In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when it comes to teaching our children about sex, we tend to always focus on abstinence as the primary goal for kids. This teaching will be no different in my household as my children grow up. We will talk about the Law of Chasity in a similar manner to what is taught in Sunday School and in our scriptures.
That being said, one thing that I feel is really important as we teach our three children about abstinence is not to use shame in an attempt to scare or intimidate our children into complying with our own moral code. The problem I see within our church and for most Christian churches (yes, we are a Christian church) is this tendency to rely heavily on rhetoric that focuses too much on shaming our children in order to motivate them into being compliant with particular commandments. We focus so much on the negative consequences of being unrepentant that we secondarily and often times unintentionally teach them that they are “dirty” or “unclean” if they happen to slip up.
There’s so much more to teaching our children about sex than simply “don’t have it before marriage”. While talking about why we should be abstinent, we also need to provide a broader explanation of sexuality in general, birth control, abuse and consent. While clearly we never want our children to ever be in a situation where they may be raped or taken of advantage of, many of our youth find themselves in these situations.
All of our children need to understand that their identity and individual worth is not tied to their virginity. The unintended consequences of teaching from a shame-based approach is that these men and women who find themselves in these situations view themselves as damaged goods. Often times once they slip into this mind set they often spiral out of control into feelings of hopelessness and lose the motivation to move forward through the healing process of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Ask any parent that has had to deal with the above situation and they’ll probably tell you a similar story.
A couple of years ago, Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped, raped and held captive for nearly a year, spoke about the way these messages discouraged her from running from her captors. She spoke at Johns Hopkins University at a forum on human trafficking. In her words:
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I’ll never forget how I felt lying there on the ground. I felt like my soul had been crushed. I felt like I wasn’t even human anymore. How could anyone ever love me or care for me after this? I felt like life had no more meaning to it. And that was only the beginning.
I was raised in a religious household where I was taught that sex only happened between a married man and a woman. After that rape, I felt so dirty … can you imagine going back into a society where you are no longer of value? Where you are no longer as good as anybody else?
Elizabeth talked about a school teacher who urged students against premarital sex and compared women who had sex before their wedding nights to chewing gum:
I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.
Elizabeth went on to advise that we focus on teaching children their inherent value. ‘The best thing we can do is educate young people as young as we can reach them,’ she said. Survivors of rape need ‘permission to fight back,’ and that requires them ‘to know you are of value.’
Clearly this is an extreme example in the case of Elizabeth Smart but the point remains the same.
Carolyn Custis James stated:
…a message of purity and abstinence, as important as this is for young women (young men too) comes too late for huge numbers of young American girls, including those in church pews. It is utterly devastating to the one-in-four girls who is sexually abused before she reaches her 18th birthday. We live in a world where by the age of 18 an estimated 70 percent of girls have had sex at least once and not always by choice, where globally countless women and girls are in the grips of sex traffickers, where an appalling 48 women are raped every hour in the Congo, where within our own borders sexual freedom has opened the door for young women to be as sexually promiscuous as men, and where some girls with the very best of intentions succumb to temptation. I grieve all of this, but do not for a second imagine that any of this means a woman has less to offer a husband or that in any sense it diminishes her worth.
If there is anything that we learn from the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the messages from our leaders it is that no woman or man is EVER, A CHEWED UP PIECE OF GUM. They are not a used car or filthy, unclean organism to be tossed aside in our society.
We can do better in teaching correct principles without compromising other principles of individual worth and the Atonement of Jesus Christ.