Is abstinence unrealistic?

I’m a regular follower of Lenore Skenazy’s blog, Free Range Kids and highly recommend her book of the same name. In today’s comments, there has been a discussion about whether it’s reasonable to expect teenagers to abstain from sex. After all, they’re swimming in a sea of hormones, relationships, and impulsiveness; expecting self-control under such conditions is old-fashioned at best, and unrealistic and naive at worst. Instead, we should accept reality and just deal with the fact that teenagers have been having sex throughout history and will continue to do so.

I beg to differ.

While LDS Church standards are clear about the expectations for sexual behavior among youth, sometimes in the public square, it can be difficult to know what to say about this topic. So, is abstinence unrealistic? Here’s what I would say:

I believe that as parents we certainly would want to teach our children to be responsible for their sexual health and safety the same way we teach them to be responsible for their physical health and safety. That means giving them correct information, teaching them what to do in both common and emergency situations in order to stay safe and healthy, and helping them explore the possible consequences for the decisions they make.

With guidance, teenagers are able to understand cause and effect, consider future goals and consequences, and start defining their own values based on what they were taught as children and what they learn by interacting with the larger community and world. With encouragement, they can decide ahead of time how they will act and react when faced with pressure to have sex — rather than give into fear, high emotions, or peer pressure.

Yes, while abstinence may difficult for some people, it is certainly not impossible, and research does show significant developmental, emotional, relational, and societal benefits to delaying onset of sexual activity.* Children and youth should be aware of those benefits when they make their decisions just as much as they should be aware of the risks and consequences of sexual behavior and the proper usage of contraception. They also need to know that, no, not “everybody” is doing it, and it’s OK not to do it.

My experience with youth suggests that more teens would choose to delay sex if they believed they would benefit from waiting, if there was less peer pressure (and adult acquiescence) to have sex, and if they felt like saying “no” was an actual socially-acceptable choice.

Instead, we seem to be telling them, “You’re a teenager, you’re just going to have sex anyway, so I won’t say/do anything about it.” That’s kind of like giving the keys to the car and saying, “You’re a teenager, you’re just going to crash anyway. I won’t teach you how to drive and I don’t expect you to obey and driving laws. They’re just outdated ideas and they don’t do any good anyway because people still get into accidents.”

I think our adolescent children deserve at least a little better than that. We need to teach them how to be responsible (even when they have hormones and periods) and to make thoughtful, ethical, and wise decisions about themselves, their sexual behavior, and their relationships.

*This was just the first article that came to mind. There are more out there, which I will find and link in a future post.

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8 Responses to Is abstinence unrealistic?

  1. K says:

    There is not a one-size-fits-all answer to this issue.

    Abstinence-only curricula clearly work… in some cases.

    In my case, I feel about sex education the same as I feel about fire education. I am clear about the dangers of fire, and why no one should set fires without appropriate training, education, and maturity. I am also clear about what to do in case of fire. My children need to know not only that they shouldn’t set fires, but how to handle the problem in case. They may need this information because things get out of hand (in the kitchen, or in the fireplace, for example). They may also need this information because they have a friend that is about to make a foolish choice.

    The data support the second technique as resulting in fewer fires – or, in the case of sex, fewer STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and more responsible behavior overall.

    I don’t tell them that I expect them to set fires (or have premarital sex)… but, I do tell them that I expect them to take responsibiltiy for their actions – regardless of the circumstance.

    • mighthavejoy says:

      K, thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      I am glad that you are taking an active role in teaching your children about sex and personal responsibility. Because it’s a difficult subject to discuss, I think that parents often default to the school curriculum, which covers biology, mechanics, and contraception, but is unlikely to cover issues like sexual morality, respect, communication, healthy relationships, and the realities of pregnancy and childrearing. As parents, we can do great good in fostering healthy attitudes about sex and intimate relationships in our children.

      I really like your fire analogy. Like fire, sex is not “bad” in and of itself. It can be very powerful and good. In the right setting, it can provide warmth, security, bonding, and even transformation. But used carelessly or incorrectly, it can do severe damage to the lives it touches, leaving destruction in its wake.

      There may not be a “one-size-fits-all” answer, but in the process of educating our children, we need to let them know that, of the many available choices, abstinence before marriage and complete fidelity afterward does the most to promote physical and emotional health, safety, responsibility, integrity, respect, commitment, trust, intimacy, and lifelong satisfaction. And those benefits extend to teenagers, adults, and families. Some people may say it is too dated, too difficult, or simply impossible. Not so. Not only is it a viable option, it is the safest, healthiest, most rewarding, and ultimately the best.

  2. Momofthree says:

    I completely and utterly agree with you. I’ve seen all
    of these responses to the original comment basically bashing her thoughts on pre-marital sex.

    I compare this to something another mother said to me once, in reference to her 12 year old son who was sneaking out, doing drugs, and having sex. And not just sex, threesomes, (found through good-ol textmessaging) she said to me “research shows that it is very normal for a boy his age to be doing these things..” I about lost it. NORMAL?! and even if it were normal, how could you possibly as a parent, sell your kids so short?!

    I suppose you could say I shelter my children, if never letting them play video games, but making them play outside, ride bikes, and gets cuts, bangs, and bruises is called sheltering. I’m strict as in I will not let today’s “norms” set the standards for who my children become. Childhood obesity and diabetes are quickly becoming the norm as well, should we feed our kids soda, candy bars, and french fries to keep them on par with “normal?”

    it is completely possible for a person to abstain from sex until married, or at least completely responsible adults if we, as parents, teach our kids self respect, discipline, and truth. Hold them to a higher standard. And if the only
    argument you can give me is that everyone is doing it, or it’s perfectly normal,… Was that parental peer pressure? For that matter, pack the pipe yourself parents and toke up with your kids, because last I checked that’s as rampent as premarital sex.

    • mighthavejoy says:

      For the record, that kind of behavior from a 12-year-old is NOT normal. In fact, it raises a lot of red flags.

      But to your points. You’re right; it isn’t just kids who experience pressure to behave a certain way. Parental and societal pressure are common themes at Free Range Kids. While taking a moral stand or setting high personal standards often attracts criticism, I’ve found that it also earns respect and results in a self-assurance that doesn’t require peer approval to maintain. High standards also provide a layer of protection from negative peer pressure: no one’s going to waste their time pressuring someone who they know won’t give in.

      Some parents say they don’t want to “impose” their values on their children or tell them how to think. Actually, teaching children how to think—how to tell right from wrong, how to make wise decisions, how to set goals, how to solve problems—is a big part of a parent’s job. And if parents are afraid of imposing their values to their children, there are plenty of people (like peers, advertisers, and videogame makers) who have no qualms at all about forcing their values on your children.

      Thank you for your comments, Momofthree.

  3. Angie says:

    I followed your link from the Free Range website… I have a few thoughts. One is that the person who is being “bashed” did not say merely that teenagers are better off if they don’t have sex (which most of the ‘bashers’ have already agreed with), but that no people should ever have sex before marriage and that, before modern times, we all lived in some kind of wholesome, ideal world where people only got married in their twenties (not true), never had premarital sex (not true), where there were fewer unwanted pregnancies (not true), and where there were virtually no sex offenders walking around (impossible to prove, but my guess is also: not true). The person also said that sex between teenagers is unequivocally harmful, which, considering that most people in history were married in their teens (including Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph) and therefore having sex, is laughable.

    I think her points have been well refuted by others, so I won’t go there. But I do want to address your stance that somehow those who don’t share your values on abstinence before marriage are somehow just throwing up their hands at teen sex and saying “teens will be teens… all those hormones and everything… nothing we can do.” As a Christian (not LDS), I hear this argument a lot, and it’s a paper tiger. Nobody is saying that, but it sure makes your argument look good in contrast, right?

    There is nothing wrong with setting high personal standards or having morals; the problem comes when you set up your moral value system as the only one that is truly “moral” and suggest that everyone else is not up to snuff. This is a huge insult and turn-off to non-Christians and one of the biggest pitfalls the church keeps falling into. In FR terms, it’s as offensive as the neighborhood moms telling you you’re a bad mom because you let your kid walk to school. Note that I’m not saying you can’t share your values or talk about why they matter in a respectful way and in the appropriate context, but you don’t do what the poster did on the FR site, which is to insert her quite uninformed and judgmental opinion into a discussion that wasn’t even remotely about the acceptability of teen sex, but was about the *criminalization* of acts that quite a number of teenagers engage in.

    • mighthavejoy says:

      While on the one hand, it is a rhetorical device, I do see that paper tiger prowling around a lot. 🙂

      I think that what makes finding common ground in discussions like this difficult, whether between parents and teens, or between “two sides” of controversial issues like this, is that what one person sees as a personal decision, the other sees as moral decision. And the stakes are very high: for the first, freedom is on the line, and for the second, souls are on the line. As a result, there is a lot of talking across each other, and often too little mutual understanding.

      My intention was to stake out some common ground while demonstrating that a moral framework for decision-making isn’t only valid, it can be good, too.

      In a world where so many voices are competing with parental wisdom (and one’s chosen value system), I think it’s valuable to teach our children that not only is there good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, ethical vs. unethical, and so forth, but that there is good, better, and best. You’re absolutely right that we don’t live in an ideal world. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up reaching for my ideals. And it sounds like, neither are you. 🙂

      I appreciate your comments.

  4. Angie says:

    By the way, there’s a book that I picked up randomly at the library recently called “Ten Talks Parents Must Have With Their Children About Sex and Character.” GREAT book. For one thing, it proves my point that parents who don’t necessarily believe in abstinence until marriage (or abstinence-only education) still have values and morals they want to impart, but, more importantly, because it discusses the things that school sex ed curricula don’t go into. It’s not just about sex, but also about peer pressure, friendship issues, etc. It is absolutely something that can be used by anyone, even someone with a strong faith-based morals system. It gives parents a chance to find out what’s really going on with their kids, find out their kids’ attitudes about things, and to talk about what their own values (the parents’ are) or what their family standards are. Great book.

    • mighthavejoy says:

      Even though the world “morals” has gotten a bad rap in recent years, I agree. Nearly everyone has some sort of moral basis for decision making (or at least some kind of litmus test) and everyone has values. Those values and their relative importance may differ, but I’m confident that the most people hold positive values that help them navigate the world successfully and even help make it a better place in some way.

      I also think it’s important as we talk to our children and teach them about sex that we discuss it in a relational context, that it’s not something you do “to,” but something you do “with,” and that there is responsibility and commitment involved.

      I’ll have to take a look at that book, Angie. Thanks for the recommendation!

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