When it comes to sex ed, there seem to be two extreme camps. In one camp, we have the abstinence-only folks who think that teaching kids and teens how to use birth control will just encourage them to have sex, so let’s not share the importance of safer sex. And in the other camp are the “teens are going to have sex anyway” folk who think there’s no point in telling them not to, so let’s hand out condoms and K-Y in the hallway.
I think both of these approaches do kids a disservice.
Our children have never been through a school’s sex ed program. We home-school, so it’s all on my husband and me to decide what they need to know. And our feeling is that they need to know everything. We don’t hold back information about sex from our kids, and we actively and regularly broach the subject. As they approach the age where the question of sex will come up for them directly, we will make sure they are armed with all of the nitty gritty details.
I’m an advocate of abstinence for a few reasons, but I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t teach teens the basic realities of sex and pregnancy and disease prevention. To me, this is simply comprehensive health education. These are the facts about sex, regardless of your personal beliefs or feelings about sexual activity.
I also don’t understand using shame to try to convince teens not to have sex. I mean, I understand why people do it, but I don’t agree with it. We do want our kids to hold off on having sex, for both faith and health reasons. But I’m certainly not going to make my kids feel ashamed of their sexuality. You can encourage waiting without sending the message that sex is evil or that retaining your virginity is The Most Important Thing.
Sex is awesome and powerful, which is partially why we want them to hold off. We want them to have good, healthy sex lives — just at the right time. But sex is tempting, of course. And as parents, we need to be realistic. But being realistic doesn’t automatically mean assuming that teens are going to do the deed. I didn’t have sex in high school. Neither did my husband or most of my close friends. And I never felt like we were in the minority.
According to the CDC, among high-schoolers surveyed in 2015, 41% reported having had sexual intercourse. That’s not a small percentage, but it’s still less than half. The average age of losing one’s virginity is around 17 for both males and females, meaning many don’t have sex until after 17. In other words, high school sex is not a given. If my kids are going to choose to have sex in their teens, it won’t be because “everybody’s doing it.” They’re not. The “teens are going to have sex anyway” idea simply doesn’t ring true to me.
We will be honest with our kids about the fact that while condoms and other birth control methods can help prevent pregnancy and disease, sex is never 100% “safe.” The fact is that any time you have sex, even with protection, you could get pregnant or expose yourself to a sexually transmitted disease or infection. While I don’t want to freak our kids out or use fear to persuade them, I also want them to know this truth. I didn’t realize until well into my adult years how common it is for birth control to fail. Two of our own kids weren’t exactly planned. I know at least two families with vasectomy babies and many more “whoops!” babies. Sex is great, but it’s risky — always.
Of course, at some point, you’re prepared to take those risks. So I’ll explain that if at some point they decide that they don’t share our beliefs about waiting until marriage, there are two universal sex-ready indicators. Until you are ready for the possibility of being pregnant — with all of the hard choices and life-changing ramifications that would come along with it — you aren’t ready to have sex. And until you know someone well enough to discuss their sexual history and trust them enough to be honest with you about it, you aren’t ready to have sex.
We’ll also talk to our kids about the emotional risks of a sexual relationship, and that emotional risk is not a bad thing. I think that when people make sex a casual, purely physical thing, they’re glossing over a big part of really good sex. Sex is the closest two human beings can get physically, but it’s also an intense way to express emotional intimacy. Or at least it should be, in my opinion. That’s one of the reasons we’ll encourage them to wait until they’re in a loving, nurturing, healthy, committed relationship.
We’ll explain that everyone’s views on sex are different and that our faith teaches that sex is reserved for marriage. But even if they reject that notion — which they may — we won’t shame them. We don’t refer to the loss of virginity as a crushed flower or a chewed up piece of gum or a used toothbrush or any of those bizarre analogies. We’re not naïve, nor are we sadistic. We know that it’s not easy to navigate these waters, and we acknowledge their autonomy to make their own choices — even ones that we wouldn’t make for them — as they mature.
We will do our best to teach them to take responsibility for their sexual choices, to make sure those choices are well thought out and pre-planned, and to be prepared for those choices to not be simple. We will educate them fully about everything those choices entail, including exactly how pregnancy and contraception work, how diseases are spread, what consent looks like, and how to handle the pressures they’re going to face, both internally and externally.
At the same time, we will emphasize and repeat until they can say it in their sleep that until they are truly ready for the possibilities and responsibilities that go along with sex, then they aren’t ready. Even taking moral beliefs out of the equation, abstinence is objectively and logically the wisest and healthiest option for teens. You don’t have to use shame to help them see that.