PASTORING: Healthy Sexual Ethic Starts With Adults
This article originally appeared in Issue# 46
Our local newspaper ran an ad recently which contended that a much higher percentage of American teenage women get pregnant than a similar population in Sweden. I don't know if that information is accurate, but I was not surprised by the news. Other reports from medical, educational and governmental sources have carried similar information. I know from my own parish work that one of the most frequent and painful of pastoral tasks with teenagers is dealing with unwanted pregnancies.
Undoubtedly this unhappy situation has many causes. Is the media's treatment of sex one of them? Undoubtedly! On much of radio and TV, in much of the print media, sex, physical sex, is portrayed as a commodity to be given and received in exchange for other goods. In a world of physical acquisition and personal loneliness, sex is seen as the answer to getting what we want, being what we want to be. Teens in their formative years, like the rest of us, can fall victim to believing this nonsense.
The newspaper ad went on to argue that the solution to the problem lay in the dissemination of honest and accurate information. Certainly that is true, but information alone seldom changes thoughts or actions. Beyond facts, what is needed is a context in which this information is valued as being normative and important to a larger community.
Religious communities - by calling, the articulators of values - are responsible for being the bodies that explore the meaning of sexuality in preparation for sharing and defending a sexual ethic for our time.
Unfortunately, we won't be able to articulate these ethics for and with teenagers if we haven't done the same with adults. One lament I often hear from adults is that they don't know how to talk with their teens about sexual matters. Despite the increased acceptance of sexual talk in public media, it may be difficult for some parents to use sexual terminology or even share their own experiences and feelings.
It would seem, then, that the best approach to helping teenagers deal with the sexual material to which they are exposed is to help the adults in the community deal with the same material. Religious and community groups can provide opportunities for adults to role-play and practice talking with youth of different ages. You could organize one or several sessions as part of the weekly adult religious education offerings; or conduct a workshop for parents of youth applying for confirmation or rituals marking the entrance to adult religious faith and practice.
Using media depictions of social relationships, including sexual behavior, provides a superb starting point for practicing what to say and how to frame a conversation. Organize your event by studying the excellent handout: Tuning in to TV Sex: How to Use Media to Dialogue with Your Children. Then tape a half dozen television shows or sitcoms and review them, looking for situations or segments that you could play for the group which would prompt them to explore the questions on the handout. If you tape each show on a separate videotape, you'll be able to cue up the pertinent scenes in advance and then select each tape segment as needed to focus the discussion and keep conversation on track. To stimulate participation, use the ideas in the handout as a bulletin insert or an item in the congregational newsletter.
The handout can also be used with teens — for discussion in a class, a youth group, a weekend retreat or "lock in." The questions could also stimulate journal writing for youth (or adults) in counseling or spiritual direction.
When adults are comfortable about sex and its expression, they can be clearer in helping teenagers deal with the same subjects. Helping parents learn to use media for dialogue with their teens may be one of the most important ways we can help our youth become the mature and healthy adults we want them to be.