This piece was originally published on ChristianityToday.com in 2013 by our now Development Director, Luke Cirillo.
Luke, a former Abstinence Educator and current Director of Development for a network of Pregnancy Resource Centers, is an unlikely critic of Evangelical sex culture, but neatly dismantles the tired tropes of abstinence language to replace them with a resilient view of sexual wholeness and discipleship in this sharp, timely piece.
“I’m not telling you that sex is bad. No, when you get married, I want you to have as much sex as possible. I want you to do it until you’re sore!”
That statement was burned into the memory center of my fifth grade brain. Partly because it was so shocking, but also because I was confused by the idea that you can get sore when you have sex…
I sat in a crowd of kids in the little amphitheater of a Northern California youth camp. I was by far the youngest student there. “There” was a retreat dedicated to whitewater rafting and abstinence. I have vivid memories—both of nearly being tossed into Fowler’s Rock on the American River, and of a man letting me know in the most vivid of language that sex was going to be amazing for me someday…as long as I waited for marriage.
Most camps culminate in a rousing come-to-Jesus moment with weeping and commitments to a new life. Ours had abstinence pledge cards, which of course I signed.
Fast forward. I’m now standing in front of 100 high school students in a health class in Portland, Oregon. I’m convincing the students (quite effectively I might add) that oral sex does actually count as sex. I’ve done this hundreds of times—so it’s no surprise that at this moment some students are crying because they are laughing so hard.
I had somehow gone from awkward abstinence camper to directing an abstinence program.
“He waited” isn’t the whole story.
For the last three years, up until very recently, I directed an abstinence education program in Portland, Oregon, that at the outset was very similar to that uncomfortably educational middle school retreat.
Programs like mine were the evangelical “dream of the 90’s.” This was largely because the 80’s were a terrifying time for conservative sexual ethics. AIDS was national news, rates of sexual activity and teen pregnancy were sharply rising, and evangelicals (to our credit), were not going to sit back and just watch the world burn with passion.
We established abstinence programs like True Love Waits, and popularized cultural practices like purity rings. If you step back, the effort was quite impressive. This wasn’t just a couple rogue Christians trying to slay a sexy dragon on their own. Pretty much all of American evangelicalism was engaged. We didn’t just teach abstinence; we lived and breathed it. Abstinence became a key marker of our cultural identity.
This is my heritage. I—a child of the 90’s—grew up with Steve Urkel, Every Young Man’s Battle, Accountability Groups, and Purity Rings (Urkel somehow fits in the series, doesn’t he?). And it sort of worked. I’m a poster child for the success of the Abstinence machine. I signed that retreat pledge card, and I’ve never had any kind of sex with anybody other than my wife. Then, to seal the deal, I became the next generation of abstinence leadership, carrying the torch with enthusiasm.
Actually, that’s really not the whole story. The reality is that my own story is not so clean as the sound bite, “he waited,” and over the last few years I have become more and more uncomfortable with the approach that I was responsible for leading.
There is an old axiom I’ve often heard repeated at different times and in different ways. It goes something like this:
What you call them with is what you call them to and what you call them to, must be sustained.
Sticks and Carrots, Knights and Princesses
It’s not good when the material you’re teaching others doesn’t sit right with you anymore. The traditional abstinence program that I had inherited began troubling me. A question nagged me: What was I—and other well-meaning youth workers—calling these young people with? What carrot was I dangling at the end of the stick?
I was working to motivate young people toward a certain set of decisions. But what was I using to motivate them? And was the life I called them to sustainable in light of the promised incentive? There were three major “carrots” in hindsight.
When I was in high school, a slew of books came out with roughly the same story about relationships and sex. They encouraged me to interpret my life through their lens. The story? Some variation where I (a young man) was a knight and the ladies around were princesses. It was basically my job to come to their rescue. If I am willing to accept that task and make good decisions (like not taking advantage of girls sexually, and remaining pure in my heart and mind, I would eventually end up in an incredible, fulfilling marriage relationship. The first carrot was that I would experience the pinnacle of relational fulfillment if I made good sexual and relational choices as a young man.
That’s a carrot I had out in front me for the majority of my life. And I think I had it pretty easy. I’m pretty sure young Christian girls got it way worse. It sounded to me like they were painted a future of idyllic marital bliss as a bill of rights.
As an Evangelical culture, we have paraded relational fulfillment as a promise for the pure. And the best way to get there? Abstinence.
Sexual satisfaction is a second carrot we’ve used. If you would have visited the website of the organization I directed 3 years ago, you would have been met with a splash page, which you had to view before entering the site. On the page was an image of two pairs of lips about to touch in the most sensual of ways. Below the image: Want great sex? Click here.
When you clicked the link it took you to the main website for our abstinence education program. The message was that if you wanted to have great sex, the best way to get it was to wait. It’s another favorite carrot: the promise of sexual satisfaction.
We honestly want people to know that we are not anti-sex at all. This is great. We are pro sex and pro lots of good sex. We also happen to think the way to get the best and most sex is through marriage. That was the message of my fifth grade camp experience. Throughout my adolescence I got the impression that even though it was difficult to remain pure in the present, there was a reward waiting for me—ultimate, pure pleasure. My adolescent dreams would be fulfilled someday when I was married. Sexual satisfaction was a certainty, a promise. I just needed to hold on for the wedding day.
Another of our go-to carrots is the promise of a consequence-free life. Fear is a powerful motivator; it can work. If you paint the consequences of an action in stark enough terms, it can affect what people choose to do. In my experience, pictures of the results of STD’s are about as stark as you get. Turn the lights off in a room and show a bunch of high-schoolers pictures of mangled genitals and there are a few in the room who will say to themselves, Not me. Please God, not me. We say the best way to avoid consequences like STDs (STIs for those who are up on the lingo), unwanted pregnancy, and emotional baggage is to remain sexually abstinent.
The consequence avoidance approach is a pillar of the abstinence movement. In fact, modern day abstinence programs are called SRA, or Sexual Risk Avoidance programs. The concept is pretty simple. Don’t do this, and these things will not happen to you. It is motivation with the promise of a consequence-free life.
With all three of our go-to carrots we are calling young people with the same thing: Self-interest. We are teaching young people that the main reason for you make a particular sexual decision is directly related to whether or not it will benefit you. If we are calling them with self-interest, then according to our axiom from earlier, we are calling them to self-interest, and the problem is that self-interest in this area, will be unsustainable for most people.
This is what began to make me uncomfortable with this approach. Can this message of self-interest faithfully lead a young person out of adolescence and into adulthood? After all, all it takes for a young person to leave abstinence culture is a bit of disillusionment. If our promised narrative does not pan out as it’s supposed to, the tower falls, princesses hit the ground, and there are no princes there to catch them.
The promise of future relational fulfillment, sexual satisfaction, and a consequence-free life has a difficult time standing up to the reality of humans in relationships. We are broken, frail and fail with regularity. Some of those anticipated idyllic marriages—even when waited-for—will end in divorce; many will have sex lives in marriage that don’t add up to what they anticipated; some will remain single but always long for that promised relationship as the pinnacle of human love; some will be completely on the outside of the Evangelical narrative because they have no meaningful attraction to the opposite sex. It is these exceptions to the rule – these examples where what we call them with is unsustainable – that make me seriously question the entire approach.
And really, isn’t it true for all of us that sexual brokenness is not the exception to the rule? It is the rule. In light of that one solid reality that we all share, what can we call one another with and to, and what will sustain us?
A Better Story
Some years ago I had the privilege of working with an organization called Portland Fellowship. It’s one of those controversial ministries for Christians struggling with same-sex attraction. I got connected because I wanted to have some understanding of the issues around homosexuality, as well as insight on how to walk with those who are attracted to the same sex. I led worship and co-led a small group there. I listened to the confusion, pain and anger of those living a sexual reality they didn’t ask for and didn’t want. They were hungry for help, for something that would enable them to understand their experience in light of their identity as Christians and that would sustain them in their struggle. A struggle, I might add, that brings no promise of relational fulfillment or sexual satisfaction.
I learned a valuable lesson there. I came to understand that the only call that can sustain us is the call to discipleship – the call to take up our cross and follow Jesus. One of my friends at Portland Fellowship put it well when he said that upon entering that ministry, there was no promise of a happy heterosexual life at the end of the rainbow. There was just a call to be obedient to Jesus.
I truly believe that the only message that can bring hope and transformation is the one captured in the mysterious words of Jesus, when he says that we only find our lives when we lose them. In this call there is no promise of an idyllic relational future. There is no promise of sexual satisfaction. And it is not motivated by the fear of doing the opposite. This vision is shaped by the simple belief that the path Jesus lays out to the cross, is the only path that leads to a resurrected life. There is no identity to be found in anything but the Messiah.
Changing the Call
But the question remains—if I’m standing in front of a hundred kids, talking with them about their lives as sexual and relational beings, how does this call change my message?
First, I don’t make promises anymore about outcomes. I cannot guarantee that making the right decisions now will somehow lead to great things later. The only thing I feel like I can guarantee is just the opposite: we will experience relational and sexual brokenness that needs the redemption of Jesus. No more of this strange gospel of sexual prosperity.
I’ve also stopped focusing on behavior modification. The abstinence approach as it is has one goal: changing behavior. This is well-intentioned, but wrong. I believe we need to focus on identity, rather than behavior. Healthy Christian sexuality is about becoming people who find their life in the way of Jesus, not just people who worry whether they made out with their significant other for too long. Some might be uncomfortable with the dichotomy, and I’m not suggesting that behaviors don’t matter. But we need to call people to what all Christians are called to—an entirely different way of being, not just a different way of doing. The call to be found in Christ.
Focus on changing behaviors alone only effects the behaviors you focus on. An easy example is the reality that many young Christians are “technical” virgins because they know that having sexual intercourse is wrong, but can’t see the connection to the myriad of other kinds of sexual activity they engage in. The answer isn’t just teaching them that more stuff is wrong than they thought. It’s teaching them a new way of envisioning their lives, found in the call to lose their life to find it.
Lastly, I’ve begun to focus on the core of Christian hope: a resurrection we have yet to experience. There is no promise of fulfillment this side of eternity. Our bodies will want the wrong things until we die and relationships will be imperfect until the restoration of all things. Some of us get a taste of it now – an appetizer – but it’s only a taste. It is with wisdom that the scriptures point us toward a yet unfulfilled hope. It means that however exceptionally challenging the circumstance, or however beautiful, we are promised absolute fulfillment. We can’t assume that young people are so incapable of thinking about anything other than themselves, that we don’t even try to put a vision for future hope in front of them.
I want to see us restore a vision that compels young people and ourselves to the way of Jesus and can sustain even in the most exceptional of circumstances. I cannot believe the call will cause the masses to respond, or lower rates of sexual activity across the nation. But for the few who respond to the mysterious call (to lose our life in order to find it), it will change everything.
Written by Luke Cirillo