Actions, passions, and abstinence The sad state of sex education today (and how to fix it)

Ever wonder why sex ed, comprehensive sex ed, abstinence education, silver ring thing, and nearly all the myriad of sexual education and chastity programs out there are miserable failures? (Let’s face it. Statistically, they are.)


imageThe condoms thing is not it (but it is part of it). Let me get this out of the way, first. We are talking to the young people (and adults for that matter) like they are animals who have no control over their urges. Yes, we have sexual desires. Yes, sometimes it’s difficult to fight them. But we are not irrational beasts. We are human beings. We have the ability to control our urges. We cannot just tell our young people something is evil – but since they are weak, we expect them to do it anyway. That’s comprehensive sex ed in a nutshell; we tell the young people around us that we don’t trust them to be anything more than dogs in heat.

We cannot just threaten them: “Sex will lead to some horrific result.” Like any human action, there are consequences to a decision to be sexually active, but this approach just makes us portray sex as something evil, and that just is not true. This is not the way we understand our sexuality as Christians. Babies are not a punishment for sex, they are a gift that comes as a fruit of it. This approach fails on so many levels. It cheapens the gift that sex is to mankind, and it won’t even begin to prevent promiscuity. One thing I remember from my psych classes in my undergrad years is that negative reinforcement must be consistently and universally applied, or creatures will naturally begin to be willing to “risk it” for the reward and only the risk of consequence.

In my estimation, though, neither of these are the source of the dismal failure of the approaches we take to teach the young people of today about sex and sexuality. The problem is in Coach Carr’s first sentence: “Don’t have sex.” This single imperative is doomed to failure if it is the key to what we teach people about sexuality.

At least one of my reader(s) knows, prior to seminary, prior to computer geeking, prior to cheffing, I studied acting. I probably wasn’t the best actor in the world, but I wasn’t bad. I recall a time I was doing scene work in class. I think I was doing a scene from The Glass Menagerie – perhaps it was The Taming of the Shrew. Either way. It doesn’t matter. The point is, while we were working, the teacher/director asked what I was doing in the scene. I responded, “I’m trying not to leave.” He then pointed out to me why I couldn’t get the scene to work – and what I maintain is the biggest failure of sex education in the world today.

No person in the history of mankind ever did not something successfully.
Read that sentence again. I promise it makes sense with the right inflection.

The problem in the scene was that my entire motivation was not to leave. How do I do that? At the very least, my action needed to be to stay. Better, I could have been fighting or proving or insisting. Action on the stage is never an absence of action. People don’t think like that. Action on stage is never a “be verb.” Those lead to actions that express the being. In Thomistic-Aristotelian language, agere sequitur esse, action follows from being.

In contemporary abstinence based sex ed, that’s all we do, though. “Don’t have sex!” or “Be pure!” What do those mean? How does a person live those? I mean, if someone is the midst of some real temptation, sure, knowing the rule might help, but it’s not going to last. “Don’t have sex” is a band-aid. When we are accused of repressing sexuality, I think, in a way, the accusation is absolutely correct if this is all we give – and whether or not we want to admit it, it usually is.

Let’s try an experiment.
Don’t think about green elephants. How’d you do?
Don’t think about food. How’d you do?
Don’t eat a piece of toast. How’d you do?

If you are like most people, I have a hunch that you failed on the first two, and you are presently succeeding on the third. I guess it’s possible someone is reading this over a lovely snack or breakfast of a piece of toast – or that I gave you an urge for a piece of toast – but, otherwise, I think my guess of your success rate is pretty accurate.

The problem is, the third question is about all we frequently give in abstinence-based education. We tell a person to “not eat toast,” to “not have sex,” or to “be pure.” The problem is we cannot live our lives as a negative. Eventually, the negative won’t be enough. We will eat toast or engage in sexual activity, no matter how pious and pure we are if that’s all we have. So now, people say, “of course! We know that. We also tell kids to be pure.” In that case we have offered a vague adjective, but still no help in living it. What does “be pure” look like? Do girls have to cover every inch of skin of their bodies? Do boys have to pretend every girl is their sister and that finding them physically attractive is some sort of sin until they’re married? Do couples have to limit any physical interaction to holding hands (as long as they don’t get caught)?

Of course not.

Thinking like this leads people to look to notions like “secondary virginity” as the solution when someone has engaged in sexual activity before. We tell kids they can make a decision today to be virgins again. I’m sorry. That’s not true. We can make a decision to live as though we are virgins. That is good. We can make a decision to avoid the sins of the past. Great plan! But we can’t make a decision to be a virgin again. It’s just not what the term means. We can’t dance around these things like there’s some magic that makes the past not exist. The past happened, and, in the words of Rafiki, we can learn from it or run from it. All too often, I see young people take a third option the mystic monkey doesn’t mention: we can drown ourselves in it; this is the world of the girl who considers herself damaged goods because of a mistake of the past.

So, back in my scenework, I changed my answer. “I’m trying to stay.” I thought I got it right.
Nope. That’s no better. Turns out Yoda was right. As a person, we have two options. Do or do not; there is no try. When is the last time you tried to do something. I’ll give you a hint. Except linguistically, you didn’t. You may have been prevented from doing a thing, but if you set out to try rather than to do, you failed. (Again, trust me; that sentence makes sense.)

Let’s do another experiment.
Try to breathe.
Did you breathe?
Did you breathe because you decided to breathe or because you tried to breathe? (hint: pick the first one.)

So what am I proposing? It’s nothing new. In my estimation, it is part of what was so groundbreaking about Pope Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. When he wrote his catecheses, he provided a positive view of the body and of sexuality. His goal was never to tell people to not have sex. He didn’t suggest abstinence education. He didn’t propose giving a little silver ring to remind people of a doomed commitment to a negative. Instead, he called us to reflect on how properly to use our bodies and express our sexuality.

Quite simply, if we want sex ed in the modern world to work, if we want to have young people who celebrate themselves, their sexuality (as it is meant to be), their lives, and their faith, we have to propose a way to live that is achievable and based on positive action, not based on avoiding sin and error. We need to focus on Truth. If Truth is taught, there will be no room for sin, evil, and error because these will be identified for what they are from the outset.

We have a manufacturer: God. We have something of an instruction manual: Sacred Scripture. We have a training and help desk (What Apple-users would call a Genius Bar) : The Church. We have a repair department: The Sacraments. We just have to follow the instructions and apply every part of our being as it was meant to be used. And we have to teach young people what it means to do the same.

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