Just finished “Forbidden Fruit” by Mark Regnerus. Regnerus is a sociologist at The University of Texas at Austin and in this book he chronicles his research with teenagers on the subject of sex and the impact their religion has had on their decisions about sex. I found the book to be very interesting, though at times too academic for my simple tastes. His honest appraisal of the myriad of studies done over the years as well as those done very recently helps us understand some truths about the influences, motivations and subsequent actions of teens. At the end he lists twelve conclusions. I’ll chronicle a few of them here with my own comments. For more you’ll have to buy the book.

1. Religiosity almost always makes a difference. Most popular media stories will report how the incidence of sexual activity among those attending church is not different that those not attending church. However, for those students who see religion as very important and who are in religious families and have like minded friends the incidence of sexual activity is much lower than other students and especially lower than non-religious students.

2. More devoutly religious parents tend to talk less often to their adolescent children about sex and birth control and most often about sexual morality. Probably not a surprise to you, but you may be surprised to find out that those parents who think talking about birth control may contribute to a more sexually active child tend to be correct. With that said, parents and the church need to be able to voice a biblically based sexual ethic that upholds moral boundaries while also addressing the beauty of sexual intimacy within marriage.

3. Religion affects adolescents’ sexual attitudes and motivations more than their actions. While religious teenagers most often know what the religious teachings are, wait until marriage, these teachings do not always affect the choices they make.

4. The success of abstinence pledging is mixed. While the majority of abstinence pledgers will break their pledge before marriage, they tend to wait longer to engage in sexual activity and have fewer partners. Fully 45% of those in his study who had made abstinence pledges were still unmarried and still virgins at the end of the study several years later.

5. The depiction of sexual promiscuity seen among teenagers in mass media productions is not close to reality. Most teenagers have not had sex, though many will before the leave their teenage years. Multiple partners and outlandish sexual exploits are not common in the life of the typical teenager.

Regnerus articulates these conclusions and more based on extensive studies. One of his postscript conclusions, not based on research but his summary of thoughts on the research, is that the idea of removing morality from discussions of sex in public schools is foolish. As he says, “There is no value-free perspective on sex.” Changing the language to describe “healthy” and “unhealthy” sex does not change the reality that we conceive as some acts as “good” and others as “bad.” He states;

Sex is far from a simple pleasure. The emotional pain that lingers after poor sexual decision making, at any age, is evidence of the complex morality inherent to human sexuality. The sexual human begs for something better and more lasting than hooking up or satiating a partner’s will.

It is imperative that the church enter into this conversation with more than a moral prohibition and a “because God said so” answer. We must be prepared to articulate more than, “you should make good decisions for your future” as a reason to abstain. Strengthening the family, encouraging parental conversations with boys and girls, building strong peer relationships among our students, and helping our students fall in love with God and not merely in line with His law; all these are needed to build a strong, safe, stand up generation.

Your comments are welcome!

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