–in a healthy way–playful, fun, spontaneous and open to new experiences. Relates to sex in that sex should be a joyful, celebratory experience. Not a duty or chore.
8. A healthy sense of Personhood–i.e., a sense of the goodness of the body combined with a healthy sense what it means to be a godly man or woman. Relates to sex in that to have a healthy sexuality a person can’t hate, or be disgusted, or be cavalier about his or her body. Likewise, a person needs to be secure in his or her identity as a man or woman.
Beyond the Birds and the Bees offers hundreds of practical suggestions for teaching these virtues in the daily interactions of family life from birth through young adulthood.
Giving Kids a Healthy Moral Mindset
Teaching these virtues in family life produces children who have a moral ethos as opposed to a moral ethic. What’s the difference? If I have a moral ethic, I always want to know how far I can push the limit before its sinful. I’m concerned with “where’s the line?” With a moral ethos, I want to do what’s right because it is good for me and for you. The man with a moral ethic doesn’t cheat on his wife because he doesn’t want the hassle. The man with a moral ethos doesn’t cheat on his wife because he loves his wife. The teen with a moral ethic doesn’t have sex before marriage because it’s “wrong” in some vague way or “dirty” or “dangerous.” The teen with a moral ethos doesn’t have sex before marriage because he doesn’t want to degrade himself or use someone else that way. Sound pie in the sky? It’s not. When you raise kids according to the points I’m laying out here, this is the exactly kind of kid you are more likely to see. A “True” sexual education needs to communicate a moral ethos as opposed to a moral ethic. Anything less will fail given enough pressure and time.
And Finally, “The Talk.”
Finally, of course, at some point, parents will need to convey information about the sexual act. We talk about how to do that in Beyond the Birds and the Bees as well, but as I’ve already said, this is the least important part of the process. It’s important, but if it doesn’t stand on everything else I’ve put forward above, you’re wasting your breath. When it comes to conveying information about body parts and intercourse, be straightforward, honest, and simple. Ask questions to assess what your son or daughter knows and help them fill in blanks. Be a mentor not a scold. Assume that you will have multiple conversations about these topics over the course of many years, not just one conversation and then done.
Well, 1800 words is too much already. Obviously I could say a lot more. Feel free to ask questions. Or, just read the book. The bottom line is that, as far as my reading of the Church is concerned, a “true” sexual education has much less to do with talking about body parts and intercourse, and everything to do with the formation of a whole, faithful, respectful, virtuous person who knows how to properly share him or herself with another whole, faithful, respectful, virtuous person. The better we do that as parents, the more likely our kids will be sexually whole and holy as well.