Getting an abstinence talk from a parent or youth pastor has become something of a rite of passage for evangelical teens. As evidenced by purity balls and promise rings, our subculture is deeply concerned with protecting youth from premarital sex. But I wonder if our focus on avoiding intercourse is too narrow—especially as today’s youth face a barrage of messaging related to their bodies, appearance, and sexuality.
Young people stumble into sex-conscious adolescence seemingly earlier than ever, thanks to a lucrative media industry bent on marketing sexiness to teens, tweens, and even children. A recent study found that “eight- to 18-year-olds spend more time with media than in any other activity besides (maybe) sleeping—an average of more than 7½ hours a day, seven days a week.” They sift through an ever-increasing onslaught of body-oriented material, from a lingerie company promoting their new adolescent apparel collection to Miley Cyrus’s Instagram feed.
From this, youth learn that their bodies are powerful tools to gain approval and attract desire. They learn to judge bodies that are too plump or unfashionably clothed or plain by media standards. They learn that their budding sexuality is currency to be spent in our looks-focused social economy of selfies and Instagram.
While parents and church leaders recognize the dangers of this toxic media environment, their instincts are often to push the same message of saving sex for marriage even harder, earlier, and with more urgency. But these youth, especially girls, need more than being told no to their sexual desire. They also need to be told yes to their bodies, a different kind of affirmation than what society offers.
Yes, your body has power – power to worship God, serve others, and manifest God’s goodness. Yes, your body is meant to connect to others – through healthy, healing touch and through vibrant self-expressions of dance, sport, and movement, instead of through conforming to cultural standards of size and style or through casual hookups. And yes, sexuality is a good thing – pointing us toward the unity, creativity, and passion of our triune God, who beckons us to join.
There are so many more aspects to respecting the body as a temple of God than simply avoiding premarital sex, and the church can play a role in shepherding youth through the morass of other media messages about their bodies.
We need to address topics beyond premarital sex when it comes to teaching on the body because, as minister and Harvard Divinity School professor Stephanie Paulsell writes in her book Honoring the Body, “The sexual body does not exist apart from the body that eats and drinks, bathes and dresses, rests and exercises and works.” Thus, she argues, “Only talk that arises organically from within an ongoing practice of honoring the body can help us to make ready homes and churches and communities of all kinds that reverence the gift of sexuality.”
Paulsell calls for an ongoing practice of honoring the body. This is not something we have always excelled at as Christians—but we have a robust theology to offer youth far more than “the talk” as a rite of passage.
How can we teach young people to nourish, clothe, and care for their bodies in ways that glorify their Creator? How can we affirm menstruation in girls so that they rejoice and wonder in their life-bearing powers, rather than feel embarrassed and gross each month? How can we teach boys that manly strength does not require taking steroids or having a six-pack, but comes through submitting to Christ?
They need opportunities to experience healthy delight in their bodies so that sex isn’t the only venue through which they can understand bodily pleasure. This could take the form of camping trips where young men and women gain confidence and joy in their bodies as they test their strength and endurance. Or workshops in the church where youth learn that it is possible to worship God and connect to others in the body of Christ using movement and touch, not just words. I can imagine women gathering girls to celebrate the changes happening in their bodies through sharing food, giving some home spa treatment, and telling their own growing-up stories.
When we teach young people to be at home in their bodies and to view them with wonder and appreciation, an ethic of sexual abstinence before marriage follows. All too often, abstinence talks can leave young people with a sense of fear and suspicion about the body, viewing it as a pitfall along the spiritual journey rather than as a gift from God. When we become distanced from our bodies, however, premarital sex becomes less consequential. If we don’t see our bodies as an integral part of who we are, it becomes easier to give of oneself physically without realizing that our whole beings are at stake. The teaching that sex is meant for marriage only makes sense when we understand that our bodies and souls are joined – whole body intimacy requires whole person, whole life commitment.
This doesn’t mean that we do away with abstinence talks. Giving clear and compelling reasons for the Christian conviction that sex is meant to be enjoyed within marriage is all the more important today in our sex-saturated society. But a robust understanding of our bodies, and all that we can say yes to, may be the missing link we need to equip our youth to navigate adolescence with sexual integrity and wholeness.