Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.
Yesterday I talked about the need for consistent worldview training to help teens choose abstinence. But that’s not all teens need. As a father of six children, I can tell you that what we often forget to talk about when discussing teen sexual behavior is the enormous influence of adult sexual behavior.
While some so-called “safer-sex” advocates have a disturbing tendency to think of teen sex as normal and even healthy, the majority of adults still know it’s a bad idea. But it doesn’t seem to occur to most of them to wonder what kind of example their own personal lives are setting.
You may recall the astounding statistic from a government report I cited yesterday: Eighty-eight percent of those who take an abstinence pledge have sex before marriage. But it’s not really as astounding as we might think. After all, teens grow into adults, and adults, in this culture, are expected to have sex before marriage. It’s no wonder so many adults feel uncomfortable talking about abstinence — that kind of talk might make it look like there’s just something wrong with their own lifestyles.
Kids are watching what their elders are doing — including their own parents — and, in many cases, they’re not impressed. Yesterday I mentioned Tabitha, a 17-year-old girl who had been involved sexually with three older men. Tabitha was born to a teenage mother and hasn’t seen her father in years. After that relationship ended, Tabitha’s mother began going to church and got her life straightened out. Then she got remarried. But abused by her new stepfather, Tabitha and her mom soon found themselves living for several months in a homeless shelter. The New York Times reports, “Until her junior year, Tabitha had been a God-fearing, churchgoing girl, as she put it. Now she was unsparing as she challenged the pieties of her childhood. ‘God wants you to wait,’ she said sarcastically. ‘And do you think your husband will have waited? What about him? What if you wait for him, and he cheats on you, he beats you up?'”
Tabitha’s words are remarkably similar to those of a 13-year-old Cleveland girl interviewed by Beliefnet.com. Referring to her mother’s experience, the girl said, “Say you save yourself, and you get married when you’re 26, and then you’re divorced because he cheated on you.” The eighth-grader’s disillusionment caused her to become cynical and to abandon her mother’s example. The reporter wrote, “She quietly admits she’s sexually active and that her heart has been broken. Her eyes fill with tears, [when she says,] ‘He told me he loved me. He’s already seeing somebody else.'” The more bad examples kids see, the more likely they are to emulate them.
What we need is not just an abstinence campaign that’s narrowly focused on high-schoolers, but a cultural shift away from the “sexual freedom” that’s brought so much heartache to so many. We need to go back toward the idea that marriage, sex, and stable families are all tied together. And the Church must lead the way. Without the promise of strong families built by parents (one dad and one mom) who are committed to each other and to their children — how much hope can we really offer kids like Tabitha? How much hope can we offer our own kids? The place to start for Christian parents is to be the right example in our homes, something of which the pollsters tell us we have not been doing a good job. But the stakes are huge, and we must do it.
For further reading and information:
Nina Bernstein, “Behind Fall in Pregnancy, a New Teenage Culture of Restraint,” New York Times, 7 March 2004, and “For a Promising but Poor Girl, a Struggle over Sex and Goals,” New York Times, 8 March 2004. (Archived articles; cost $2.95 each to retrieve.) You can read the first here (from Arizona Republic). You can read the second here (from National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy; Adobe Acrobat Reader required).
BreakPoint Commentary No. 040330, “Understanding the Bigger Picture: The Need for More Comprehensive Education.”
Julia Duin, “No One Wants to Talk about It,” BreakPoint Online, 2000.
Lori Smith, The Single Truth (Destiny Books, 2002).
Amy Kass and Leon Kass, ed., Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying (University of Notre Dame Press, 2000).
Laurel Cornell, “Pure Again,” Boundless, 11 November 1999.
Marcia Segelstein, “Unforbidden Fruit,” BreakPoint Online, 10 July 2003.