In her essay, Naked and Ashamed, Amanda Barbee critiques the way the Christian Church has dealt with the physical body and sexuality. Barbee discusses the ambiguity with which the Church has handled the human body in general, and then presses in to discuss the consistency with which women’s bodies have been maligned in Christian tradition. She lands more recently upon recent research that reveals abstinence curricula like “True Love Waits,” increases shame responses for children/adolescents. This shame has been found to have similar effects on intimacy later in life to childhood sexual abuse.
Shame is a potent tool and one that has been used by parents, churches, and teachers–especially in the realm of sexual development/exploration–far too often. It worked, or at least appeared to on the front end. I’d like to believe that those pushing for abstinence only sexual education may not have known of the damaging effects of shame on the psyche. When shamed, we isolate. In isolation, our secrets become more powerful. We focus increasing energies on not letting others know of these parts of our selves/thoughts/or actions of which we are ashamed. We become compartmentalized in how we relate, and develop huge tracts of taboo in the landscape of our relate-able selves. We then feel increasingly disconnected from others around us, and unable to risk the further shame that we assume will result from being authentically vulnerable with others.
Not only is abstinence-only teaching shaming and potentially harmful. It is ineffective at its primary goal. According to The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2011 – after more than 20 years of abstinence/purity movement sexual education curricula in our public schools, Texas ranked 5th highest in teen pregnancy!
Abstinence-Only Programs Do Not Impact Teen Sexual Behavior
In early November 2007, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy released Emerging Answers 2007, a report authored by Dr. Douglas Kirby, a leading sexual health researcher, discussing what programs work in preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. The report found strong evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs do not have any impact on teen sexual behavior.[i] Quoted from SIECUS fact sheet.
“[M]any abstinence-only-until-marriage programs rely on fear, shame, and guilt to try to control young people’s sexual behavior. These programs include negative messages about sexuality, distort information about condoms and STDs, and promote biases based on gender, sexual orientation, marriage, family structure, and pregnancy options. It is never appropriate to give young people inaccurate or biased information about their sexuality.” Quoted from SIECUS
In her article, Barbee also discusses the uneven impact/burden the purity movement places upon women. One particularly offensive result is the burden this places upon women to clothe themselves with caution, being ever mindful of the stumbling blocks their beautiful bodies lay before the men of the world. I have previously dealt with this stumbling block theology and have excerpted the guts of it below:
I have heard the argument that women need to use more care to not place stumbling blocks in front of men for more than a decade, from well-meaning women, mostly. I believe this argument is harmful to men, women, God and the Church as a whole.
It is harmful to men because it degrades a man’s ability to develop and act out of self-control. It excuses men for their failures and implicitly blames the woman for not being more mindful of his weakness. How emasculating is it to set the bar so low? And how am I, as a woman, to respect a man (for that is what I am called to do) for whom the bar is set so low?
It is harmful to women because it demands that women work harder to maintain the moral righteousness of men than it asks of the men. This is a patronizing idea from a patriarchal time when women had very little voice in the church and fewer rights as human beings: women were blamed for men’s failures and it is still happening. I cannot realistically be expected to accurately assess the potential weakness of every person I could interact with on a daily basis. If a man stumbles because I happen to be wearing a fitted shirt on any given day, that’s on him. That’s between him and God. I also happen to believe that Christ’s sacrifice is enough to appropriately deal with that.
Consider the effort it would take for a woman to evaluate every issue/article of clothing, make-up, accessories, manner of movement, emotional availability… the list could go on ad infinitum. Where do we draw the line about what is ridiculous and too much? It’s all gray-space. And what is a stumbling block for one man or woman may not cause another to stumble. We are not all psychics. Alternatively, each and every man knows when he is tempted. He knows his triggers. Why is it that we feel comfortable asking a woman to be aware of and respond appropriately to the potential triggers for all men, but we are uncomfortable asking one man to be responsible and aware of his own triggers and to respond appropriately by averting his eyes or exhibiting self control?
It harms God. Consider what kind of God would hold women responsible for every questionable thought or action that arose in the untempered mind/body of anyone she had contact with. That is not a God I would want, not a God of mercy or even reason. That is a vengeful, punitive, unreasonable God.
It harms the Church. Excusing men or women for not growing in self control cannot benefit the Body of Christ at large. Instead, it encourages weak men and the ever-mindful caretaker woman to be the norm in both our culture and our churches.
When I consider the impact and ineffectiveness of abstinence-only teaching in general, and the uneven impact/burden the purity movement places upon women, I am relieved to feel like I understand the roots of my own ambivalence about being an embodied woman in the Church. As a parent now, I cannot justify raising my children with an abstinence-only approach to sexual education. I will not raise my children according to the “True Love Waits” curriculum or others that teach abstinence as the only morally appropriate engagement of sexuality outside of marriage. I do not want my children to believe that their sexual bodies/desires/enjoyment are or even should be shameful.
It grieves me to imagine how confused my children may become as they receive various educations on sexuality from our local church youth group, their peers, the public schools of the deep South, where religion and politics are strange but familiar bedfellows. Will my children notice and be aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the conversations we have had with them and what they are hearing elsewhere? Will they talk with us about it? I can only hope so.
I have a proposal…
This is what I will teach my kids regarding the theology of their bodies, and sexuality. Although I write from a Christian orientation, I believe this approach can be easily modified and applied to a non-religious context (such as schools or a non-religious home).
1) You have a body. It is yours and it is borrowed all at the same time. It is the only one you’ll get in this life, so use (or better yet be in) it accordingly.
1 (b) Your body parts all have names and purposes. Some are more dignified than others, but none of them are inherently bad.
2) All people are sexual beings, and exist on a continuum which allows for some to have greater or less desire than others.
2(b) There is also a sexual desire continuum that varies for many individuals across his or her life/developmental stage.
3) Your body was made to enjoy sexual experiences, and sexual experiences can bring great joy and pleasure to both you and God… for God made you that way.
4) When it comes to sexual experiences, I will encourage abstinence, on the basis that this a practice of self-control… one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. As you grow in your self-control, you are living more fully into this gift, and honoring and pleasing the Giver.
4(b) Sexuality is a key area for developing self-control because if you can manage your sexuality in a healthy way (definition admittedly debatable), you will struggle less with self control in other common areas for relational and personal sabotage: finances, what you share on social networking, drug/alcohol use, etc.
5) You will get different messages about your body and your sexuality from school/friends/church/mentors/family members/the culture at large. Some of these messages will conflict or may be confusing. We’re here to talk about it, if you want.
The key for our family will be to talk about this in a way that demonstrates to our children that these conversations are not taboo, and that there is room for differences of opinion. I share this approach freely, because I know this is a difficult subject for many parents. and many families apparently just don’t talk about sex.
I would love and welcome your feedback on this approach, as I expect to have several more years to refine it and ease into it before we will be having the majority of this conversation with them.
[i] Douglas Kirby, Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases, (Washington, DC: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2007), p. 15, accessed 5 February 2007, <http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/EA2007/EA2007_full.pdf>.