Teaching Sex in a Healthy Way: How I Hope to Keep my Kids From Growing up Naked and Ashamed….

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.

Wow.

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&gt;.

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Your husband doesn’t have to earn your respect

Your husband doesn’t have to earn your respect.

I don’t agree with everything Matt says here. I find hyperbole in several of his supporting pillars, but I have struggled with this question for approximately two years (maybe longer). I admit it. And there have been times the vignette he opens with could have been me and my husband. I do find the pervasiveness of the  man-mocking meme curious.  I took my kiddo to a play that was culturally Indian last weekend. Even here, I found women joking about their lazy, good-for-nothing husbands.

I was raised by a strong woman, a feminist, in the deep South… where cultural norms and religious dictates often get confused. I grew up in a family whose tree looks tangled and confusing due to generations of rampant divorce. I don’t say this to shame my family. It just is, and I am daily learning new ways it has influenced the woman I am today.

More than a year ago, during a trying time in my marriage, I sought counsel from one of the ministers at my church. She encouraged me to give my husband respect. That challenge made my stomach turn. I had a visceral response of gut-wrenching “ugh.” This was becoming a more difficult conversation than I wanted it to be. I named the barriers to respect I faced. She named respect as a need for men. “He’s not __________! He’s _________! He doesn’t deserve my respect,” I said. I don’t even remember the specifics of my protest at this time, nor would I want to publish them if I did. Her response was something akin to, “What if you had to earn his love?”

At the time, I did feel like I was trying to earn his love. He wasn’t loving me well, and it was apparent in the level of conflict and dysfunction in our house. He was perpetually trying – and failing – to earn my respect, as I was trying – and failing – to earn his love. But this is not right. As a husband, he should not have to earn my respect. It should have already been established in the dating process. My pastor encouraged me to emulate God in my relationship to my husband. Lofty advice. It felt trite, and I protested so. I am not God. But I yield. Somehow the cycle of had to be broken. No more earning and demanding the other earn what we most needed. Offering him respect was one way I could begin to do something different. And it was and still is at times hard.

Single ladies… please…. Your respect for your man should be well-established prior to saying ‘I do.” Marriage is hard, and commitment takes work, but some of the major hurdles couples face can be circumvented if you can say you trust and respect your significant other wholly, and that he loves you well prior to saying “I do.” But what about those who are married already without this being well-established? Ladies, I am with you. This one’s hard. And all I can say is the result is well worth the cost. He needs your respect. And the deficit thereof can make coming home a painful, rather than joyful process. You want intimacy, yet your disrespect pushes him farther away and makes you an unsafe person for him to be vulnerable with. You have the power to change this. You can change the ugly cycle of demanding/earning. It will cost you, and it will bring peace and joy… and love.

Overall, I agree with what Matt Walsh writes in this particular post, but there are a few things he says and doesn’t say that I feel need to be addressed.  First, Matt speaks from a position of power that he may be unaware of. This is probably part of why he gets so much flack for opining about what women need to do in this manner. Perhaps the culture of disrespect towards men that Matt discusses is a backlash against the demands that men, in a position of power, have imposed on women for numerous years prior. I, on the other hand, may have more license to tell women what we are doing to harm our relationships simply because I am one.

I must argue with Matt when he writes,

“I’ve noticed that the corollary – a message about the respect women must give men, a message challenging wives and encouraging husbands – isn’t quite so palatable for many people” (emphasis mine).

Matt, to challenge a woman to respect her husband is one thing. To state that women at large must respect men at large is absurd and belies your presumed power and your ignorance of the barriers that prevent women from respecting all men. When I open above with the statement (which I copied from and linked back to Matt’s blog) that husbands do not need to earn their wives’ respect, I admit that while I believe this applies to all spousal arrangements, my intended audience here is those women who identify as Christians. This is a Biblical instruction, but not based on the way Matt cut-and-paste quotes Ephesians 5, which appears to rearrange the context. I am looking solely at Ephesians 5:32-33. Our marriages will mirror the ideal of Christ’s relationship with the Church when we live in love as we should. That looks like: Men – love your wives as you love yourself. Put away selfishness which will diminish your ability to love your wife. You promised her you would do this. Wives, respect your husband, because he needs it and your respect has more power to fuel and encourage him than any other human person in his life.

Peace be with you.

An open letter to my soon-to-be-kindergartener

Hi Love,

I read this Washington Post blog today about kindergarten “standards,” and skills testing that determines students’  placement on a continuum of readiness for public school. It made me sad and concerned me.

Your Daddy and I have debated on-and-off for almost a year whether to let you start kindergarten early (this Fall) or to wait until you are officially 5. You’ve always been small… and starting you early may make this an issue, when it has never been one in the past for you. You are very intelligent (even taking into account my presumed bias) and you’ve always demonstrated a distinct preference for interaction with older kids, if given the choice. You are already reading some words, and not quite 4 years old. You share well, take turns, and tolerate frustration (but not failure) pretty well. I know you could do it, and you might really love it.

For me, the decision was made when I toured a private pre-school/Elementary school in our area. It was a highly structured program, and the director proudly told me that the children there are reading and writing independently by kindergarten. Gulp. Was this a reality-check? Maybe you aren’t the genius I think you are. Maybe you’re just a little bit bright. Then I asked how they accomplished this lofty goal. He proudly spoke of the school’s nationally recognized curriculum, and that many of their kindergartners have been learning in their programmed environment since ages three or four. We then talked about the programs for the three- and four-year-olds. I asked about free play, and was told that free play was allowed during the transitional times from 7:30-9:00 am, and then after 3:30 pm for the kids with parents who were unable to pick them up after the curricular class time.

I just left that school feeling… heavy.

Your Daddy and I have deliberately chosen child-care settings that offered preschool curricula-based programming. You have thrived and excelled in these settings. Where you are, you practice writing letters and tracing things on a daily basis, but you are also given tremendous free time to play with your friends. And you are happy, well-mannered, and socially-adept.

That did it for me. No school for you! Well… not yet, anyway. I want you to have as long to just be a kid as you can. I want to shield you from arbitrary standards and the competition that is inherent in applying those standards. I want you to remain blissfully unaware of the “otherness” that flows from ratings and scores. I am confident that you are ready and would succeed in kindergarten if you began this Fall. But Daddy and I agree that you will not suffer for having one last year to play.

The above blog was a nail in the coffin for your early entrance into big school. You see… you will be graded, rated, tested and placed for (presumably) 13 years (at least). Currently, you are not mindful of your own successes or failures on a regular (much less daily or hourly) basis. You just are. You just do. You just play and learn by default. Let’s keep it that way.

When I was in kindergarten, the biggest concern I had was developing my next scheme for trying to get moved to Emily’s (Yes, Auntie Emily’s) class. The only distinct memory I have of that year is getting in trouble once, because I told my teacher I didn’t want to be in her class. In my defense, I had known Emily for 5 years, and Ms. Sanders (not her real name) was new to me! I had no loyalty to her. And this is as (I think) it should be. Play and learning valuable social skills of frustration management and how to make new friends. (“Hey Mom, I have a new best friend!”)

Daddy seemed most passionate about advocating for your regular (not early) entrance into kindergarten. And no wonder. You see, Kiddo, Mommy grew up quickly–forgetting all too early how to play. By the time I finished college play was a foreign matter altogether. And it took years of therapy (thank you Jewelanne, Trapper, Kindra and Andrew) and retraining (thank you Daddy) for me to dare enjoy it again. I still struggle to play, as evidenced by my antsy-ness after 10 minutes of playing cars, but I’m working on it. And I don’t want you to have to work this hard at it. I want you to play with reckless abandon.