If what we really want is to prevent teenage pregnancy…
As you may be aware if you know me in real life and have talked to me for any length of time in the past year, I am working on a book about love, sexuality and faith for Abingdon Press. I am absolutely, over the moon, excited about this, but it’s also the most intimidating project I’ve ever taken on. Part of me is worried about the propriety of it all, but my very wonderful grandparents read the Introduction and the proposal and haven’t disowned me yet, so I’m less anxious about that than I once was. There are other challenges, too: bearing responsibility for the stories my survey respondents shared with me, wanting to do them justice; breaking down huge topics into manageable chapters; finding something original to add to the conversation.
But the hardest thing about writing and publishing, especially a book, is that the finished product has to stand on its own two feet. If someone reads your book and she interprets it in ways completely opposite of your intention, a good chunk of the burden of that misinterpretation falls at the feet of the writer. Good writing should be clear; faithful writing should be gracious. I’m nervous then, about getting my arguments right; about writing with clarity about subjects that are controversial and fraught.
Take, for example, the first chapter [called “Firsts.”] It’s about pleasure, and how some strains of Christianity have long suggested that sexual pleasure is in and of itself evil or otherwise sinful. And it’s also about how I disagree with those strains. I quote, as you might expect, Song of Solomon, and Christine Gudorf, who you might not know.
I gave this first draft of this first chapter to a diverse group of colleagues I love and respect, and, as happens just about anytime I talk about sex from the standpoint of theological ethics, folks told me that my argument was all well and good, but, at the same time, we don’t really want teenagers to be having sex or, more importantly, getting pregnant.
My book, it should be noted, is not for teenagers. It is specifically written for young adults, 18-35. True, the opening examples are about my first love in high school, and first sexual experiences within that relationship, but I did not actually “have sex” in high school. I waited a few more years… but the primary factor in making that decision was not fear of pregnancy.
I share the stories of that first romance because it was such a thrill for me — because it was innocent and fevered, marvelous and fraught — as that boy and I slowly made our way around [some of] the “bases.” It is possible, I want to point out, to enjoy sexual pleasure without heterosexual vaginal intercourse. It is good to spend some time making out with a trusted partner in one’s youth. It is good to gradually grow into one’s sexuality over time. It is okay to start well before you are married.
This claim often makes people really nervous, even progressive Christians who think that sex is a good gift from God. We really don’t want kids getting pregnant; the only 100% sure way to prevent pregnancy is abstinence.
These convictions are both true. But it’s 99.99% possible to prevent teen pregnancy. And the way to do it, it turns out, is not to refrain from talking about sexual pleasure.
I waited to have sex, but that decision was not due to a fear of pregnancy. I had done my research and paid attention in health class, and knew how to prevent pregnancy. It is true, of course, that sometimes you get the flu and barf up your birth control pill; sometimes a condom, worn properly, breaks. But I understood ovulation, and contraception.
Knowledge is power; and there is no small amount of cultural anxiety around empowering teenagers to learn about their bodies and their developing sexuality. We are certain that knowledge will quickly become titillating, or suggestive. But here’s the thing: if we really want teenagers to delay their sexual debut, we need to encourage and empower them in a wide range of ways. If we want to encourage them not to get pregnant, though, regardless of their sexual activity or inactivity, we need to empower them to understand their bodies and how contraception works.
National Public Radio ran a story the other day about how, over the last 30 years, the town of Denmark, South Carolina reduced their once staggering teen pregnancy rate by half. How? Well, through comprehensive sex education, the availability of condoms, and a shared commitment among teachers, parents, health educators and churches that rampant teen pregnancy was not the best thing for anybody.
I don’t think young teenagers should necessarily be having lots of sex, but I do think it’s a more effective and gracious approach to help them learn how to make smart, healthy choices for themselves than to keep them in the dark.
Talking about the issues surrounding human sexuality is so important — though, man, it makes me anxious. It’s so important, which is why I will write this book, carefully editing and attempting to preemptively address critiques, despite the fact that my grandmother is totally going to read it, and I am still going to want to show my face at family dinners on Sundays.