A Peculiar People: Sex and the Young Christian

Aug 23, 2007 |Roberto Rivera y Carlo

Evangelical singles are in fact more likely to engage in sexual relationships than non-evangelicals, and at an earlier age. So what?

Slate's headline read "Even Evangelicals Teens Do it." Not surprisingly, World magazine didn't paraphrase Cole Porter, opting for the straightforward:, "Sex and the Evangelical Teen," instead.

The occasion of the headlines was a recent book, Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers by Mark Regnerus, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas. Drawing upon the results of three national surveys of teenagers and 250 interviews he conducted, Regnerus found that self-identified "evangelical" teenagers are no less likely than their non-Evangelical peers to have sex. If anything, they're slightly more likely.

According to Regnerus' findings, whereas non-evangelical teens have sex for the first time at age 16.7, the average age for evangelical teens is 16.3. Even worse, evangelical teens are more likely to have had three or more sexual partners (13.7 percent) than their non-evangelical peers (8.9 percent).

To put it mildly, these results are counter-intuitive: You might not be surprised to learn that evangelical teens don't differ all that greatly in their sexual practices from their peers but to be more sexually active?

The obvious question is "why?" One thing's for sure: It's not from a lack of instruction. The past few decades have seen an explosion in the number of curricula and programs designed to help evangelical teenagers refrain from sex until marriage. The teens Regnerus interviewed knew and even professed to believe that sex outside of marriage is morally wrong.

The problem, as Regnerus found, is that instruction isn't enough. Evangelical teenagers are caught between competing forces: What they learned at home and at church and our hyper-sexualized mass culture. As Hanna Rosin put in Slate magazine, like their non-evangelical peers, they live "temptation-rich" lives where merely opening your eyes provides an occasion for sin.

Against this cultural tide, even the best instruction and heroic exercises of self-restraint won't suffice, especially when you think about what Christian teenagers and young adults are really being asked to do: remain chaste longer than any generation in recent memory.

In a recent column, David Brooks of the New York Times described the "social frontier" confronting teenagers and young adults. Most of them are staring at "two decades of coupling, uncoupling, hooking up, relationships and shopping around." The teenage and young adult years aren't "a transition anymore. [They're] a sprawling life stage, and nobody knows the rules."

"Sprawling life stage" is right: The average of menarche, a woman's first period, is approximately 13. (Boys go through puberty about six months to a year later than girls.) There's some controversy whether that average age represents a drop from, say, 100 years ago and, if so, how big the drop is. What's not controversial is the impact of our hyper-sexualized mass culture on both girls and boys.

What's also not controversial is that the median age at which people are getting married is rising. For women, it rose from 20.8 in 1970 to 25.3 in 2003. For men, the average age is 27.1, up from 23.2 in 1970.

A large part of the reason for this rise is that more people, especially women, are attending college. (In fact, American women are more likely to attend college than men.) For both sexes, people with college degrees marry, on average, several years later than those who didn't attend college: for women with a bachelor's degree the average is 27 and for those with a graduate or professional degree it's 30. (For point of reference, in 1970, the average age for college-educated women was 23.)

Since most parents (rightly, in my opinion) aspire for their children to attend college, and since graduate school is becoming a pre-requisite for entry to the solidly middle class, the "sprawling life stage" Brooks wrote about lasts from about age 13 to 30.

To put it another way: For much of the 20th century, people, including evangelicals, could reasonably expect to marry within a few years after graduating from high school. True love waited but nowhere near as long as it does today. And, of course, it didn't have to contend with what a friend calls the "porno-culture."

Today love often has to wait a dozen years or even more while being surrounded by nearly-constant reminders of what it is you shouldn't be doing. If it's difficult to exercise what Rosin called "inhuman discipline ... over [one's] hormones" for three or four years; imagine what doing so for 12 or more years must be like.

This isn't an excuse or even an explanation: It's taking note of the larger context in which teenagers and young adults are expected to be continent, never mind chaste. If anyone is talking about this confluence of biology and culture in Christian circles, it's escaped my attention. (An obvious exception are my friends at Boundless and Pure Intimacy.)

But you can't fight a hegemonic culture with curricula no matter how well-designed and pledge cards alone. You need to create an alternative culture. By "alternative" I don't mean taking the dominant culture, sanding away the most obvious objectionable bits, i.e., those relating to sexual mores, adding a bit a "God talk" and, as my family says, "¡huepa!"

I'm talking about the courage to be, as 1 Peter puts it, a peculiar people — "peculiar" as in the Latin peculiaris, "one's own." "Our own" is not to simply "re-brand" and otherwise assimilate everything that is not obviously objectionable but to ask what is in keeping with our calling to "show forth the praises of Him who hath called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light "

Being "peculiar" includes questioning the regnant assumption that marriage should be postponed until our financial and professional ducks are all in a row — especially if, as Regnerus' research suggests, the alternative isn't faithfulness to what we know is true and good but, rather a life marked by years of "coupling, uncoupling, hooking up, relationships and shopping around."

Yet, that's exactly what we're doing. We don't question the "sprawling life stage" Brooks writes about: At most, we try to ameliorate what we regard as its excesses. But they aren't excesses they're the logical outcome of postponing marriage.

Now, if getting married so as to avoid sexual sin strikes you as preposterous or, at least, a little extreme, you're not alone. Former Boundless editor Candice Watters learned this the hard away. After publishing a piece based entitled "The Cost of Delaying Marriage," Candice received e-mail you'd associate with suggesting that people invest with Michael Vick in a puppy mill. There was no shortage of reasons why the idea, to paraphrase Jiminy Cricket, was a lovely thought but not at all practical, but few, if any, that disputed the main thrust of the piece: Delaying marriage carries real personal and social costs.

All of which underscores my point about the courage to be peculiar: What's being asked of us isn't impossible; it's just hard. It's especially so because we Christians are under the thrall of materialism and consumerism and the careerism they produce. We've addressed sexuality in isolation instead of asking what kind of life is most likely to produce chaste people and, just as important, how do we support each other in that way of life.

As Regnerus' findings suggest, this failure to pursue peculiarity means that, over time, all but the most committed become indistinguishable from their non-evangelical peers in the one area we hoped they would be different. And it's not just teenagers: There's no reason to believe that evangelicals who were sexually active when they were 17 will be continent, never mind chaste, at 25.

There's no getting around the truth that the road to being "different" goes through being "peculiar."

Copyright 2007 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.

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