A friend recently shared with me that she overheard a conversation among some of her coworkers. One of them had seen the other’s teenage son out with his girlfriend. With curiosity, a bit of humor, and mostly anxiety, the other retorted: “Did you notice any PDAs?” My friend, not entirely up-to-date on her cultural acronyms, asked these two parents, “Huh? Personal device assistants?” “No, public displays of affection.” My friend, a therapist for the past twenty years, shared her incredulity with me, “Really? Is that what they’re worried about?”
I burst into laughter, thinking about how bizarre this sounded to my friend who has never darkened the door of a conservative evangelical church, and how mild it sounded to me, who spent the first twelve years of life in a Roman Catholic church, the next eight in charismatic, Pentecostal churches, and then another dozen in mainline evangelical churches.
The point is that I think my friend is right. What’s the big deal? Why are we afraid of two young bodies entwined with each other in the mall? Developmentally, that sounds rather normal and healthy. And it’s not an indicator that the next step is intercourse in the wishing fountain.
I get it. We want boundaries for young people. We want them to make choices that contribute to their wellbeing and to that of others. We want them to flourish in relationship to God. But are our anxiety-induced, slippery slope admonitions and demands going to support that kind of spiritual, emotional, sexual flourishing?
I don’t think so.
Some of the latest social scientific research suggests the same. Sex & the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses by Donna Freitas describes the most extensive empirical research to-date on college students’ capacity (or, as the research shows, complete incapacity) to make any meaningful, life-giving connections between their sexuality and their spirituality. This is as true for students living in the “evangelical purity culture” as it is for students living in the “hookup culture.”
While there will be a fuller review of this eye-opening book in a forthcoming Perspectives journal, what I want to highlight here is this simple reality: evangelical college students experience significant anxiety and shame about sex—the kind of anxiety and shame that have nothing to do with the spiritual realities of creation, reconciliation, and redemption. They divorce love and romance from sexual behavior. And the adults in their lives rarely create safe spaces for them to discuss sexuality and spirituality in healthy ways. This is true in spite of and, in my estimation, in large part because of the strict purity code reinforced in evangelical culture—the plethora of educational resources promoting outdated gender role divisions; the rituals intended to protect one’s virginity (e.g., promise rings and father-daughter-abstinence dances); the dire warnings, which lack theological grounding (e.g., your soul is torn into pieces each time you give yourself sexually to another person who isn’t your spouse); and, an overall ethos of fear, judgment, and slippery slope thinking.
We’ve been hearing about sex in the news and the pews (and, if you have teenagers, the malls) quite a lot lately, and we’re plunging down the slippery slope at a dizzying pace.
JCPenney chooses Ellen Degeneres to be its celebrity spokesperson. Then One Million Moms protest, because Degeneres does not mirror the traditional American family; nor does she embody family values (or so it is claimed).
President Obama’s healthcare proposal attempts to ensure that women have access to affordable birth control. Rick Santorum takes offense and goes on the rampage about religious freedom, and a US senator drafts legislation that would allow employers to refuse coverage for medical treatment that they personally object to on the basis of moral or religious grounds.
To this cacophony, I join my friend’s response to her coworkers: Really?! Is this what we’re worried about?