Shame-based sex education: we can do better

A couple months ago, Elizabeth Esther and I discussed the potentially harmful aspects of idolizing virginity and purity. While I think that abstinence is a great goal for kids (and one I will encourage for my own), I also believe that it is vitally important that we not use shame in an attempt to scare our children into complying with our own sexual ethics. While I think it’s great to explain the benefits of abstinence, I do believe that Christians have begun to rely too heavily on a shame-based rhetoric that motivates teens into compliance for fear of being “dirty” or undesirable.

The reality is that many kids will become sexually active in their teen years. According to research, 80% of them. It’s imperative that, while highlighting the benefits of abstinence, we also educate on sexuality and birth control and abuse and consent. It’s also imperative that we teach our kids, and our girls specifically, that THEIR IDENTITY AND WORTH IS NOT TIED TO THEIR VIRGINITY.  This is such a dangerous message and is so psychologically damaging. I cannot tell you how many women I have counseled who became sexually active in their teen years and consequently felt like they were damaged goods. And for women who were sexually abused, the broken sense of self is even more compounded by hearing, over and over, that “purity” is the marker of a girl’s worth.

Today Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped, raped, and held captive for nearly a year, spoke about the way these messages discouraged her from running from her captors. She spoke from her own experience at a recent forum on human trafficking at Johns Hopkins University.  She describes the feelings of shame she felt after her rape:

”I’ll never forget how I felt lying there on the ground. I felt like my soul had been crushed. I felt like I wasn’t even human anymore. How could anyone ever love me or care for me after this? I felt like life had no more meaning to it. And that was only the beginning.”

She further explained how she had no concept that sex could occur outside of marriage.

“I was raised in a religious household where I was taught that sex only happened between a married man and a woman. After that rape, I felt so dirty . . . can you imagine going back into a society where you are no longer of value? Where you are no longer as good as anybody else?”

Raised in a religious household, Elizabeth recounted a school teacher who urged students against premarital sex and compared women who had sex before their wedding nights to 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.”

Elizabeth went on to advise that we focus on teaching children their inherent value. “The best thing we can do is educate young people as young as we can reach them,”she said. Survivors of rape need “permission to fight back,” and that requires them “to know you are of value.”

elizabeth smart on the importance of teaches kids their worth

While most teens will not be faced with an abduction situation, Elizabeth’s experience is a startling example of the way this kind of religious rhetoric significantly alters a young woman’s confidence and self-worth. We cannot continue to send the message to our young girls that being sexually active is some kind of black stain on their personhood. We do not need to make teenagers feel worthless when they have sex—or, in the case of too many teenagers, when they are assaulted against their will. As Carolyn Custis James said, “a message of purity and abstinence, as important as this is for young women (young men too) comes too late for huge numbers of young American girls, including those in church pews. It is utterly devastating to the one-in-four girls who is sexually abused before she reaches her 18th birthday. We live in a world where by the age of 18 an estimated 70 percent of girls have had sex at least once and not always by choice, where globally countless women and girls are in the grips of sex traffickers, where an appalling 48 women are raped every hour in the Congo, where within our own borders sexual freedom has opened the door for young women to be as sexually promiscuous as men, and where some girls with the very best of intentions succumb to temptation. I grieve all of this, but do not for a second imagine that any of this means a woman has less to offer a husband or that in any sense it diminishes her worth.”

No woman, ever, is a chewed up piece of gum. No woman is a cup of spit. No woman is a used car or a dirty rag or a used-up piece of duct tape or a plucked rose or a licked cupcake. No matter what she’s done. Didn’t Jesus come to tell us that?

We can do better.


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