When we think about sexuality, we're looking at human Desire, with a capital "D." For thousands of years sexual passion has been a major theme in literature, music, and the visual arts. How many songs about your favorite ice cream flavor – you know, the emotional conflict of choosing between Rocky Road and Cookies 'n' Cream – ever made it onto any radio station's Top 40 play list? But sexual passion is on the airways 24-7 because it can be blinding, all-consuming, and – with the right person at the right time – one of the consummate experiences of human fulfillment.
Teenage males are as enamored with sexuality as the rest of the human race. Teaching religion at a boys' Catholic prep school for sixteen years, I've spent a lot of time discussing sex with teenagers – probably thirty percent of class time, in fact. The experience has given me a unique entrée into the hearts and minds of teenage boys, especially when it comes to sex. For most people, including the boys themselves, this is shrouded in mystery. So I'd like to share with you some of what I've learned along the way, and maybe these observations will help teen readers consider and reach a wise decision regarding their sexuality.
Over the years and from countless conversations with students, I've come to see that what we human beings crave most is to be competent, connected and comforted. What do I mean by these words? Competent: we want to feel that we have skills, we have gifts, and we have the power to bring them to fruition – to produce, to create, to serve. But that's not enough for us. We also long for a sense of connection. We know that at a fundamental level we are social creatures who need relationships and need to be accepted for who we are. Being rejected, being truly solitary is to be in hell. And beyond these, we look for comfort – for touch, tenderness, support. We want someone to be unequivocally "for us." The young men I teach do not gush about their friendships (no friendship bracelets or "best friends forever" signs here), but they still show the same need for real human relationships and support by using two phrases over and over again. One is the affirmation "Remember – I've got your back." The other is the highest accolade one teenage boy can say about another: "He was there for me."
Now if all human beings desire to be competent, connected, and comforted, these aspirations apply to our sexuality, too. When we love someone sexually, we absolutely want to be competent, connected, and comforted. We want to feel that we love them competently – that we have the power to give love, to give pleasure, and to receive it in a way that's most pleasing to them. We also want a connection with another human being that will be electric, like no other relationship we have with anyone else. And, at the core of our deepest hope, we want it to be permanent because we also desire to be comforted – to be held, supported, and known. Not for one night, but for a lifetime. We want someone who will not leave us, for whom the connection\ also is profound, permanent, and passionate.
So, my invitation to teenagers is this: What do you want most in your life? What do you want people to say about you when they are lowering your coffin into the grave? I know that sounds really morbid, but sometimes it can help sort out the static of desires that frequently assaults us. When we think about our life from the perspective of our grave site it can drive home to us what is true: "This ain't no dress rehearsal." Or, as another friend wisely reminded me, "Julie, you only get one life – you have to make choices."
So, if you want to find true love in an age where so many people end up divorced, or have serial live-in and move-out partners, or think that having sex anytime after puberty is "right" as long as it's done "responsibly" with a condom, what are you to do?
First, as regards your sexual choices, please CHOOSE. Don't let circumstances dictate your sexual behavior. Don't let alcohol, a persistent date, advice in Seventeen magazine, or a loneliness that you didn't realize was there dictate what you do with your sexuality. If you let other people or factors make the decision for you, it may leave you wondering the next day: "What was I thinking?" Answer: You probably weren't thinking, and that was the problem!
Reflect on it ahead of time: What does sexual touch mean to you? Does it mean anything? Are you saying anything to a young man when you kiss him? How about when you kiss him again and again and ... (Well, you get the picture!). After an experience like this, what is Brian or Matt or Sean supposed to conclude: "She has feelings for me"; "I guess I mean more to her than I thought"; or "This girl is HOT!" Of course, what your eager partner concludes is likely to be based not only on the kiss(es) but also on the context: do you know Brian or Matt or Sean? Are you friends, classmates, acquaintances? Or is this just a random "hook-up" at a party?
And what are you feeling while this kissing fest is going on? What did it mean to you at the time? What do you think it says about how this person feels about you? As you look back on the whole event, how do you feel about it now?
I find that as people answer these questions on what sexuality means to them, they tend to operate out of one of two sexual "models" – sexual touch is either about recreation or it is about love.
Turn on the TV and it will take you about three minutes to see that today's culture tends to promote the recreation model: "You want to play tennis, I want to play tennis; let's meet at the
court at 1:00 p.m. and play tennis!" The sexual touch in this model is just like that tennis game: fun, sometimes challenging, usually pleasurable and, as soon as the game ends, the game itself "says" nothing. It means nothing. The event is over. Think Monica and Fun Bobby on "Friends." After the hook-up ("one night stand" for our older readers), "lovers" might ask "Was it good for you?" but they're not overly concerned about the other's emotional and physical well-being. What they're really asking is: "Am I competent in bed or not?"
In the recreation model of sexual intimacy, the only real moral criterion is consent: you must have two "consenting adults," that is two people supposedly old enough and mature enough to know what they are getting into. Any kind of coercion or misrepresentation would be wrong. In this model, it is assumed that recreational sex with the proper use of "protection" can always be "safe." And the only problem in these modern sexual sagas arises when one of the "partners" falls into bed with recreation in mind, but discovers that he or she is "in love" and longing for more, something profound and permanent. So Bridget Jones is now confiding to her diary that she has fallen in love with her boss, a "so many women, so little time" kind of guy. Now she finds herself in bed with heartbreak, under thick blankets of self-reproach: how could she be so clueless as to think that a man who goes through women like disposable razors could remain faithful?
The subtext here (and in most recreational sex in the movies and on TV) is that there is a flip switch which will disconnect the heart from the hormones. Mature and "socially aware" guys and girls, like their Hollywood role models, should know how to push that lever and prevent any sort of emotional pain.
So who are you going to believe? The cast of "Friends" and "Sex in the City," or 4000 years of Judeo-Christian tradition which tells us there is no such switch? In the eyes of the God who created us, our bodies and our hearts form just one integrated circuit. In healthy, loving people, if sexual intimacy does not start with an emotional connection, it will end there. (Remember, in the days of arranged marriages, the physical intimacy which began on the wedding night might have only mutual liking and respect to fire it. But given time, tenderness, and commitment – even between these arranged "lovers"– passion has been known to blossom!)
From the Christian point of view, there is no "safe sex" outside of marriage. Despite what they tell you (and Rachel and Ross can back me up on this), a condom is not a foolproof prophylactic. Pregnancy happens, even with the most effective forms of birth control. Sexually transmitted diseases happen, over 15 million new cases every year, many of them incurable. Condoms give little or no protection against some of the most common and incurable STDs. And there will never be a prophylactic that can protect you from getting a broken heart.
Sexual intimacy always involves these significant risks. And sex outside of marriage can have only three outcomes:
- The fairy tale ending: The couple falls into bed casually, but wakes up passionately in love. (Or, if not immediately, within the month!) Their fidelity never wavers and they end up at the altar, "happily ever after," etc. In or out of the movie theater, how many couples do you personally know who pull off this "Pretty Woman" scenario?
- The unrequited ending, á la Bridget Jones: One of the partners wants to renege on the "recreational sex" contract and hopes for true love. The other partner, kindly or unkindly, says "thanks, but no thanks." Significant heart break.
- Gold medal in the sexual Olympics. This, of course, looks clean, neat, and "safe," but physically and emotionally it is the most deadly outcome. Even secular psychologists are now questioning what years of recreational sex does to our capacity for intimacy. When "Mr. or Ms. Right" comes along, would you recognize him? Or know how to treat him or her if you did see the prize in front of you?
In the 4th century, St. Augustine offered advice that looks like something one would find in Playboy or Cosmo: "Love – and do what you will."
But how do you define "love"? At the end of the day, how do you know if you have been loving? Poets, philosophers, and psychologists have struggled with this mystery. I think, ultimately, human happiness is captured in a phrase from John's Gospel: "Love one another as I have loved you." So when we think about our sexual relationships, there's an interesting model, and a second question: "What would Jesus do?" How would the God who created you want you to use this great gift of passion and procreation? What does God see when he looks at the young man or woman in front of you? Do you see the same person? And what does God see when he looks at you? What does God want for you, right now and at the end of your life?
The answers are pretty obvious with just a little thought. God wants only the best for you. He wants you to imitate the model of Jesus by loving permanently, faithfully, completely, fruitfully. He doesn't want you to be burdened with a broken heart, with a disease that could make you sterile or kill you. He wants children to be born to married parents who are lovingly committed to each other and to their children. He wants you to understand that "[the] meaning of life is found in giving and receiving love, and in this light, human sexuality and procreation reach their true and full significance" (John Paul II, The Gospel of Life, 81).
So, as Augustine says, "Love – and do what you will." But remember that loving God, loving yourself, and loving your future husband or wife means postponing sexual intimacy until
marriage. That's the time and place where you can discover all that love is meant to be.
Julie Collins teaches religious studies and offers spiritual direction to adults and teens at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, MD.
Suggestions for Parish Programs
Before planning parish talks or programs on chastity for teens, consult with the diocesan personnel who coordinate chastity education (likely in the diocesan office of Family Life, Youth Ministry, or Education). They can tell you whether your diocese requires or recommends a particular curriculum, what programs and activities are being used successfully in the diocese, and what speakers and resources are available.
Work closely with the pastor, school and religious education staff, as well as the parish youth minister to plan educational programs and activities best suited to the parish's needs. The Resource section lists three excellent chastity curricula, among the many that are now available.
- At the parish level it might be best to begin modestly, for example, with a program for parents and their children. The Diocese of Memphis NFP Center sponsors programs for mothers and daughters (for girls 10-12 and 13-16) and fathers and sons (for boys12- 14). The purpose is to reach both generations, opening communications between them on topics such as the gift of human fertility, chastity, love, marriage and family. Typically, teachers of natural family planning (NFP) or NFP couples are asked to make presentations in a parish or diocesan setting. A program manual ($30) is available from the Diocese of Memphis NFP Center; call (901) 373-1285, or contact Mary Pat Van Epps at email@example.com.
- Organize an informal parish network of parents of teens and preteens. One person can serve as coordinator. He or she would keep informed of news and developments related to teen sexuality/chastity (and, perhaps, reviews which evaluate movies for sexual or violent content), and pass this information along to interested parents via e-mail or other method. Good information might also be posted on bulletin boards, or placed in the vestibule. Websites sponsored by the National Abstinence Clearinghouse (www.abstinence.net) and the Medical Institute for Sexual Health (www.medinstitute.org) are great places to start. The Abstinence Clearinghouse also offers a free e-mail newsletter.
- Fliers, books and videos promoting chastity should be available in the parish school library, local public library, and even public school libraries.
- Contact Pro-Life America to learn how you can distribute copies of its 28-page, full color advertising supplement "lovematters.com" on the campus of a local high school or college. Superstars, supermodels and professional athletes talk about why they chose chastity. Contains pro-abstinence advice and facts on STDs, condom ineffectiveness, and abortion. Lively text accompanies splashy celebrity photos. Contact www.lovematters.com or call 1-310-373-0743.
- Donate the following games to your parish youth ministry, CCD program and Catholic high school: "The Choice Game," available from Several Sources Foundation (CD-ROM $26.90) at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (201) 825-7277; and "FACTS and Reasons to Wait," an interactive CD-ROM which includes "The Consequence Game," available from Northwest Family Services ($39.95) at www.nwfs.org or by calling 1-503-215-6377.
Books for Teens and Young Adults
Real Love by Mary Beth Bonacci. Question and answer format covers questions a high school or college student might have on dating, marriage, and the meaning of sex from a Catholic perspective. ($12.95) Available from www.reallove.net or by calling 1-888-667-4992.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. Bestseller which presents biblical alternatives to dating and proposes "courting" as a model for male/female relationships. ($10.50) Available from Life Cycle Books, www.lifecyclebooks.com or by calling 1-888-690-8532.
Intimate Bedfellows: Love, Sex, and the Catholic Church by Thomas and Donna Finn. An excellent, often humorous overview of sexuality; provides a positive understanding of the teachings of the Catholic Church. ($3.95) Available from Northwest Family Services at www.nwfs.org or by calling 1-503-215-6377.
Books for Parents/Teachers Covenant of Love: Pope John Paul II on Sexuality, Marriage and Family in the Modern World by Revs. Richard M. Hogan and John M LeVoir. John Paul II's theology of the body made simple. ($14.95) Available from Ignatius Press at www.ignatius.com or by calling 1-800-651-1531.
Sex, Love, & You: Making the Right Decisions by Thomas Lickona et al. Filled with stories and practical insights from Dr. Lickona's experience in character education and the authors' parenting experiences. Directed to Catholic parents. ($6.95) Available from Northwest Family
Services at www.nwfs.org or by calling 1-503-215-6377.
Love and Life by Colleen Kelly Mast.Guide for parents to teach their children about chastity, relates chastity to the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. ($6.95) Available from Ignatius Press at www.ignatius.com or by calling 1-800-651-1531. "Love and Life" is also a curriculum, available only to directors of religious education.
Sexual Wisdom: A Guide for Parents, Young Adults, Educators and Physicians by Richard Wetzel, MD. ($12.95) Available from Proctor Publications at www.proctorpublications.com or by calling 1-800-343-3034.
Curricula FACTS (Family Accountability for Teen Sexuality). Fifth grade, sixth grade, middle school and high school curricula by Rose Fuller et al. A character-based abstinence education
program, updated annually. Over 30 lessons, lots of reproducible activities and handouts. Variety of components for parents, students and educators. English and Spanish. (Prices vary.) Available from Northwest Family Services at www.facts.cc or by calling 1-503-215-6377.
New Corinthians, edited by Keith Bower. Curricula for K-8 which emphasize the virtues of Christian discipleship so that, by adolescence, young people will understand the universal call to holiness and chastity as a virtue in all states of life. Program includes a 232-page parent-teacher
manual, and 48-page booklet for parents. $24.95. Available from Couple to Couple League at www.ccli.org or by calling 1-513-471-2000.
Project Genesis by Ann Gallagher et al. Comprehensive chastity education program for K-10 using Pope John Paul II's theology of the body as a starting point. Curricula include material for Religious Education programs – parent-child workshops (grades 4-6), on fertility appreciation and saving sex for marriage (grades 7-10). (Prices vary.) Available from Northwest Family Services at www.nwfs.org or by calling 1-503-215-6377.
National Abstinence Clearinghouse
Comprehensive catalog is available at www.abstinence.net or by calling 1-888-577-2966.
Medical Institute for Sexual Health
Books, fliers, posters, videos, quarterly newsletter presenting sound reasons to remain abstinent, emphasizing character development and medical risks of casual sex (designed for secular audiences). For complete listing, see www.medinstitute.org or call 1-800-892-9484.
Diocese of Memphis NFP Center
Bookmarks, stickers, and cards promoting chastity for presentations, and for teachers and parents to hand out. Catalog can be ordered from Diocese of Memphis NFP Center by e-mailing email@example.com or calling 1-901-373-1285.
Copyright © 2002, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. All rights reserved. Illustration by Dolores Daly Flessner. 0250
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