Letting Them Speak: A New Way of Ministering to Catholic Teenagers about Sex
Catholic youth ministers and religious educators are facing a difficult challenge in regards to teenagers and sex. Catholic youth find themselves torn between societal expectations towards sex and the Church’s teachings. Too often, they fall under the pressures of society because the Church has left them ill-equipped to handle the issue of sex on a spiritual level. Sex is either not talked about with teenagers, or they are told by the Church not to have sex until they are married. Rarely are they told why they should wait, what the benefits of waiting could be, or are given the chance to explore their understandings of faith and sex for themselves.
Ministers and teachers of religious education need to rethink how they approach sex with Catholic youth. Instead of following the model of abstinence only, youth should be told why sex is important in the Catholic faith and why it is something that should be cherished and not taken for granted. The power of intimate connection that sex has should be highlighted, as well as how God is present within the act. Ultimately, those working with Catholic youth cannot be hesitant or afraid to talk about sex, and teenagers should be invited into dialogue about sex rather than being told what they should and should not do. A new model for ministering to Catholic youth about sex that is both affirming, intellectual, and spiritual is greatly needed in the Church.
Before any kind of model can be proposed in how to effectively minister to youth about sex, it is important to have a thorough understanding of how large this problem truly is. The concern for Catholic youth and sex goes beyond their spiritual health and can prove very perilous for them physically as well. The risk of a person engaging in sexual activity and receiving an STD is alarmingly high, and it’s been reported that “[o]f the twenty-nine sexually transmitted diseases identified by the National Board of Health, almost half of these occur among young people ages fifteen to twenty-four.” While abstinence-only programs have been widely promoted both by the Church and the government, the results of such efforts have not been great enough. The same can be said of safe-sex programs promoting condom use and birth control to prevent pregnancy and the possible spread of STDs. This is shown in a study conducted by Chap Clark, the author of Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, in which Clark reported that “less than 10 percent of sexually active adolescents use condoms consistently.” The truth is that the message these programs are trying to get through to teenagers is only sticking with a small minority. Most teenagers are either ignoring these messages or do not have a thorough enough understanding of what sex is in order to comprehend why they should pay attention.
The biggest obstacle that youth ministers and religious educators have to face when ministering to youth is the huge influence that society and the media have over them. It is difficult to battle the sexualization of society and the media when Catholic teenagers are constantly surrounded by its influence and only exposed to their faith in limited quantities. The impact that society and the media have over all adolescents, not just Catholics, is massive. Sex is portrayed everywhere, and is exposed to younger and younger youth as the media and market try to catch their attention. According to Clark, “[b]y the time a typical child reaches ten or eleven years of age, he or she has seen on television and in movies…sexual intercourse…and any other form of sexual expression or experimentation a human can invent.” Some teens have reported sexual activity they see on television as being more influential to them when they think about sex than even their friends, and though most adults realize that sex as portrayed on TV is more often than not unrealistic fantasy, youth “who think TV accurately portrays sex are more likely to be dissatisfied with their own first experiences.” Society is not only exposing teenagers to more and more sex, but setting almost impossible standards about how sex should be.
Sex is also rampant in the marketplace, with stores like Victoria’s Secret “setting the bar” and retailers popular among youth like Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle Outfitters following suite. The rapid increase and use of technology has also made sex and sexual conduct easier to access by youth. Pornography as well as explicit advertising and promoting of sex and sexual activities are now only a click away for the majority of America’s teenagers.
Parents are not blind to the affect media and the marketplace have on their children and how sexualized it has become. Joy Overbeck writing in “Popular Culture Affects Teen Sexuality” recounts a story of shopping for clothes with her ten-year-old daughter and how shocked she was at some of the “fashionable” items her daughter insisted on having. She points out that it is not that she wants her daughter to be “a little girl forever”, but that her daughter has been so influenced by “the fantasy of bodies and beauty that marinates our entire culture” that she feels her daughter and other youth are experiencing a “premature sexual awakening” that “is stealing” their youth. The problem is that parents cannot fight against society’s influence on their own, and often give into is sexualization without realizing it themselves. This is why it is so important for the Church to be able to offer an effective message that teenagers can appreciate and use against the every present and invasive sexual norms of society.
The Catholic Church is not doing an effective job when it comes to ministering to teenagers about sex. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has a very lengthy history in which it has held sex in a negative light that has confused its community of believers and created a culture of sexual guilt within itself. Some of these traditional views of sex have been Biblically based, an example being Paul’s letters in which he repeatedly speaks of the ideal of virginity, sometimes even over marriage. However, many of these viewpoints have come from and were developed by the great thinkers of the Church and have been passed down as part of the Tradition.
Much of the Church’s theology, including its sexual theology, has been built on foundations created by early influential theologians such as Clement, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. For Clement of Alexandria, sex was not about love and desire. Clement believed that “[w]ithin the bounds of Christian marriage and household, the reason for sexual activity was children.” This idea of sex being only for procreation has continued down through the ages, and though the Church’s stance has long since changed, it is still a stereotype that people have latched onto. St. Ambrose faced a society in which men and women “postponed the radical demands of baptism because of the needs of public life and the teachings on sexual renunciation” and so idealized virginity and celibacy as “a clearly demarcated integrity” for the Church. For St. Jerome there is seen a further degradation of sex in his claim that married couples were “not to be placed at the same level of hierarchy as consecrated virgins” and that “all marriages were somewhat regrettable.” Finally, St. Augustine viewed sexual desire as “suspicious” and saw it as a sign of humanity’s fall into sin and “disordered will”. With such adverse language as the traditional foundation for how the Church understands sex, it is no wonder that teenagers are turned off by what the Church tries to tell them, when the Church actually tries to tell them anything at all.
Catholic youth are, more often than not, confused by what the Church has to say about sex. In her book Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses, Donna Freitas, after interviewing various Catholic young adults, concluded that the average Catholic student was “either clueless about Catholicism’s teachings about sex, or didn’t care.” Ministers and teachers are simply not relaying all that the Church has to say about sex to teenagers, and so all that they know, or think that they know about the Church’s teachings is the societal stereotype. Somehow, teenagers are being passed over when the Church discusses sex, instead focusing on married people. In schools and ministry settings, discussions about sex seem to not go beyond explaining the changes of the body during puberty, and the occasional safe sex or abstinence only lecture. This is damaging because the teenage years are arguably the most confusing and trying years in a person’s sexual development, but the Church is doing little to help in that development.
Some youth, as Freitas noted, just do not care, relying on their own judgment as to what sex is and means. However, teenagers are so often blasé to the idea of sex because of over-stimulation that they might only hold “loosely to the philosophy that sexual activity is generally better reserved for someone you love” but this idea tends to be “not so strong that it precludes a random sexual encounter with a stranger given the opportunity.” Without a solid foundation from which to build up their ideas of sex and the continued affirmation that sex is important, teenagers are simply not going to care enough to consider why they should or should not be participating in sexual activities.
To begin to fix this problem, religious educators and ministers cannot be afraid to talk about sex, and to engage in dialogue with their students about it. The reality is that a large number of teenagers are having sex and nearly all of them are being exposed to it in almost every aspect of their life. Not talking to them about it will only leave them vulnerable to the negative messages and harmful portrayals of sex that the rest of society has to offer them. They do not think sex is a big deal because no one is telling them why it is important. They are only seeing that “everyone” is having it. Educators must also have the understanding that teenagers do not like to be talked at, but talked to. It is not enough to lay out facts and statistics, or throw theology at them and expect them to understand. They need to be guided and their own voices need to be heard and respected. With this in mind, the following model for ministering to Catholic youth is formed with the setting of a Catholic high school and religious education specifically in mind, but the broad concepts and ideas can be applied to various other forms of youth ministry.
First, a definition of what sex is needs to be determined for the purpose of the conversation and class room. Teenagers often have a very narrow definition of what constitutes sex. Clark notes this in his study, saying that he “came away with a clear impression that almost no midadolescent believes that sex is anything other than penile penetration in a vagina.” Challenging this notion brings to light the many layers and complexities of sex and how it can be a very broad concept. The students should be invited to participate in the defining of the terms so that they are given the chance to think through and come to understand just how complex sex is.
Relying on students’ initial knowledge or ideas rather than text book definitions or Church doctrine can also help the instructor know roughly what is influencing the students and how much knowledge they actually possess about the topic. The instructor can ask questions to prompt further discussion such as “Is sex just intercourse?” “What about oral sex?” “Is sex anything that can cause orgasm?” and “Do two people have to be involved for something to be considered sex?” It is important for the instructor to be open with the discussion and not assume the students will not take it seriously or will not know anything. Another thing to keep in mind is to make it clear that the definition that is determined is not a universal one, and they will encounter other definitions of sex outside of the classroom.
Once a definition of sex is determined for use in the conversation, asking students what they think sex is for would allow them an opportunity to think even deeper about the topic for themselves. Again, helping them through the thought process by asking questions and using prompts is important as they may not be able to make connections beyond the physical aspects of sex. It might be beneficial to ask the students to discuss how they think sex should make people feel or think, or if a mental connection is necessary and why they might think it is or is not. Asking them why they think people want to have sex, and having them explore more benefits beyond just the physical aspects of sex could prove helpful to the instructor by offering an insight into the students’ rationales for having sex.
For some students, it could end up being simply that they are lonely that they might seek sex, a pattern that Clark noted in his study saying, “I became aware that the adolescent world is not as saturated with sex as it is infused with palpable loneliness.” Unearthing the real issues some teenagers are facing could lead to a conversation pinpointing the real reasons why students might be having sex. Again, involving them in the discussion rather than simply telling them what to do or not to do could make them think more fully about the topic in a safe environment where an adult is present to help them process their thoughts.
At this point it is important to bring the Church and its teachings into the discussion, but instead of focusing on abstinence only, or sex as a means of procreation, emphasizing the connective and intimate nature of sex brings the positive aspect of the Church’s message to the forefront. It is easy to find sex-positive teachings throughout Church doctrine. It’s only a matter of exposing it and not letting it become shadowed by the negative. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, it states that “[s]exuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and…the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.” The Catechism goes on to encourage acceptance of individual “sexual identity” rather than ignoring it as people so often believe the Catholic Church wants its members to do. It is important for educators to actually tell students what the Catholic Church teaches, and not just assume that they already know.
The language that religious educators use when talking about sex is also important. Instead of telling students that they “can’t” or “shouldn’t” do something, or that they are somehow in the wrong if they have sex before marriage, affirming that sex is good and important is key. This can also work towards dispelling the blasé attitude that teenagers seem to have towards sex by reiterating that sex is good and created by God, and so it should be cherished. Sex goes beyond physical pleasure and can be “a source of our greatest delights and our most painful confusions.” It is not always clear that teenagers understand the profound mental effects sex can have on those involved.
The point that needs to be made to teenagers over and over is that God created sex and sex is good when done for the right reasons. Despite what they may or may not think, the Catholic Church does not think sex is dirty, and God is not anti-sex. The Catechism even states that “[s]exuality is a source of joy and pleasure” and that the “Creator himself…established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit.” Despite what many people believe the Church says about sex, it is not just for procreation, and despite what society says it is not just for physical pleasure. Sex is supposed to be a benefit to the body and the soul, which can only happen when a truly intimate connection exists between the people involved. This desire for connection is an ingrained human trait that makes sex more about a “relational connection and a safe place” than “a physical, albeit sometimes pleasurable, activity of the body.” Teenagers seek this connection, but do not really understand how devastating sex can be when taken for granted or limited to physical desire. Explaining it to them is not enough. Religious educators need to help them along as students seek to understand sex, not turn them away or offer them simple yes or no answers.
When discussing the merits of sex in a Catholic setting, it is also important to discuss chastity and the Christian body. Chastity is another concept that seems to be easily confused among believers, youth especially. According to the Catechism, “Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” Chastity is about balance and self-control, using human reason to determine whether or not certain actions can leave an individual spiritually healthy. Sex is a gift, but it is a gift that comes with responsibilities and the potential to cause harm.
In Catholic teachings, chastity helps people keep their “passions” in check in order to not be ruled by them. This does not mean that someone who is chaste is not having sex or does not like sex. It often seems that believers, adults and youth alike, are confused by the concept of chastity. Informing students that chastity is something that everyone struggles with lets them know that they are not being blamed or singled-out, but are being challenged just like their fellow adult believers. Of course, as with every other step in this model, it is important for educators to help them process what chastity truly is, and how being called to a chaste life does not mean being called to a life without sex or one in which sex is looked down on. A chaste life means appreciating the power sex has and knowing that it is a kind of intimate connection in which God is found.
Understanding that the body is good is also an important message for teenagers to receive when discussing sex. Though an entire class session could be dedicated to this point alone, it is good to at least talk about the significance of the body in Catholic teaching. Despite what history may show or what people think the Church teaches in regards to the body, the reality is that “[t]he body is holy, sex is good; God dwells there.” At this period in their life, teenagers are most likely struggling with how they feel about their bodies and their physical urges, and so helping them to understand that whatever they are experiencing is no cause for shame or self-loathing can help to alleviate their doubts and guilt. Jesus Christ had a fully human body with fully human urges. He hungered, he wept, he needed to be by himself once and awhile, and he died a very real death. Christianity is based on the idea that God became human with a mortal body, and reassuring youth of the importance of the body is vital for their physical and spiritual development.
Finally, acknowledging the pressures and struggles that teenagers’ face regarding sex is extremely important. Making it clear that the educators do not expect making decisions about sex to be easy for youth can open a doorway for more dialogue and trust to take place later on. It is also imperative that feelings of guilt not be placed on the students, because they will shy away from any further guidance from the educator or the Church. What must be known by the students is that their decisions will not lead them to be ostracized from their faith community, and that God is ever-loving and compassionate. If teenagers are going to face off with the demands and pressures of society, they have to feel confident that they will be backed by an unshakable support system and loyal faith community. They have to know that they are not alone in the world.
The model presented has a lot of room to grow, and can be used in different ways by different youth ministers. What is most important about this model is that dialogue always be a part of it. If teenagers do not feel like their voices are being heard, then they will most likely reject what is being told to them. Engaging them and inviting them to think deeply about sex and other issues while maintaining a guiding presence for their thought processes can help adolescents to realize the potential consequences of their actions and benefits of their choices. Simply telling a teenager not to engage in sexual activity is not going to help them understand why they should not have sex, or why it would be better for them to wait. Religious educators and other youth ministers need to take off the kid-gloves when ministering to teenagers and engage them in a way that will help them towards spiritual and intellectual maturity, all while letting them know that their voices are valid. Society does not have to rule them if the Church and its ministers are only ready to listen to them.
 Linda L. Belleville, Sex, Lies, and the Truth: Developing a Christian Ethic in a Post-Christian Society (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2010), 8-9.
 Ibid., 12.
 Chap Clark, Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 130.
 Ibid., 128.
Debra W. Haffner, Mary Kelly, and L. Brent Bozell III, “The Media Affect Teen Sexuality,” in Teenage Sexuality: Opposing Viewpoints, ed. Karin L. Swisher (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1994), 36.
 Belleville, Sex, Lies, and the Truth, 7.
 Ibid., 11.
Joy Overbeck, “Popular Culture Affects Teen Sexuality,” in Teenage Sexuality: Opposing Viewpoints, ed. Karin L. Swisher (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1994), 30.
Joseph Monti, Arguing About Sex: The Rhetoric of Christian Sexual Morality (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1995), 218.
 Ibid., 220.
 Ibid., 222-223.
Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses (Cary, North Carolina: Oxford University Press, 2008), 199.
 Ibid., 198.
 Clark, Hurt, 133.
 Ibid., 129.
 Ibid., 123.
 The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2332.
 Ibid., 2333.
 Evelyn Eaton Whitehead and James D. Whitehead, Wisdom of the Body: Making Sense of Our Sexuality (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001), 23.
 The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2362.
 Clark, Hurt, 131.
 The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2337.
 Ibid., 2339.
 Whitehead and Whitehead, Wisdom of the Body, 18.