Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sex and religion

Slate's Hanna Rosin this week reviewed a provocative new book: "Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the lives of American teenagers."

What's so provocative about it? The author, Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas in Austin, did a detailed survey as well as in-depth interviews to correlate religious belief with sexual behavior. And the results are surprising -- or not, depending on your point of view.

Teenagers who identify as "evangelical" or "born again" are highly likely to sound like the girl at the bar; 80 percent think sex should be saved for marriage. But thinking is not the same as doing. Evangelical teens are actually more likely to have lost their virginity than either mainline Protestants or Catholics. They tend to lose their virginity at a slightly younger age—16.3, compared with 16.7 for the other two faiths. And they are much more likely to have had three or more sexual partners by age 17: Regnerus reports that 13.7 percent of evangelicals have, compared with 8.9 percent for mainline Protestants.

And of course, there's the "not enough information" problem.

When evangelical parents say they talk to their kids about sex, they mean the morals, not the mechanics. In a quiz on pregnancy and health risks associated with sex, evangelicals scored very low. Evangelical teens don't accept themselves as people who will have sex until they've already had it. As a result, abstinence pledgers are considerably less likely than nonpledgers to use birth control the first time they have sex. "It just sort of happened," one girl told the researchers, in what could be a motto for this generation of evangelical teens.

Again, not surprising to any advocate of comprehensive sex education. Keeping kids ignorant about sex simply increases the risk to them when they eventually do have sex.

Which they will. Because while "save it for marriage" pledges and abstinence programs may slightly delay a teen's first premarital sexual experience, they do not generally prevent them. So the risk remains, unabated:

he fate of the True Love Waits movement, which began with the Southern Baptist Convention in the '90s, is a perfect example. Teenagers who signed the abstinence pledge belong to a subgroup of highly motivated virgins. But even they succumb. Follow-up surveys show that at best, pledges delayed premarital sex by 18 months -- a success by statistical standards but a disaster for Southern Baptist pastors.


Before getting all smug about short-sighted moralizing, however, consider a few of the book's caveats and other findings. First, a big caveat:

Partly, the problem lies in the definition of evangelical. Because of the explosion of megachurches, vast numbers of people who don't identify with mainstream denominations now call themselves evangelical. The demographic includes more teenagers of a lower socioeconomic class, who are more likely to have had sex at a younger age. It also includes African-American Protestant teenagers, who are vastly more likely to be sexually active.

There also are demographic splits: Southern teens are more likely to have sex than teens in the North, as are those who are less well-off and less well-educated.

Next, there is a group of teens for which abstinence pledges actually work.

Among the mass of typically promiscuous teenagers in the book, one group stands out: the 16 percent of American teens who describe religion as "extremely important" in their lives. When these guys pledge, they mean it. One study found that the pledge works better if not everyone in school takes it. The ideal conditions are a group of pledgers who form a self-conscious minority that perceives itself as special, even embattled.

So truly committed religious teens wait until marriage. This is hardly surprising; they are living out values they strongly believe in, so outside coercion is unnecessary. I would think such teens would abstain until marriage even without abstinence pledges and even if they attend comprehensive sex-ed classes.

For the same reasons -- strong social networks that reinforce the value system -- Mormons and church-going Asians also have high levels of abstinence.

I have not read the book, so I cannot comment on its methodology. But it seems safe to draw some general (and somewhat obvious) conclusions.

1. Teens are remarkably impervious to coercion that goes against their own values or desires.

2. Pressure to remain abstinent at best delays the onset of sex; there is still a need for comprehensive sex education.

3. If you want kids to avoid sex, you must get buy-in from them -- either as a moral value (wait until marriage or adulthood) or a practical matter (the reward isn't worth the risk). This takes more than threats, lectures and good intentions. It takes responsible, loving and frank parenting over a period of years so that your values become their values, too.

4. Comprehensive sex education, contrary to the claims of its moralistic critics, apparently hasn't been interpreted by teens as license to bang like rabbits.

Discussing healthy sexual behavior with your kids can be a tough road to walk, because there's a certain contradiction involved. You're trying to persuade them to wait until they're older while also trying to avoid going overboard and demonizing sex as "dirty" or bad.

But if you've got a good relationship with your teens, it should work out most of the time. Even with my young children, I've found that kids can handle complex issues and moral ambiguity if it's presented forthrightly. Just avoid rules that are oversimplified, overly draconian or simply not mentioned at all. All three approaches may be more comfortable for the parent, but in each case you're either not giving them information they need or the world you describe is so unlike the one they encounter that they'll conclude you're either lying or clueless.

the Weekly Standard praises it. Interestingly, the conservative magazine notes that blue-state teens, while sexually progressive in attitude, actually have sex later than their red-state counterparts and are also more likely to use contraception when they finally do have sex. Yet having accepted that, the reviewer goes on to claim that the abstinence movement has played an important role -- citing the same True Love Waits data I quoted above. But at best that shows that encouraging abstinence only works as part of a comprehensive sex-education curriculum -- most of which have always included abstinence anyway.

On a blog run by his publisher, the author, Mark Regnerus, sounds off about the state of sexual learning in the United States. And in a review-plus-interview by the Austin American-Statesman, Regnerus makes some of the same points I do, specifically that "the idea of 'the talk' has to go away. It must be an ongoing dialogue."

And here's a Q&A he did with the Dallas Morning News, where again he sounds a bit like me: "We have to talk about facts, to be open about the beauty and pleasure of sex, and its mixed emotions and consequences. Tell them the complicated truth about the beauty and frustration of marital sex. Admit there is a gray area.... We all know it. No more hiding."

A Presbyterian minister and professor gives the book high marks, saying there's an interesting insight on every page.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's something helpful to know. The University of Texas at Austin is a very liberal school. And most likely the Sociology Professor is a big lib. He probably sat out to prove something negative about Evangelicals.

I agree with YOUR 3 points on sex and basically that is how I was raised. We went regularly to Methodist Church---but what little our Mother talked to us about sex it was more along the lines of...."think more of yourself" and "it's something special and should be saved for that someone special---namely your husband someday." PLUS, I could see for myself that the girls who DID share it with everyone were NOT the girls who got the best guys and were respected. Therefore, I did not aspire to be one of those girls.


6/01/2007 9:53 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Here's something helpful to know. The University of Texas at Austin is a very liberal school. And most likely the Sociology Professor is a big lib. He probably sat out to prove something negative about Evangelicals.

You should read the rant of his that I link to. While admitting he's not a political conservative, he sounds remarkably like a social conservative.

But I consider it significant that the Weekly Standard didn't quibble with his methodology.

I agree with YOUR 3 points on sex and basically that is how I was raised.

I think that's how most people are raised, liberal or conservative. Harmful premarital sex and (especially) teen pregnancy, IMO, has more to do with poor or absent parenting than the specific moral or political values held by the parents.

6/01/2007 10:05 AM  

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