By: Gregory Popcak
It’s easy for parents to despair of teaching their kids abstinence. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 70% of teens will have had vaginal intercourse by the time they are 19 and the average age of teens’ first sexual encounter is 17. There is some good news for Christian parents, at least. According to the same study, among sexually inexperienced teens, the most common reason given for avoiding sexual activity before marriage is that it is “against my religion/morals” with 42% of females and 35% of males indicating that their faith plays a significant role in their decision to remain virgins. Of course, that’s not great news for parents of the 58% of religious girls and 65% of religious boys who’s faith does not appear to impact their moral decision making–at least as far as romantic relationships go–but one takes the good news one can get. This last factoid leads to an interesting question, though. Namely, what is the difference between those young people-of-faith who’s religion does impact their decision to remain virgins and those who’s faith does not appear to influence their decision to engage in premarital sex? I believe I have uncovered some of those differences in my book, Beyond the Birds and the Bees, in which I take a developmental approach to passing on the Christian vision of love and relationships to children from early childhood to young adulthood. Let’s review some of the basics.
Abstinence vs. Chastity
In my experience, one of the most important differences between religious kids who do and kids who don’t engage in premarital sex is that kids who remain virgins tend to be raised in households that emphasize chastity over mere abstinence. What’s the difference? Abstinence basically says, “I don’t care WHAT you do, just keep your pants on.” From a public health perspective, abstinence is a good message, but from a perspective Christian formation, it is seriously lacking as a means of forming a healthy moral character. By focusing so heavily on the negative (“Just, don’t do it”) young people can often suffer in two ways. First, despite any other positive messages one might hear about sex, it’s hard to believe that sex is good or beautiful when one is being told over and over that it can destroy your world if you have it. This can lead to a fair number of problems in the bedroom when the young person marries and starts to wonder, “But WHY is it ok now that I said ‘I do.’” Second, simply telling a young person not to have sex doesn’t help them understand what to do instead to avoid near occasions of sin (those situations where temptation is so present that sin becomes almost unavoidable) or even situations that have unexpectedly gotten out of hand. Just saying “no” doeesn’t give the young person the skills they need to create a healthy, godly relationship from the ground up. It just says, “Do what you want, just be aware that beyond this point there be dragons!”
Chastity on the other hand takes a more holistic view of sexuality. As opposed to abstinence, chastity is a positive virtue that enables us to love the right person, at the right time, and in the right way. Chastity reminds us that loving someone means “working for their good.” To be chaste, then, means two things; first, that I have learned how to determine what it means to work toward the best interests (and what it means to work against the best interests) of each particular person and second, that I have the skills necessary to do that. Chastity encourages self-donation (the giving of ourselves in service to others) but it also offers prudent advice on what it means to love someone, and to love them rightly. As far as chastity is concerned, encouraging self-control is less an attempt to keep a criminal (i.e., our sexuality) in jail until its parole date (i.e., marriage) as it is an attempt to teach an artist (i.e, a person created to love and be loved) how to wield the brush to create something beautiful (marriage) without spilling paint all over the place and making a mess of the canvass. It is this emphasis on the development of virtue as opposed to the mere control of vice that makes chastity a real motivator. As one remarkable young man who had decided to remain chaste put it, “I’ve had several chances to sleep with girls and I’ve even been pretty seriously tempted sometimes, but I could never go through with it because I couldn’t bring myself to use her like that or make her feel used–even if it seemed like she wanted to be used.”
Love vs. Use
The young man’s comment leads to a second important lesson faithful kids need to learn if they are going to remain chaste. Namely, that the opposite of love is not hate. It is “use.” If love means “I’m committed to working for your good as a person” then the opposite of that would have to be, “I’m committed to using you like a thing to meet my desires.” It’s important for parents to teach their children this definition of love early on and to point out ways that we are tempted to “thing-ify” the people in our family. Hitting a brother because you want his toy is turning him in to a thing. Pressuring someone to do something for you that you are capable of doing for yourself is turning another person into a thing. Lying to someone or using them to get something you want is turning them into a thing. In other words, anytime we act in a way that makes someone less of a person we “thingify” them–and that isn’t loving. The reason that it is so important to teach and live out this definition of love in the family is that it forms your children’s heart to know what love really requires. The child who has been raised in an environment that encourages chastity and real love knows on a gut level that it is never ok to treat someone in any way that makes them less of a person. Especially with regard to romantic relationships, that child will grow up to be a young adult who knows how to love the right person, in the right way, at the right time.