I have just written a book for Christians about domestic abuse, and within it I have included a chapter on how we raise children and young people to have healthy and respectful relationships. Entitled “There is no chrysalis season”, one chapter suggests that we cannot only begin to address issues around sex, sexuality and relationships when children become teenagers. Children don’t sit dormant when it comes to sexuality, emerging with fully formed ideas when they reach sexual maturity. Instead, from before they are born babies are discovering what it means to be socialised as a boy or girl (the tone of voice and words we use to speak of and to girls differs to how we speak about boys, even while they’re still in the womb), as they grow they learn what is and isn’t acceptable and whether their bodies, genitals and feelings are valued, shamed or ignored.
If God intended for sexuality to be something that only emerged once we were married, He would have designed us to grow genitals after we say “I do” (what an interesting wedding ceremony that would be!). Instead, as sex educator Emily Nagoski explains, sexuality is a garden,
“On the day you’re born, you’re given a little plot of rich and fertile soil, slightly different from everyone else’s. And right away, your family and your culture start to plant things and tend the garden for you, until you’re old enough to take over its care yourself. They plant language and attitudes and knowledge about love and safety and bodies and sex. And they teach you how to tend your garden, because as you transition through adolescence into adulthood, you’ll take on full responsibility for its care.” (Come As You Are, p.38)
I spoke recently with a group of young people about sex. One of them told me that her church youth worker had told her youth group that sex was like a slide, you climbed up the rungs and at some point (nobody knew when) you would just slide down the slide. The end. So best to stay off the slide. This youth worker hadn’t given any context, or clarified what each of the rungs was, and so the young people who heard this talk were left with the distinct idea that sex was uncontrollable, at any point you might slip down the slide (I assume she meant penetration, but who knows!). As youth workers, we are part of planting that garden. What does it mean if we communicate that sex involves a lack of control? Do we open up toxic possibilities that girls will think that boys can’t help but be sexually harmful towards them? Does it leave young people scared of sex and not able to differentiate between consensual sexual activity and coercion and force? What about if they get married, will that fear of sex leave them with dysfunctional sexuality that is difficult for both them and their spouse?
Pornography is the dominant way young people learn about sex. It is violent, degrading, unrealistic and abusive. And so Christian young people have a choice between violent and degrading images of sex in popular culture or Christian culture’s euphemisms and scary analogies of slippery slopes with no control. We need to offer young people a more realistic, hopeful and honest approach to sex and sexuality. That isn’t easy, but it starts with recognising all the toxic messages out there (and in the church) about sex and giving young people the skills to identify and articulate what these toxic messages are. As youth workers we need to be willing to have difficult conversations with young people, often in contexts where church leaders or parents think that when it comes to sex their little darlings will be suspended in a chrysalis, emerging with a healthy sexuality just in time for their wedding day. Not only do we need to be working with young people, but also challenging church leaders and parents to see this as an important issue that they have a responsibility to support their children to engage with. It’s an uphill journey, but the potential for harm is so great that we must choose to be part of the solution.
For more ideas and resources for working with young people on issues around sex and relationships, you can order Natalie’s book here.