The New York Times and other prominent news sources recently reported that there is now proof that abstinence-only programs don’t work. A meta-analysis of data (this means analyzing data from a number of different studies) “found no good evidence that such programs delayed the age of first sexual intercourse or reduced the number of partners an adolescent might have.”
Let me first state that such research and reporting is always approached with a bias. It’s impossible to conduct research and write articles like these without the desire to prove what you already believe to be true (just as I write with a bias towards a biblical view of sexuality). In fact, the New York Times article concedes that some research suggests that four abstinence-only programs have had a positive impact (Healthy Futures, Positive Potential, Heritage Keepers, and Promoting Health Among Teens (PHAT)).
While I believe we must be teaching abstinence, I agree with the New York Times that teaching abstinence alone is not enough. In fact, no form of “sex education” is going to ultimately keep teenagers from engaging in sexual activity. We live in a world where sexual experimentation, viewing sexually explicit shows like “Game of Thrones,” and engaging with pornography have become accepted norms even among Christian teens. We have a sexually permissive and explicit culture targeting teens and young adults who have sexual desire and a sin nature. Add to that the impact of smart phones, streaming technology, and the delay of marriage and you have a toxic recipe that seems practically impossible to stand against.
I truly wish there were some course or magic pill we could give teens (including my own) that would instill in them the danger of sexual immorality and the beauty of God’s plan. Unfortunately, there is no such fool-proof plan.
Even Christian-based abstinence programs that have positively impacted thousands of teens and young adults have also created confusion and disillusionment for others who felt God promised them a happy marriage with great sex if only they abstained. Some reacted to such programs with deep shame that they could no longer be among the elite sexually pure because of past choices.
Whatever your opinion of abstinence-only education, please don’t think that what the world is offering is effective in advocating a healthy understanding of sex. Modern sex education encourages experimentation, sexual/gender fluidity, and self-exploration as natural and healthy. This will inevitably end up in more confusion and a view of sexuality is that is completely divorced from God’s created purpose of this gift in our lives.
The bottom line is we need a new model for how we approach sexuality, not just with teens, but even among adults.
While abstinence is very important to teach children and youth, it is not the most important message we have to give. More valuable than a teen’s sexual choices is the choice of trusting Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Sometimes I fear that we get the cart before the horse. Being sexually pure does not lead to eternal salvation for our children. By contrast, it’s only through a relationship with Jesus Christ that a person has a compelling reason and the spiritual power to say no to peer pressure, strong sexual desire and temptations.
Sexual purity is not just about saying “no” to having sex with your boyfriend. It has to be rooted in a broader understanding of our God’s love for us, the harmful impact of rejecting His design, and the hope of His redemption in our lives. The reality is that most teenagers are looking at porn, experimenting sexually and are not convinced that there is anything morally wrong with any of these behaviors. In fact, the culture is working hard to erase any sexual ethic other than do what you like as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. Showing up with a “just say no to sex” message is like bringing a Dixie cup to confront a Super Soaker.
While I wholeheartedly support the efforts of those who are teaching abstinence in schools, churches and in their own homes, it’s a mistake to think that information alone will be enough to stand against the internal and external pressures teens are facing. Similarly, a promise ceremony or signing a purity pledge may be external symbols of a commitment to abstinence, but teens and young adults must be equipped with a more complete picture of the spiritual landscape of sexuality. Why does sexuality matter to God? Why do I matter to God? Why is sex so often associated with shame? Most importantly, how do I understand the gospel in light of my sexuality and my sexual choices?
If you’ve been engaging with Authentic Intimacy as a ministry, you know that we are passionate about sexual discipleship™. The sexual discipleship™ model means that we teach about sexuality within the lifestyle of following Jesus, not just a class addressing purity or cultural questions. Discipleship requires relationship, modeling and honest dialogue throughout daily life.
Whatever models we might use in academic settings to teach about sexual health will ultimately be insufficient in keeping them “safe” if teens do not have parents and mentors who have a greater goal for them abstinence.