Sex education in church schools

21.12.10

More than any other issue in ministry, it is through confusion and irresponsibility in matters of sex that I see the greatest damage done to adults and to their children. For some it is the pain and destruction that stems from adultery or from multiple partners. For others it is the damage done to relationships through an addiction to pornography or a cold, even perverted, attitude to sex.

As those responsible for children in a church school, it is therefore important indeed that we think clearly on this issue if we are to protect not just the generations we care for but the generations they will go on to parent.

Understanding the times

As we approach this subject we must recognize that trends in sex education come in a cultural context that is (a) relativistic – and so the desire of the individual is rarely said to be wrong, (b) permissive – so one of the greatest taboos is to suggest something cannot be done, (c) broken – with a higher divorce rate than many. Those writing the materials are part of this culture and so likely to write what reflects it, or perhaps reflects their own choices in life in such a way that does not accept where they have actually made mistakes. In teaching the material, it is good to be aware of these tendencies in ourselves too.

We should also recognize the sexual attitudes of our culture are fairly novel ones. Throughout the majority of history, and even today amongst the majority of religions, something much closer to the Christian view of the place of sex has been held. If nothing else, humility before such a consensus should keep us from uncritically propagating our culture’s view in a manner that could lead the next generation to repeat the mistakes of their parents with all the pain that ensues.

Discernment

The diversity of backgrounds children come from may mean that we feel unable to be as clear about certain rights and wrongs as we may like. However one thing that can be done is to teach older children discernment. An ability to at least weigh up different views respectfully but critically, including that of their own parents, can only benefit.

Timing

A key question is over when teaching on topics such as body parts, masturbation and intercourse help prevent unwanted pregnancy, and when will it encourage an interest in these things that would not have otherwise been there. Children as young as 3 or 4 can be interested in touching one-another’s sexual organs or kissing each other on the lips. This is not surprising. Nor will it therefore be surprising if other ideas are introduced which in all innocence they then try out too.

In terms of mentioning homosexuality in particular, extreme caution is needed. It is commonly recognized that during the inherent confusion of puberty many feel some same sex attraction. If at this time it is simply taught that ‘homosexuality refers to those who are attracted to those of the same sex’ such children could very easily assume that they are homosexual. With all the concern for people to be proud of their sexuality such children might then feel great pressure to engage in homosexual acts that may be pleasurable and only seem to confirm their assumptions. This could cause them to have an identity crisis or miss out on what Christians would claim to be normal heterosexual development.

Obviously, at whatever level the ‘right’ age for sex education will differ according to the children. There will always be a few who may have benefited from sex education at a younger age, whether because of greater maturity or because of a lack of discernment in what their parents have exposed them to. However, this cannot be the determining factor for when the majority of their peers receive their own sex education.

Rather, the complexity of the matter suggests that what is included in sex education at certain ages should be decided on with strict consultation between teachers, governors and parents, but with the parents’ will taking precedence, as they are those, in a Christian understanding, who are ultimately responsible for their children.

The Christian view

In providing such education in a church school, an understanding of the Christian values surrounding sex must be determinative.

Many Bible passages could be referred to. The key ones are Genesis 1 and 2, and Matthew 19v1-11 where Jesus affirms the Genesis passages as the basis for understanding marriage and sexual ethics.

In short, Christians hold that God created sex as good gift to be enjoyed. There are no grounds then for portraying the Christian view as dull Victorianism. Indeed, the Bible even teaches that regular sex is necessary for a healthy marriage.

It has two purposes: The first is to result in children that will be raised to love and serve God. The second is in powerfully drawing the couple closer to one-another in order to help keep them united together in serving God as a team and particularly by raising any children that may be given.

The problem with sex in the Christian worldview is that by turning from God people have suppressed this understanding and been ready to satisfy its powerful desires in whatever way they choose, resulting in all sorts of sexual confusion within ourselves and our children.

By contrast, a true understanding of the Christian view helps us see why sex must be heterosexual. Its intent has always been to produce children and strengthen the partnership in which they are to be raised. The fact that children do not always result or that a gay couple can raise a child doesn’t validate sex outside of the heterosexual context because its purpose is defined by its original, God-given and therefore ‘ natural’ intent.

This understanding also helps explain why sex is only to be within marriage. Sex outside such an exclusive lifelong commitment with its public accountability to others (a) makes children vulnerable as it is easier for a parent to leave, (b) makes the other parent vulnerable in making it easy for them to be abandoned to care for the child on their own, and (c) can cause emotional devastation to the partner in being drawn so close to another through a sexual relationship only to then discarded.

God’s boundaries for sex are therefore for our own good and the good of any children we may wish to have. The evidence that this is so surrounds us in the brokenness of our current society and the pain many of us feel from brokenness in our own families. In the light of this, it is ironic that few are ready to question our culture’s norms.

The Christian view can be likened to the parent who lovingly buys their child a car for when they passed their test. Of course the child will be desperate to drive it before then. But if they do they are likely to crash it, harming themselves and probably others. So they need to control that desire and wait, knowing that they will get the best from the car and enjoy it most if they have passed their test and follow the highway code.

We should remember that as with all Christian living, the principle of selfless love in sexual activity is paramount. We do not primarily engage in sex because it gives us pleasure (though it does), we do so in order to serve God’s purposes in marriage and procreation (love for God), deepen our commitment to our marriage partner (love for them) and so better serve as a couple in the world and better raise any children we have too (love for others).

Current sex education material

No doubt there is much good material available. But the following do concern me in what I have seen:

1) A description of intercourse - recommended for 5+ years.

2) A description of intercourse carried out because “the man wants to get as close to the woman as he can, because he’s feeling very loving to her” – recommended for 7+ years.

3) A game of matching definitions and descriptions with words and phrases such as “anal intercourse, anus, bisexual, homophobia, homosexual, incest, lesbian, masturbation, oral sex, orgasm, prostitute” – recommended for 5+ years.

4) The definition of “incest” not stating it is wrong but only “against the law” – recommended for 5+ years.

5) A description of how people masturbate and the pleasure given as they do, with the phrase “it’s quite natural” and “sometimes, when people love each other they want to share these special touches” – recommended 7+ years.

6) Full frontal video stills of naked men and women – recommended for 7+ years.

7) Computer generated images of penetration and of an erection – recommended for 7+ years.

8) Cartoon pictures of two men in love – recommended for 7+ years.

9) A statement about those who “disapprove of” homosexuality or think that “gay relationships are wrong” that says: “Usually these people know little or nothing about homosexuals, and their views are often based on fears or misinformation, not on facts. People are often afraid of things they know little or nothing about.” – recommended for 7+ years.

10) A video still of two men kissing – recommended for 7-11 years.

11) Cartoon video stills of a couple having sex – recommended for 7-9 years.

12) A description of foreplay, erections and the “fluid” side of intercourse – recommended for 7+ years.

13) A description of fantasizing sexually about “someone you fancy” as “a safe way to explore your emotions” – recommended for 8+ years.

No doubt every parent will draw their lines in different places, but I imagine many would be surprised and concerned to find that material this explicit is recommended or used with primary aged children.

In sieving it through the Christian worldview outlined, a number of reflections need mention:

1) We cannot agree that masturbation, anal or homosexual sex should be portrayed uncritically as quite natural, because the historic and official Christian view is that they are unnatural in the sense that the sexual organs are not being used in the way they were created to be and do not serve the purposes for which sex is intended. Masturbation and anal sex can also be particularly self-indulgent and motivated simply by a desire to give pleasure to oneself.

2) In our current climate the teacher may not be able to say these things are wrong, but they should not say they are fine. My own view is that they should not even be mentioned in the classroom with primary aged children. But if they are mentioned, the teacher can say that Christians believe them to be wrong (a) for the reasons given in point 1, (b) because engaging in such things builds a desire for more of them, (c) because the wonderful intimacy and joy of sex and the purity of our sexual lives should be reserved as a special gift for our lifelong marriage partner. By way of anticipation, love can already be expressed for them by wanting them to have our best.

3) It should not be stated that sexual acts of any kind are engaged in ‘when’ or ‘because’ people ‘love one-another.’ This is very na├»ve as Children and young people often feel they love others, and this could easily be read to say that these things are then appropriate.

4) Rather it could be said: ‘Most people agree that these things shouldn’t be engaged in until the couple are properly committed to staying together so that they do not hurt each other by being intimate and then splitting up, and so that they can be together to raise any children that may come. Christians believe that we should not therefore have sex until we are married, because that is God’s special means of ensuring a couple stay together for life and so is the best protection for them and their children.’ An outline of the Christian view could then follow.

5) It is difficult to see how it benefits the majority of children to be told or shown any detail about foreplay or sexual intercourse before reaching secondary school. But it is not hard to see how it could intrigue and encourage them to engage in such intercourse.

6) We cannot affirm the harmlessness of “fantasizing” about sex if we are to do justice to Jesus’ opposition to lust and the sheer power of sexual desire when encouraged. Moreover, it is disrespectful to the individual being fantasized about, who might be very unhappy indeed that they are being thought of in that way.

7) If homosexuality is mentioned, it should not be suggested that people are fixed in their sexuality just because they experience some same sex attraction. Our feelings are far too complex for something so reductionistic. Moreover, a respect should be shown for those who think homosexuality is wrong, many of whom are very thought through and have close gay friends.

8) Because of its high positive view of sex and its realism about its abuse, the Bible affirms modesty with those other than one’s spouse, and sees the viewing of others’ nakedness outside of marriage and the family negatively. The video stills would therefore be inappropriate for some Christians.

9) At the very least it should be mentioned that it is illegal and so wrong to have sex when under 16 years old.

10)
The whole project is in danger of contributing to the sexualization of children by encouraging an unhealthy focus and possible fascination with these things ahead of time.

Conclusion:

It is hard to teach in a church school if one does not share these Christian convictions. Nevertheless, if such schools are to uphold their concern for Christian values it would seem these points also need to be upheld.