Today, a very lovely young woman posted an article to Facebook. It dealt with the topic of Christian young people and the sexual issues they face -- regarding such things as sexual development, sexual identity, sexual activity, and pornography. The article encouraged parents not to be fools, not to be in denial about the possibility of their own kids struggling in these areas.
There are times when I think that Catholic/Christian young people have it harder than more secular young people when it comes to growing up and dealing with issues of sexuality. After all, if you are a Catholic/Christian teen or young adult, and you are going to church and are active in church-organized youth activities, it is expected that you are "holy" and "wholesome." People often assume that you aren't sexually active in any way, shape, or form. And you can be ashamed if you realize that you aren't meeting these often unfair and, possibly, unreasonably high expectations. This shame will most likely cause you to not communicate about these issues honestly with your parents, for example. So, it is the parents' job to be aware of the fact that their kids are sexual beings, in the midst of becoming sexual adults, and they might need an ear, some understanding, and some help.
And I don't mean by this that if you catch your kid masturbating that you should drag him (or her) off to Confession and never let him (or her) close his (or her) bedroom door again, figuring that you have solved the problem.
Okay. Now a bunch of you are probably mad at me. I don't mean to belittle the proper use of Confession. Confession -- especially with the help of a kind, understanding, and wise priest (like Father Cornelius Buckley) -- is a comforting and wonderful thing. But, I have seen -- at least at times -- Catholics and other Christians oversimplifying the whole issue of sexual development in young people. It's not that I feel that I'm all-wise and all-knowing in this area. But, these are just some of the things I have figured out along the way, starting from my experiences as the tutor for the Human Sexuality class in college and continuing on through my experiences as a young single woman, a young married woman, a mom, an older married woman, and a friend of people who are single/married/straight/gay/etc. I am not speaking for the Church here. These are only my opinions and what has worked for me. Take it or leave it, as you will.
First of all, I have seen a movement in certain Catholic/Christian circles that basically attempts to ban all possibility of "errant" sexual activity amongst young people by not allowing any dating until it is for the sole purpose of marriage -- and then calling it courting, with a bunch of strict rules in place. This movement also discourages most (if not all) physical affection between "courting" couples. (Some young people are even encouraged to refrain from kissing until their wedding day. Frankly, if I had to go from not even kissing a guy to full-on sexual intercourse in one day, I would have been totally freaked out and overwhelmed. But, that's just me.) Some religious groups are also telling young women that they must be totally chaste -- in mind, body, and spirit -- in all of their relationships with young men, telling them that they are the sexual standard-bearers of society. These young ladies are given the message that they are failing if they think of men in a sexual way, thus perhaps tempting these poor, weak guys who aren't expected to have any sexual self-control of their own. Until, of course, these young women get married. Then they are expected to figure out how to chastely satisfy the sexual needs of their husbands. I have read articles by some of the young women who have been raised in this manner -- women who love God very much and who want to be good Christians -- and they explain how this, essentially, "screwed them up."
Now a bunch more of you are probably mad at me. That's cool. Also, I admit, there are happy young people who have been raised in this very strict way. I am also not trying to say -- in any way, shape, or form -- that young people should be encouraged or allowed to just "have at it" with each others' bodies. And that is another extreme which some schools of thought seem to favor.
So, what do I actually think is helpful to young people who are trying to become mature adults -- sexually, as well as in all other ways?
I think it is our responsibility, as parents, to help our kids create well-rounded and satisfying lives, beginning in early childhood. How can we help our kids succeed academically, develop their areas of interest (such as athletics or the arts), and have happy social lives? How can we make our homes and families places where our kids feel loved, supported, and nurtured? If we pay attention to these things, it will probably help to forestall many potential problems our kids might face -- not only in the area of sexuality, but in other areas, as well.
I think we must also accept that a certain amount of sexual curiosity and exploration are normal for teenagers and young adults. My friend and I used to find and read all the "sexy parts" in our moms' "bodice-ripper novels." My sister and her friends found somebody's hidden stash of "Playboy" magazines and looked through them. None of us went on to develop a pornography addiction. Why? Because when we told our mothers about our little "discoveries," they did not over-react. They reacted calmly, with good humor. They also gave us good examples of how to be as women by how they actually behaved as wives and in their relationships with men. In short, they helped us keep these things in perspective. I suppose one of the thing my own mother did which I found especially helpful was how she talked to us about the sex in movies, TV, and books. Because, frankly, as much as some people protest, these things aren't going to go away. My mother made it a point to talk to us about "real-life" sex, and how it compared to and contrasted with the sex onscreen and in print. She gave us a view of sex which was real, without coming down on us for having normal, girlish imaginations.
And what if you do happen to catch your teenager in some sexual situation to which you object? First of all, stay calm. If you lose it, you'll probably just make things worse. Give your child the time and space to disengage himself from the activity with dignity. Before talking to your child, ask yourself, "Is this activity within the realm of normal sexual development for a person of this age group?" After asking yourself this question, speak with your teen. But, don't humiliate your child. Treat him or her with dignity and understanding. And -- this is just my opinion -- do not, under any circumstances, scare your child with threats of going to hell. Hell is a pretty serious thing, reserved for those who commit grievous actions with full knowledge and consent. Teenagers and young adults have a lot of stuff going on developmentally, so even if you believe what your kid was doing was a big sin, there is a good possibility that the conditions for full culpability did not exist. And, in any case, I have not usually found threats of hell all that effective in the raising of kids. I have never done it myself, but I have seen it done, often with poor outcomes. A quiet manner, a listening ear, and an understanding heart are usually much more helpful.
I know this has been very rambling and long. If you have stuck it out, I appreciate your time. If I lost you along the way, that is perfectly understandable. Again, these are just my thoughts. I don't claim to be any kind of font of wisdom. Pax.