Our theme for the month of June is “Sex and the Church.”
(Please listen to the first little bit of “Also sprach Zarathustra” while reading the intro.)
Around 13,000 years ago, probably the Fertile Crescent: Somebody invents agriculture.
Around that same time, around that same place: Somebody invents culturally enforced monogamy as a way of avoiding uncertainty about paternity to encourage paternal investment in child rearing.
Around fifteen years ago, an eighth-grade classroom in Grand Rapids, MI: Somebody teaches a class called “Dating & Relationships” at my middle school.
(You can stop the music now.)
Cut to: palpable silence as fifty thirteen-year-olds try to avoid the word “fondling.” This in response to a teacher asking for the three main ways STDs get transmitted. Somebody got “sex” right away; that’s the easy one—it’s in the name. Some lucky schmo got in second with “blood transfer, like with unclean needles.” That left “fondling,” which meant we had to mutely stare at our desks as if we hadn’t just talked about this twenty minutes ago until Tyler worked up the courage to raise his hand and say it:
As Christian children, we were taught to fear two things: God and sex. And, much like God, sex was best left unseen and unnamed.
Yes, the class was called “Dating & Relationships,” but at the time I jokingly referred to it as “Sex and Why Not To Have It,” because we barely discussed dating and didn’t really cover anything about relationships. Upon reflection, a better name would have been simply “Why Not to Have Sex,” because we didn’t really learn about sex per se. For that, we were left to our own devices: whispered conversations about whether or not “masturbation” is the same as “jacking off” and whether or not “oral sex” is just talking about sex. (It is and isn’t, respectively.)
Instead of learning about sex directly, we learned about the horrible things sex would do to us. We learned the grisly details of every STD known to humankind and the unimaginable tragedy of unplanned pregnancy.
Condoms were occasionally brought up with a scoff and a smirk. Believing that condoms were good for anything was credulity on par with believing the earth is flat. We even played a little game in which we rolled two dice, and if you rolled wrong… sorry, you’re pregnant and/or have an STD. This game did not accurately represent the ninety-eight percent success rate of properly used condoms, but it may have accurately represented the thirty percent failure rate from improper use (a sensible choice, since we were never taught proper use).
But STDs and pregnancy only scratch the surface of The Dangers of Sex™. To understand the emotional toll of sex, we had to do a different activity: gluing together paper hearts and then ripping them apart. You see, when you have sex with someone, you glue your hearts together, and when you are no longer romantically involved with them, your hearts get ripped apart. This is the sort of Perfectly Normal™ thing that Well-Adjusted Adults™ say to Godly Children™ so that those children don’t grow up to do something horrible like have sex with more than one person.
And that’s what we get: exactly one person. Peppered in with the fear mongering were the “Slide 2s” of the class:
Slide 1: If you get pregnant before you want to, your life is over
Slide 2: Reminder that sex is beeeauuuutiful in a loving marriage
Slide 3: The symptoms of gonorrhea
This was a challenging juxtaposition for an eighth grader. How does one’s mind, body, and soul shift sex from anathema to amazing on your wedding day? I mean, we weren’t even allowed to get near sex. Katerina’s post includes the “Twelve Steps of Intimacy” which was a linchpin of this class. We were taught how young people turn into uncontrollable sex-Hulks around step eight or nine, so honestly your best bet is to stop around step three — earlier if you can manage it.
And really it’s the men that become the sex-Hulks, right ladies? Isn’t it right that there’s a bizarre asymmetry in sexual desire between men and women? Isn’t it true that the only reason a woman over the age of thirteen would wear clothes is to protect men’s innocent, wandering eyes from becoming lustful, wandering eyes? Right? RIGHT?
Writing this has reminded me of all the things I learned that I wish I hadn’t and the things I didn’t learn that I wish I had. Calling this class “Dating & Relationships” made it seem like the hardest part about dating & relationships would be avoiding sex. It turns out this is not the case, and there are other things I wish I had been taught. Fundamentals like “some people have the same wants, needs, and desires, but other people have different wants, needs, and desires; this can be very challenging but also very rewarding.” Or “strive to be your own best self first.” Or dating-specific advice like “you will sometimes be romantically rejected but other times romantically accepted; respect the ‘nos’ and celebrate the ‘yeses’ — either way you’re still a complete person.” Or “you will go through breakups; it will be painful, but you will survive.”
Obviously, I learned these lessons eventually. Sometimes through experience, and sometimes through adults who were not the teacher of this class: my parents, my friends, and my friend’s parents (for which I’m grateful—I know it isn’t always easy). But this class (and lessons like it from school and church) made things much worse. This class taught that everyone (at least every man) has the same desire: sex, and the number one thing your best self needs to do is avoid this temptation until marriage. Rejections, yeses, and nos weren’t even discussed. And breakups were literal heart-rending experiences.
The simple truth is that these lessons shouldn’t be taught. Not just for the practical reason that they don’t work, but for the principled reason that it’s lying to children, which has the practical effect of causing a lot of unnecessary struggle. The message needs to evolve.
Tony graduated in 2012 with majors in mathematics and economics. He now lives in Chicago and is pursuing graduate study in economics. He also has a very good cultural trivia podcast called “Here’s My Number, So Call Me Ishmael” available on Libsyn, iTunes, and Google Play.