This past week, my church held a sexuality workshop for our 5th graders and their parents called Created by God, a three-day Christian-based sex education curriculum.
I never realized how multifaceted the feeling of anxiety was until I saw the parents arrive at the orientation meeting the first night. The attitudes of parents ranged anywhere from being hesitantly thankful that the church was helping them begin the conversation about sex to being downright mortified at the thought that their children were growing up and somehow losing their innocence.
The students who participated showed a similarly anxious response when they arrived. Apparently for some of these students, their parents hadn’t even mentioned what they would be doing at church. Others outright lied to their kids, causing one young boy to exclaim, “Hey, where’s all the ice cream?” when he showed up for the first session.
These parents mourned what they believed to be their child’s loss of innocence.
Of course, as youth workers, we all know that none of these kids, even though they are 5th graders, are losing their innocence by discussing sex at church. Truth be told, I received quite the education from a couple of students who seemed well versed in the mechanics and language of sex.
Though I was surprised by the parents’ reaction, I could understand their concern. They believed, as many church members often do, that speaking about sexuality with young people is a sure fire way to awaken their unbridled desire for copious amounts of intercourse. After all, the apostle Paul said as much about sin in his letter to the Romans:
“What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead” (Romans 7:7-8).
I mean, if we tell youth about this thing called “sex” they’ll have no other choice but to act on their impulses. If sin begins internally, as James 1:14-15 seems to suggest, then we are setting our youth up to sin if we fill their heads with thoughts of sex and procreation:
“But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14-15).
In a way, this logic makes sense, and parents are rightly concerned with how their youth learn about and talk about their sexuality.
But might I suggest that this anxiety forgets the vital role of the Christian community.
Indeed, sin begins in our own hearts, perhaps even brought about by a lawful restriction. But the fact that the law’s naming of sin awakens in us a desire to sin shatters any illusions we might have about the “innocence” of our own human nature.
The point of the writings of Paul and James is precisely that the law and our own desires leave us completely helpless on our own. Yes, the law coupled with our nature elicit all manner of sinful desires, but that is why Almighty God in his perfect wisdom has given the gift of his Holy Church. In a paradox of sorts, the Christian community is both the cause of our sin (by naming it and awakening our desire to it) and the antidote to our sin (by prohibiting it and holding us accountable).
By myself, I cannot direct my own desires. The power of sin and death is too strong in me. But in the Christian community, guided by the power of the Holy Spirit, I am enabled through the grace of Jesus Christ to resist temptation. I am held accountable by my brothers and sisters, and cleansed by grace through confessing my sins to God and to others.
You see, speaking about sex does not cause me to lose my innocence; it invites me to reclaim it in the life of the Christian community. It calls me to redeem the topic of sexuality for the good and holy purposes of God’s Kingdom and it challenges me to be vulnerable about my own sinful struggle with sexuality.
When I think about our sexuality workshop, I realize that there was no innocence lost, but rather there was grace gained.
The real question became for me not whether 5th grade is too young for these students, but rather “What happens if 5th grade is the last time we talk about sexuality with these students?” If we, as youth workers, cannot continue to redeem the topic of sexuality in our youth ministries then we miss a very real opportunity to explore with our students the fullness of what it truly means to be created by God.
What have been your experiences with speaking about sexuality to students?
What resources and curricula on the topic of sexuality have you found helpful?