Someone asked me, “How do I teach my children about sex so that they will stay pure until they are married? Any advice?”
In June of 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her home in Salt Lake City by Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee. Brian raped her three to four times a day, until she was found and rescued in March of 2003. The reason I bring this up is that in 2013, Smart gave a speech in which she recounted how she’d been taught to “stay pure”—she’d been taught that a sexually active girl is like a piece of used chewing gum.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”
Now, getting serially raped for months by a lunatic who thinks he’s the Messiah is still a fairly rare event (and all honor to Elizabeth Smart, for surviving, healing, and becoming an advocate against sexual abuse and human trafficking!). But sexual assault, unfortunately, is not rare—if I remember correctly, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 10 men will suffer sexual assault at some point in their lives. It’s hard enough as it is to deal with being assaulted. It’s immensely worse if you’ve been indoctrinated to believe that you’ve forever lost your “purity” and are now forever “impure,” worthless, a chewed-up piece of gum.
If you teach your children that they must “remain pure” and that sex before marriage destroys that “purity,” if you connect their sense of self-worth to whether or not they’ve had sex, you leave them defenseless in a dangerous world. I’m not saying that rape and assault are natural or inevitable, but the tragic reality is they happen. They’re not going away, and there is a chance that they will to happen to your children. You can’t protect them against everything bad out there.
Heck, there’s a chance that your kids won’t be assaulted, but may just make a decision to experiment sexually. You might not want them to make that decision, and that’s your prerogative. Sure, it might be a bad decision or an impulsive one, but that doesn’t mean that you want them to be tormented by their actions for years. You don’t want their lives to feel like a track from Nine Inch Nails’s The Downward Spiral. At least, I hope not.
For that matter, emphasis on “purity” can be damaging even to someone who isn’t assaulted, who doesn’t have premarital sex, who “does everything right.” Psychologically, it can be extremely hard to switch suddenly from “Must stay pure!” to “Now it’s OK to bang!” An excerpt from Samantha Pugsley’s Salon article, “My Christian Virginity Pledge Nearly Destroyed Me,” demonstrates this point firsthand:
“Sex hurt. I knew it would. Everyone told me it would be uncomfortable the first time. What they didn’t tell me is that I would be back in the bathroom afterward, crying quietly for reasons I didn’t yet comprehend. They didn’t tell me that I’d be on my honeymoon, crying again, because sex felt dirty and wrong and sinful even though I was married and it was supposed to be okay now.
“When we got home, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. Everyone knew my virginity was gone. My parents, my church, my friends, my co-workers. They all knew I was soiled and tarnished. I wasn’t special anymore. My virginity had become such an essential part of my personality that I didn’t know who I was without it.”
The best advice I can give is that you give your kids accurate sex education as appropriate for their ages. I’m not suggesting teaching your 4-year-old about S&M, but he or she needs to know the right names for body parts and know that no one can force him or her to be exposed or touched.
As they get older, teach them more. Keep it accurate. A friend of mine in high school was taught by his parents that if a woman has a baby out of wedlock, the baby is born looking like a beach ball with no arms or legs. I wish I was kidding. Don’t do that, or someday they’ll start wondering what else you lied about to them.
Think of driver’s ed: When my toddler wanted to drive the car, I didn’t teach him how, but I also didn’t tell him that driving was wicked and sinful. I told him that driving was a lot of fun, but it could also be dangerous, and he needed to be a little older before he could drive. Something like that’s your best bet here.
Don’t try to make your children think of sex as “impure.” Teach them that sex is like driving—fun, exciting, fulfilling, but also not free of hazards, and not a good idea before they’re old enough to take responsibility. Make it clear that you will always love them and support them and be there to help them, even if they make choices that you don’t agree with, or if something happens that they can’t defend themselves against.
This post originally appeared on Quora.