Understanding the Bigger Picture


Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.

Because of abstinence education, 16-year-old Jasmine wants to save sex for marriage, but plans to get the birth control device Norplant when she turns 18. Toby lost his virginity at age twelve; he knows he did it for the wrong reasons, “to be in that in-crowd,” but insists that he “did it correctly” because he used a condom. Tabitha, a brilliant high school senior, believes in “sexual freedom” and says she bought the birth control patch because she “fell in love.” But when pressed, she admits she traded sex for a place to stay when her family lost their apartment.

Jasmine, Toby, and Tabitha are among the subjects of a New York Times series on teenagers and their sexual attitudes. Their confused thinking reflects the conflicting messages they hear from their families, schools, health clinics, TV shows, and churches.

As you might expect, the New York Times frames these stories in terms of the need for teen access to birth control and what’s known as “comprehensive” sex education. But these kids are facing much larger issues. Tabitha regularly visits a pregnancy prevention clinic, but that hasn’t kept her from being taken advantage of by at least three adult males. Though the nurse at the clinic expresses great frustration over such “predatory” relationships, she can’t do much except schedule counseling and write birth control prescriptions. That’s like putting a Band-Aid on cancer.

What we have here is a generation that has learned to parrot ideas about abstinence without fully comprehending them. As the New York Times put it, several of the kids they talked to had a “grab bag of reasons” for waiting. But those reasons weren’t strong enough to keep Jasmine, for instance, from panicking and offering sex to get her boyfriend back after a fight. (Fortunately for both of them, he said no.) Jasmine hasn’t been taught to see a picture that’s bigger than her immediate circumstances. And she’s not alone: According to a recent government study, 88 percent of teenagers who take an abstinence pledge end up having sex before marriage.

Our approach needs to be even more “comprehensive” than that of the so-called “safer-sex” advocates. Having six children, I can tell you that we need to meet these kids where they are and teach them to focus on long-term goals, not stopgap solutions. We need to show them examples of strong marriages, so they can see there’s something worth waiting for. Most of all, we need to teach them about sex within the context of a clear and consistent worldview — a worldview that emphasizes human dignity; the importance of stable families; and respect for their Creator, for themselves, and for others. This approach is exactly the opposite of the piecemeal messages that the kids are getting today from all kinds of sources, which means it might just be new and different enough to capture their attention.

Tabitha, Jasmine, and Toby aren’t faced with problems that are merely physical, and they can’t be dealt with just that way. Their greatest needs are spiritual and emotional — needs that the body of Christ is uniquely equipped to deal with.

But just getting them into youth groups that focus on personal piety is not going to be enough. We must reach out to our children with a clear and well-reasoned worldview so they’ll understand what life is really about. Otherwise the problem of teen sex will only get worse.

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).

Associated Press, “Study: Abstinence pledges not reducing rates of STDs,” USA Today, 9 March 2004.

Gregg Easterbrook, “Virgins and virtuecrats,” Beliefnet.com, 8 March 2004.

Diana Keough, “Fear and dating in Ohio,” Beliefnet.com, 8 March 2004, and “Keeping Your Kids Chaste,” Beliefnet.com, 8 March 2004. Reprinted from the Cleveland Plain Dealer Magazine.

Charles Colson, “The Real Purpose of Sex,” Beliefnet.com, 20 November 2000. Reprinted from BreakPoint Online.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, “Let’s Have More Teen Pregnancy,” Beliefnet.com, 30 September 2002. Reprinted from National Review Online.

Jennifer M. Parker, “The Sex Lives of Christian Teens,” Christian Reader, March/April 2003.

Amy Kass and Leon Kass, ed., Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying (University of Notre Dame Press, 2000).

Andrew Herrmann, “Marriage in the movies,” Chicago Sun-Times, 2003. See also Onalee McGraw, “The Wisdom of Hollywood,” i.e., March 2001.

BreakPoint Commentary No. 030617, “Twisting Reality: Teenagers, Sex, and Depression.”

Roberto Rivera, “Changing Hearts,” BreakPoint Online, 1 May 2003.

Gina Dalfonzo, “What Aren’t You Kids Doing!?” BreakPoint Online, 4 June 2002.

Bridget E. Maher, “Abstinence until Marriage: The Best Message for Teens,” Insight, Family Research Council, March 2004.

Robert E. Rector, Melissa G. Pardue, and Shannan Martin, “What Do Parents Want Taught in Sex Education Programs?” Backgrounder #1722, Heritage Foundation, 28 January 2004.

Robert E. Rector, Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., and Lauren R. Noyes, “Sexually Active Teenagers Are More Likely to Be Depressed and to Attempt Suicide,” Center for Data Analysis Report #03-04, Heritage Foundation, 3 June 2003.


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