Sexual Integrity Messages Must Improve as Marriage Age Increases

By Jason Soucinek 

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I didn’t marry until I was 34.

To some this seems old. Others think this is the perfect age to marry. Either way, I am not alone in the trend of marrying later in life.

For the last several years the age at which people get married is getting older, and fewer individuals are getting married altogether. 

This is not because this generation doesn’t want to get married; data continues to reveal high numbers of individuals who still want to marry later in life as a capstone to other achievements like education or career. However, when you couple this information with the fact that the marriage rate is at an all time low, hovering around 50% (compared to 72% in 1960), you can begin to understand the difficulty of speaking on sexual integrity.

Delayed adulthood, cohabitation, changing attitudes about sex, and a Christian culture mostly unwilling to talk about sex and sexuality are some of the many reasons sexual integrity has become a virtually defunct practice. Even among self-identifying Christians, our views of God’s intent for sex have shifted, leaving us in a place of little clear understanding about what to do with our bodies and how to speak honestly about sex.

Sexual integrity needs to be more than just a message about keeping your pants on.

For years the church has simply responded to the culture’s definition of sex. American culture says, “Do whatever you want, with whomever you want, whenever you want.” So what has the church done? It’s responded by saying, “Just wait.” But this is only responding to the definition set forth by the culture and not giving the definition from Scripture.

The definition of sex found in Scripture is based on “oneness” with our spouse. This is seen in verses all the way from Genesis through Revelation. Sex is meant to unify. In fact, when it says in Genesis 2:24 the “two will become one flesh” it is literally saying the two will be fused together, creating this “oneness.”

Procreation, pleasure, and protection all need to be part of the conversations surrounding sex in the church.

Often we are willing to talk about the power of sex as it relates to new life. But why are we afraid to talk about the pleasure associated with it?

Pleasure is not something Scripture hides from and neither should we. Our God is a God of pleasure. We see this in the first verses in the first chapter of the first book in Scripture, Genesis 1, when God declares creation (and thus sex) was “very good.”

Scripture also reveals sex has boundaries but these boundaries exist for our own protection. Because sex has the power to create life and fuse two people together, it requires protection. That is one reason we have marriage. It acts as a crucible.

Clear and consistent dialogue, not a list of restrictions, are needed for sexual integrity to be practiced more often.

Maybe you’ve seen some of the data suggesting young adults are leaving the church in droves. Although I don’t see it quite this way I do recognize a frustration with established religion, particularly when it comes to the attitudes the church communicates regarding sex.

Recently I was listening to a podcast from the show This American Life. The episode was a discussion about collected date showing people’s mindsets changing over the course of a 20-minute conversation. The reason for the change was simple: the parties involved had vulnerable and honest dialogue.

Most of the young adults I speak with are filled with frustration because few people are willing to have difficult conversations about our culture’s view of sex and sexuality. However, I’ve found taking time to listen leads to better and more in-depth conversations, which give opportunity to reveal God’s grand design as the sex-maker.

Let’s have more vulnerable and honest dialogue and make sexual integrity a part of the culture in our churches once again.

Why Your Sex Life is Their Business

By Amy Juran

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Contrary to the words of Salt N Pepa, “If I wanna take a guy home with me tonight, IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!” it’s actually really important that we talk to friends and family about our sex lives (or lack thereof).

The funny thing about sex and sexuality is that it’s always influencing our behavior and decisions, even in Christian relationships, and yet we rarely want to talk about it.

I would consider myself a pretty private person. This is not necessarily because I have much to hide, but because I think there are some things that are not anyone else’s business, and it takes a certain degree of trust between people to earn this kind of vulnerability. My view of sexuality used to be very much in line with this, considering how personal physical intimacy is. However, I’ve found being transparent with trusted friends and family about my sexuality is one of the healthiest things I could do for my romantic relationships.

In her book Real Sex, author Lauren Winner touches on the idea of “communal sex.” Communal sex does not mean sex between multiple people, but that sexuality is something meant to be talked about and worked through with other believers. Winner asks the reader the question of whether or not it’s appropriate to ask our Christian friends about their sex lives, and – on the flip side –  whether we should be talking vulnerably with others about our own physical intimacy.

God calls us to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galations 6:2) and to speak truth in love to each other. Sharing in our personal lives gives us the opportunity to grow together and challenge ourselves. It can develop a beautiful community striving for God’s will, and can prevent and heal so much of the hurt that comes with isolation.

We’re all familiar with this situation: a friend starts dating someone, and they are happy and blissful at first, but little by little start to pull away from close friends and social situations to spend time with just that person. Sometimes this can be an indication of an abusive or controlling partner, but sometimes we tend to think our relationships and sexuality are our business alone.

When we believe this idea, we naturally start to isolate from others.

If you’re unmarried it’s important to set physical boundaries with your significant other, but when you are both being driven by emotions it can be easy to flex the lines. There can also be an element of shame that comes with crossing those boundaries. It can be easy to want to avoid the judgment of others by not sharing your struggles. But when you get other people involved, and they are able to ask you the tough questions and keep you accountable, they can restore the validity of promises you made to yourself, your partner, and to God.

If you’re married, it is still important to talk about your sex life. To some this might seem like a violation of the sacredness of marriage, but it’s actually the opposite. In James we read, “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” By sharing in community about our struggles and our joys, we can build each other up and bring peace to the fact that everyone hits rough patches.

God never intended for us to do this life alone. (Tweet this!)

He desires rich, challenging and caring community, and this can only be accomplished when we are transparent with each other. The result of this community is a healthier view of romantic relationships. It allows us to see things from the bigger picture and keep God at the core of everything we do. From now on I’ve chosen not to shy away from conversations with trusted people about sexuality because I know healing, growth, and relational intimacy will come from it.

Stand For Something Or You’ll Fall For Anyone: The Reality of Open Relationships

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You only have to open your Facebook feed to know we are the generation of acceptance and tolerance (as long as someone’s view matches our own), and we pride ourselves in being open-minded.

Many topics our parents and grandparents saw as black and white tend to land somewhere on a grey scale in our current culture. And if we aren’t careful the lines between what is right, and what is accepted as “normal” can get pretty blurry.

Our romantic relationships are just one of the things that have started to lose definition.

There is a hesitancy to put a label on our relationships because it forces us to be vulnerable, requiring a commitment that takes work to honor. This is demonstrated in our culture by the prevalence of open relationships, ambiguous sexual orientation, polyamory, and casual hookups. Eventually I hope to go into more detail on these various topics, but something I’ve been discovering most recently is the basic importance of knowing where you stand and knowing how God feels about it all.

I was shocked to discover the numbers of how many open, or non-monogamous relationships exist in the U.S. Studies are showing that anywhere from 5-9% of people surveyed would admit to having “openness” with their spouses or partners.

Articles on polyamory (being in committed relationships with multiple partners with the consent of each partner) even boast about how much better poly relationships handle communication and jealousy struggles.

Knowing this, I can’t help but fear that we are heading down a road towards no accountability, where we devalue ourselves and God’s word by not honoring each other with the gift of commitment.

Most of the stories I’ve heard from people who are now in some form of open relationship claim they never would have imagined they could be okay with this kind of situation; it took a lot of growing and getting used to.

In life, we don’t always take the time to form an opinion or take a stand on something until it is right there in front of us, and sometimes not until we have met that wonderful person we’re convinced we should be with and they present an unfamiliar situation. And if we look at the culture around us and see what they’re presenting is an accepted practice, and no one is judging and it seems to be working for others, then we can be even more inclined to blur our lines and jump onboard.

If you don’t stand for something, you could fall for anyone.

That’s why it’s so important to know what God had in mind when he made man and woman for each other, not for each other and then some other people at the same time.

Hebrews 13:8 states, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today and forever.” Though we live in an ever-changing culture, God remains constant, as do his desires for relationships and love life. He has also not wavered in His call that we should love one another.

There are so many benefits that come with being in a committed relationship with one person, like learning how to compromise, building trust, and finding contentment. To take a stand and be resolved in our beliefs does not have to make us judgmental or close-minded; rather, it protects us from being swept up by every new wave of thinking that hits our culture.

It diffuses the cloud of confusion that making us question everything.

Knowing God’s truth and taking a stand does not equal an absence of love for others. More important than being tolerant or accepting of every new trend is our call to remain in God’s truth, because He is not swayed, and neither is His desire for our ultimate good.

One Abstinence Organization’s Response to Alice Dreger

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By now you’ve probably heard of Alice Dreger, or at least heard of the woman who sat in on her son’s abstinence class and live tweeted the entire event. 

Dreger, a writer and professor of medical humanities and bioethics, sat in on her son’s class after learning two guest lecturers would be presenting an abstinence-only curriculum. During the presentation, she became increasingly appalled by what she was hearing and showed her dismay by live-tweeting her impressions.

And while some of Dreger’s outrage was well-founded (for instance, one part of the presentation involved handing out paper babies and essentially informing students that ultimately condoms are not an effective way to prevent pregnancy, which is not true if they are used correctly and consistently as the CDC states) there’s a few things Dreger said that we, ourselves an abstinence-based organization, felt compelled to reply with our two cents.

Before we do, it is important to be clear about our intent with our response. First, we have only read the tweets Dreger shared with the world this week. We do not know who the guest lecturers were or the organization they represent, but we would wager a guess that they hold a genuine concern for the sexual well-being of young people and it was not their initial intention to shame or mislead.

Second, we are grateful for voices like Dreger’s because although we don’t agree with some of the things she said or how she chose to voice her opinion, we recognize the need for people like her to hold programs like ours accountable to a higher standard of medical accuracy and language that clearly articulates a positive message of sexual abstinence.

Here’s just a few of Alice Dreger’s tweets during class:

Dreger’s right, most kids don’t receive their sex education in the classroom. Know where many teens are finding their information about sex? Pornography.

In fact, 9 out of 10 boys and 6 out of 10 girls are exposed to pornography before the age of 18. 

So while Dreger may be right about this, is sex education within the classroom something we should just give up on because, well, it just doesn’t matter? Absolutely not. Part of any education on healthy sexuality involves helping young people understand that the information about sex they receive from the media and yes, pornography, can be incredibly damaging and even lead false ideas about sex and intimacy. 

Yes, sex FEELS GOOD! We absolutely, one hundred percent are totally on board with this and how part of enjoying sex is for the simple reason it feels awesome! But is this casual attitude really the one you want to equip young people with?

Part of taking care and having fun means understanding how to honor not only your own emotional and physical well-being, but that of your partner’s as well. While our curriculum is abstinence-based, we choose to focus on what it means for a person to live with sexual integrity, meaning how do the choices you make now as teens affect your well-being five or ten years down the road? We want students to understand they take a risk when engaging in early sexual activity, risks that can (but do not necessarily) include STDs, pregnancy, increased risk of depression and low self-esteem, and the emotional hurt that can occur as a result of social bonding through oxytocin and vasopressin if the relationship is not maintained.

I think we can safely assume the air quotes here allude to Dreger not believing this statement. But here’s the truth: Are there ways to protect yourself from the physical aspects of sex, such as STDs or pregnancy? Absolutely. Are there ways to protect yourself from the emotional aspects of sex, such as the bonding hormones (see oxytocin and vasopressin)? Nope, not really. Something we always communicate is that it is not the condom that typically fails the user rather it is the user that fails to use the condom. But even when they do the condom will never protect against the release of the hormones listed above.

We believe in sex. We believe in its goodness and beauty and value in a committed, married relationship (for a ton more reasons we could get into!), and we’re NOT about scaring young people into believing false information about sex, like the guest lecturers Dreger witnessed. Sex is risky. It just is. And the safest form of sex is in fact not having it; choosing to wait. Period.

Ok, this one is just not cool. It’s not fair to assume that because someone chose to have sex, and then realized that was a choice they didn’t want to make, this means they are unfit to speak about why abstinence is beneficial. We get what Dreger is saying here, which is why is someone who didn’t wait telling young people it’s possible and healthy to wait? But isn’t it possible this person could actually offer a very insightful and truthful perspective on how not waiting for sex impacted his life and well-being?

Dreger goes on to highlight how her son came to class with information about how abstinence-only programs statistically do not have any impact on teens waiting for sex. And you know what? There is a lot of data (sadly) to to back this up.

However, there is also a lot of other research that would refute this data, like this recent article about NYC teens waiting longer! Plus, we have to ask ourselves why the teen pregnancy rate continues to drop if abstinence has nothing to do with it. No one really knows why these rates are dropping as this article points out, but it’s important to note this drop in numbers coincides with the rising presence of abstinence education. Further, there is a ton of research which suggests programs that give a holistic view of sexuality, including a clear conversation on abstinence, do work to delay teen sexual behavior.

One of Dreger’s biggest rants (sorry, concerns) was in response to feeling the guest lecturers used shame as an influence to wait for sex, and this was something that made us want to stand up and rant with her! We wish more abstinence programs operated under the knowledge that when it comes to speaking about sex, shaming is both ineffective and inappropriate and has no place in a conversation that is already a delicate one.

Here’s what we want to say to Mrs. Dreger:

Mrs. Dreger, we’re really, truly sorry that your son and the young people in his class were given shame-based and some misinformation about abstinence.

We need you to know that not all abstinence-based organizations are the same, and we work hard to equip young people with encouragement, factual information, and hope. And just like you, when we feel compelled to set the record straight about our perspective and experience, we’re going to do so.

While we share different opinions on how young people should approach their sex lives, we really aren’t cool with being put in this box that all abstinence organizations are worthless and wasting their time. We applaud your son for doing his research about abstinence organizations and you for encouraging him to challenge misleading information. Seriously. But we’re under the impression (and experience) that if one young person in that classroom hears our message of sexual integrity and takes it into consideration, we have a purpose being in that classroom.

 

*UPDATE:  According to the Lansing State Journal the program who spoke is called SMART (Sexually Mature Aware Responsible Teens). It’s provided by an independent contractor working with Pregnancy Services of Greater Lansing, a group that counsels pregnant women to avoid abortion.

Pornography as art?

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Never before has pornography been as accessible as it is today.

I was reminded of this fact when recently Paper magazine tried to ‘break the internet’ with images of Kim Kardashian showing her backside on the front cover and going fully nude on the inside. Many have celebrated and praised the magazine and Mrs. Kardashian for these ‘tasteful’ images. But we have to ask the question: How is this any different than Playboy which, as of this writing, is still considered pornography?

In our oversexed world it is becoming easier and easier to pass these images off as art. No longer is sex or nudity something we reserve for the bedroom but as something to be exploited and treated as a commodity. In the instance of Kim Kardashian what seems to keep these images from becoming x-rated is the photographer who took them, Jean-Paul Goode. Goode is famous for his work, which is featured in museums around the world, making Kim Kardashian more of a muse and icon than someone posing naked for a magazine.

Over the years magazines have rarely shied away from gratuitous nudity. Jennifer Aniston, Miley Cyrus, Zoe Saldana, and even pregnant Demi Moore have taken it all off, though with creative placement covering up important parts. While nudity in the public forum is nothing new, the public discourse on whether or not this is pornographic has all but disappeared, even as the frequency of these images has increased.

A similar thought passed my mind this last summer when Keira Knightley posed topless for Interview magazine. She is most famous for her starring role in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Her desire was to show the public what she ‘really’ looked like. She was tired of having her body manipulated by airbrushing and wanted to share an image free of editing. At the time she said, ‘OK, I’m fine doing the topless shot so long as you don’t make them any bigger or retouch.’ She went on to say, ‘I think women’s bodies are a battleground and photography is partly to blame. Our society is photographic now.’ And she’s right, we do live in a photographic society, which is the reason it becomes important to clearly define ‘porn.’

Historically, most dictionaries define pornography as printed or visual material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal. Groups like Fight the New Drug share how pornography rewires the brain, heart, and ultimately the way we engage in relationship with the world around us. Harvest USA says that pornography is anything the heart uses to find sexual expression outside of God’s intended design for relational intimacy. For all of my life, my parent’s life, and my grand parents life that has been true of pornography, until now.

Britannica online points out that porn is defined by society: Because the very definition of pornography is subjective, a history of pornography is nearly impossible to conceive; imagery that might be considered erotic or even religious in one society may be condemned as pornographic in another. Thus, European travelers to India in the 19th century were appalled by what they considered pornographic representations of sexual contact and intercourse on Hindu temples; most modern observers would probably react differently. Many contemporary Muslim societies likewise apply the label “pornography” to many motion pictures and television programs that are unobjectionable in Western societies. To adopt a cliché, pornography is very much in the eye of the beholder.

That is exactly what we find happening here in the United States. Magazines like Paper and Interview are changing the way we think about pornography by labeling it art. But in reality this is pornography. Or, to be more exact, this is soft-core pornography, which is sexually explicit images that are ubiquitously found in advertising. Dr. Gary Brooks, a psychologist at Texas A&M, has published many articles on the harmful effects of pornography and in particular, soft-core pornography. He states, ‘The problem with soft-core pornography is that it’s voyeurism – it teaches men to view women as objects rather than to be in relationships with women as human beings.’ According to Brooks, pornography gives men the false impression that sex and pleasure are entirely divorced from relationships.

The sad truth is that soft-core pornography, like the images of Kim Kardashian and Keira Knightley, are appearing now more than ever before. If you disagree that these images are art you’re labeled a prude or someone who lacks the ability to see this for the beauty the rest of the advertising world says it is, art. That is one reason we do not see much discourse on this in the public sphere.

Interestingly, three years ago she was crying on the shoulder of her mother, Kris Jenner, on the show ‘Kourtney and Kim Take New York’ after a W magazine spread came out and she was unexpectedly naked saying, ‘You can see my nipples, you can see my asscrack.’ She did agree to be naked, though she was supposed to have been painted silver with objects digitally cover her privates. When the magazine was published she found something very different exclaiming, ‘Oh, my god, I look more naked than I did in Playboy.’ In fact, she goes on to share how she wanted to be known for something more than her naked body. Well, it’s obvious she changed her mind…much like the rest of the United States is changing its mind about how pornography is defined.

We need to be alert to the desensitization of how we view pornographic images. As pornography is being redefined by advertisers, we need to also remember what science and research shows it to be, a force that is destructive and changes the way we see others. In an effort to counter some of what we see in our media, it is important we take the following steps with our kids and ourselves:

Clearly define what pornography is. As our society begins to change how it perceives and defines images like those of Kim Kardashian and Keira Knightley, it is important that parents and churches don’t do the same. One of the clearer definitions comes from Tim Chester in his book ‘Closing the Window.’ He says anything we use for sexual titillation, gratification, or escape, whether it is intended for that purpose or not, is pornographic.

Understand the impact that pornography has on our culture. We have to start being honest with the fact that pornography is rewiring our brain. In his book ‘Wired for Intimacy’ Dr. William Struthers says, ‘As men fall deeper into the mental habit of fixating on [pornographic images], the exposure to them creates neural pathways. Like a path is created in the woods with each successive hiker, so do the neural paths set the course for the next time an erotic image is viewed. Over time these neural paths become wider as they are repeatedly traveled with each exposure to pornography. They become the automatic pathway through which interactions with woman are routed….They have unknowingly created a neurological circuit that imprisons their ability to see women rightly as created in God’s image.’

Realize that we are made for relationship. Scripture tells us that we are made in the image of God. We are created to be in relationship with Him and others, just like He is in relationship with Himself through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But pornography demeans and objectifies others. It causes us to see the other as someone who is there to meet our needs. Research shows that when we are exposed to pornography, it becomes harder to be aroused by a real person or relationship.

Recognize that porn distorts God’s design for sex. Whether they want to or not, the majority of teens are getting some of their sex-ed from pornography. Researchers have repeatedly found that people who have seen a significant amount of porn are more likely to start having sex sooner and with more partners, and to engage in riskier kinds of sex. Sex is meant to unite two people. It is meant to lead to children and it is meant to recall, and even reenact, the promise that God makes to us and that we make to one another in the marriage vow. Pornography promises only to leave us lonely, empty, and unfulfilled.

Don’t believe porn is something we just have to accept. Although the number of images has increased over the last few years we should not think it is ever okay. Porn is never part of a normal and healthy relationship. As more and more data shows the negative impact images like these have on the brain and heart, the more important it becomes to educate our youth and young adults to push back.