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Friday, February 15, 2013

Lutheran Look: Sexual Ethics Education

I'm willing to bet that title causes some surprise.  So, let me introduce this post a little by sharing a link to Love, Joy, Feminism, a blog by Libby Anne, who was raised in an evangelical Christian household that encouraged the Christian purity culture and practiced "traditional gender roles".  (I can't stand that term.  Traditional for who?)  She's since left that tradition, and her focus is talking with others who have as well.

She explores a variety of issues in the blog, but in this post she points out that while Christians generally have very strong opinions about sex and sex ed, one way or another, we don't do a lot in terms of talking about sexual ethics with our teens, in terms of how to do things right.  She offers one central question:

What would you tell teenagers about sex?

My short answer? A lot.  When in doubt, I believe in education.  My parents did not censor my reading- though we discussed what I read regularly.  I learned early how to use a library, and have been on the Internet since I was 12.  I am an unabashed nerd, and my answer to nearly every concern or project I run across is "more research!"

And I was not the only teenager like that who I knew, when I was that age.  Oh, they might not call it "research", but anytime you deny information to a teenager, they are going to go looking for it.  (My English teacher once ensured our entire class would read "The Wife of Bath" tale from the Canterbury Tales by saying he wasn't assigning it because it was too lewd.)  And on this subject, my thoughts may well be influenced by the fact that I went through a full sex ed curriculum in my health classes in middle and high school that contained the anatomical information, as well as details on how STDs are transferred, what the symptoms are, and how the more common varieties of birth control worked.  This happened just before the rise of "abstinence only" education, and I'm extraordinarily thankful for it.

Now, when it comes to anatomy, STDs, and the chemistry of birth control, I don't know that church is the appropriate place for that- unless, of course, it isn't offered in the local schools.  In which case, where would you rather your kid learn about these things- in church, or from unreliably informed friends?

I wish the ELCA had something like the UCC's "Our Whole Lives" curriculum, which deals with so much more than just sex ed.  Failing that, however, I think there are certain major subjects that do need to be addressed by the church, with confirmation students and youth groups.
  • What does the Bible actually say about sex, marriage, and love?
    • Quite a bit of what the Bible says on this subject has certainly been influenced by the culture of that time's treatment of women (as property) and understanding of marriage (as an economic contract).
    • Take that away, however, and you are still left with firm stances- rape is bad, and adultery (that is, breaking a vow of fidelity) is bad. 
    • And sex? Every time the idea of "sexual immorality" is brought up, it always centers on taking sex lightly, not valuing it for what it is- a unique connection between people, a show of trust, vulnerability and honor.  Jesus told us to love one another as God has loved us, and sex is just one way to show that love.
  • How do we make decisions about sex, marriage and love, both including and excluding the religious aspect?
    • Separately from the Bible, we can recognize that our relationships (romantic and not) are healthy when they build us up; involve respect, admiration, and trust; and provide us with support and love.
    • We recognize that having sex is the most physically vulnerable you can be with another person, and that it is tied into emotions and relationships in a unique way.  As a comparison, it's sort of equivalent to asking someone to hold your wallet and cell phone in the middle of the Mall of America for two hours, and trust that they won't spend all your money and post all kinds of things to your Facebook.
    • Also, we can recognize that sex involves a lot of risk, especially when approached without the right education or with a lack of trust.  STDs and pregnancy are certainly part of that, but also a relationship that involves sex is necessarily deeper and more complicated than one without, and breaking it more painful.
    • Given what the Bible does say about marriage, many people do still choose to wait until marriage to have sex.  On a side note, it is required of ELCA pastors, and those studying to become pastors, that they only have sex with the person they're married to.  (Since 2009, we have acknowledged that legal marriage is sadly not an option for everyone, and a somewhat-equivalent system has been set up for homosexual pastors with partners.)
  • What are ways that sex can and has been misused?
    • Rape and Incest- I put these two in the same category because incest often involves one partner being underage, and therefore unable to consent.  The Bible does have stories of rape and incest in it, and sadly does not approach them with the pastoral ways we would today- because then as now most people being raped were women, and in that time the suffering of the woman was secondary to how the rape "decreased her value" to her nearest male relative- husband, father, or brother.  However it does clearly state that both are crimes, and that sex should always be entirely consensual.  (And the Song of Solomon is a lovely celebration of what that consent might look like.)
    • Pornography and commercial sexuality- Any time that money enters the equation when we're talking about sex, it degrades both the act and the people in it.  What should be a situation of completely free consent has added the coercion of financial incentive.  What should be an act of trust and love between two people has become a financial transaction.  The value that each person would hold for the other is removed and only the value of the money matters.  The people involved become bank accounts, objects, and that is not following the commandment that we are to love one another as God has first loved us. Pornography in particular adds to the objectification of others (and therefore not loving them as God first loved us) by having nothing to do with who they are as people, but only what they look like and what they're willing to do on camera.  In addition, pornography is often connected to sexual trafficking and those involved are often forced to participate.
  • How do we approach the decision making of people with different points of view than ours?
    • With grace, education, and open hearts.  We acknowledge that all people are the beloved creations of God, and that we all fall short of God's hopes for us.  We, as yet, see as through a mirror, darkly.  One day, when, we do not know, we will all join in celebration together, at one with God.  Until then, we encourage respect and honesty wherever we can.
For further information on what the ELCA itself says on related matters, there is the 1991 Social Statement on Abortion, the 1996 Social Message on Sexuality, the 2001 Social Message on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, and the 2009 Social Statement on Sexuality.  (Social Messages are a bit shorter and less thorough than Social Statements, and only have to be voted on by the Church Council, rather than the entire General Assembly.)  All have subject headers and are reasonably skim-able for those truly interested.  You can also see something of a journey that the ELCA has made between the 1996 Sexuality Message and the 2009 Sexuality Statement.

So, why wait until your wedding to have sex?  (You didn't really think I'd finish this post without asking that, did you?)

Well, this article from A Practical Wedding is a wonderful list of reasons to wait- from a completely non-religious point of view.  That's right.  There are reasons that don't have to do with the Bible.

On a more personal note, I'll add that yes, I waited until I was married.  Partly because I've known I was going to be a pastor for the ELCA since I was 15, and I knew that rule going in.  But mostly?  Not so much because of that.  And it wasn't really because I wanted it to be "special", either.  And hellfire and damnation didn't really enter into it.

I mostly waited because I couldn't (still can't) imagine wanting to have sex with anyone I wasn't married to.  I am a deeply and naturally monogamous person.  Like I've said, sex involves a lot of vulnerability, and I wasn't interested in being that kind of vulnerable with a person I hadn't already said I'd spend my life with.  Touch has always mattered to me- I like hugs, but it took me a lot time to get used to them from people that weren't family.  My husband occasionally gets me flowers, but only occasionally, because I honestly prefer just having his arm around me as we watch a movie.  I didn't want to share that kind of physical affection with anyone else.

So I recognize that not everyone's wired that way, and your reasons for waiting may be different from mine.  But I will mention this: I've spoken to a lot of women (and a few men) who have told me that they wish they had my "excuse" for not having sex before marriage.  Who said they wish they could just sweep that option right off the table in any dating relationship right away, because of the pressure and the complications of when and why you make the decision to have sex.  You may find dating a lot easier if you tell people right off you're going to wait until marriage for sex- it certainly helps weed out the ones who aren't really interested in you as a person.

One final note: you never "have to" have sex.  You never owe it to anyone.  I don't care if they paid for dinner or helped you move or you've been dating for a year and they're ready.  I don't care if you've had sex before with someone else or even with this person.  You never owe anyone sex, ever.  And if they're not willing to wait for your enthusiastic consent, then they are not worth your time, trust, and certainly not your love.  You deserve better, you are a beloved part of God's creation, and you do matter.

God bless you all.

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