Everything you wanted to know from your clergy about sex
But were afraid you’d go to hell if you asked
At 13, the closest I came to sex was the scandalous stories my friend Kathy brought to P.E. class. She was the wildest girl I knew, and also the coolest. During morning warm-ups, she’d tell me about sneaking out of her house to meet high-school boys, shocking me with her unromantic language and blasé attitude. But it was in the intimate environs of a sleepover, after turning out the lights and removing my retainer, that I asked the real question: “So what does it feel like?”
What I wanted was not a technical account of sexual mechanics, or an endless rundown of STD risks—replete with horrifying images—à la Sex Ed. Neither was I seeking the celluloid fantasies of Sex and the City. I wanted to know about awkward fingers mapping uncharted skin, hidden softness and syncopated breath, the primal palpitations of mutual desire. I wanted to know how it felt to be known. In the biblical sense.
My hunch is that today’s teenagers are just as curious and confused as I was. With echoes of the Free Love Movement and the AIDS epidemic still reverberating against society’s walls, kids are barraged with a schizophrenic array of sexual messages. And yet the voices too often missing from this cultural melee belong to those with the greatest influence: their parents.
Since it was Eve, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, who first brought shame to the act that would otherwise (according to Milton) be a pure “interpenetration of souls,” SN&R turned to three faith leaders for help uncoiling this serpent of a subject.
My daughter is 13 and boy-crazy! We all know that the schoolyard is too often the first place kids hear about sex. I’m worried about her being properly informed about the responsibilities and risks, as well as the emotional impact, involved with sexual activity. How do I talk to her about such a delicate matter?
Pastor Scot Sorensen of St. John’s Lutheran Church is first to respond.
He gives a resolute shake of his head.
“That horse has left the barn.”
Sorensen’s bleak—but realistic—conclusion draws support from his cohorts.
“I really believe in the pre-empt,” says Don Baird, reverend at Fremont Presbyterian Church. “If you get a chance as a parent, take the first crack at the subject. If you don’t, somebody else will.”
Rabbi Mona Alfi of Congregation B’Nai Israel adds that “your parents are always your most important teachers.” In the Jewish community, “sex is not taboo. We get guilt over other things,” she laughs, “but it’s not a puritanical religion. So I think in Jewish homes there does tend to be a lot of very open and frank talk about sexuality.”
“We can’t say the same thing about Presbyterians,” says Baird, laughing.
Despite their denominational differences, our guests agree that rather than shying away from matters of the flesh, the best way to navigate such sensitive territory is with open, honest and early communication with your child.
Linked by a shared dedication to serving the community, all three faith leaders chose spiritual paths out of the desire to make a difference—to live, as Baird puts it, “a life that matters.” For Sorensen, inspired by the mentorship of his childhood pastor, the calling toward ministry came in high school—not exactly the coolest ambition for a teenager. Now the father of a 3-year-old who’s already fielding kisses on the playground, he understands the necessity of creating a safe space for kids to ask questions about sexuality from the very start. “That kind of open, honest behavior is louder than all the cultural white noise out there,” he says. “It’s still the parents who are the No. 1 influencer, more than their peers, so parents have to accept that role.
Alfi chose the rabbinic over politics after a 10-year struggle over how to best serve the community. “For me, growing up as a Reform Jew, politics and religion are intermixed,” she says. “The whole purpose of religion is to make the world better. If you take politics out of religion, you take out the desire to get involved in the community you’re living in.”
Having lost both her parents in the first grade, Alfi recalls her own introduction to sex: “My grandma sat me down when I was about 10 or 11 and talked to me about sex … because her mother did not talk to her. Even if at the time I was covering my ears in discomfort, I know everything she said in that conversation. It sank in. She said, ‘When you’re ready to have sex, I want you to come talk to me first.’” Apparently this approach worked: “It made me postpone having sex for a very long time,” Alfi laughs.
Like Alfi, Baird flirted with politics before entering the ministry. Raised in a minister’s family, he initially wanted to be “anything but a minister.” However, a pivotal “a-ha moment” redirected him from law school to seminary: “People aren’t changed by the changing of the laws,” he realized. “How is lasting difference made? The only way I know is Jesus Christ.”
On the subject of sex, Baird recommends honesty above all. Both he and Sorensen admonish against representing sex as a “horrible dirty thing” that should be saved until marriage. Baird says: “From a faith standpoint, sex is a gift from God. Sex is not bad, but it’s meant for a context. It’s like a flower: a flower is beautiful, but when it’s out of the context of dirt, it dies. Same thing happens in terms of sex. When it’s out of its context, it kills.”
He is speaking both figuratively and literally. “If it’s unprotected, you can get AIDS, which can kill you. You can get pregnant and that can kill your future relationships. It may kill your image of yourself, or it may kill a child who’s not born yet. Why put yourself through this?”
The media provides ample opportunity for parents to speak up about sex and relationships.
“Every time you see something [on TV] that you feel uncomfortable with and you don’t talk about it,” warns Alfi, “you’re giving your child the message that it’s OK. And talking about sex with your kids means not just telling them what you think, but asking them about their own thoughts and feelings—allowing them the space to have their own emotions, perhaps different from yours, while also being clear in what your values are.”
In Baird’s view, it is also a matter of defining terms. “There is a cultural definition of sex, and there is a Judeo-Christian tradition of sex.” In what he considers a “countercultural” perspective, “Sex is not an act; sex is two becoming one. This is a covenant. And if you’re not ready for the covenant, then this is not going to be what it’s meant to be, what God created it to be.”
So how would God’s representatives—or, in Sorensen’s words, “shamans in the community”—respond to my 13-year-old desire to be known, in the biblical sense?
“We’re created in God’s image, as are other people,” says Sorensen. “Respect and honor and value that human sexuality is a wonderful gift of God, but a gift that we slowly unwrap during our life.”
Alfi distills it even further.
“In terms of sex, what’s really important is how you treat yourself.”
An answer even a sex-crazed teenager could understand.