A Primer for Parents

The barriers against premarital sex have been crumbling in America for decades. Today they have been leveled almost to the ground. That this has brought dismay and apprehension to Christian parents hardly needs to be stated. Even non-Christian parents are often alarmed by the phenomenon and what it portends.

Violators of the sexual code were hardly uncommon in the past, but the principle was largely unchallenged. That is no longer the case. The code itself has been subjected to heavy attack and even ridicule from many quarters. For many, it is part and parcel of the “moral rubbish” that disfigured the Victorian era. Yet we must not forget that a basic Christian precept is at stake, one that is as valid today as when it was first proclaimed.

The forces producing this condition are well known. As Ronald Koteskey has pointed out, puberty arrives at a much earlier age than it did centuries ago. At the same time, marriages are delayed by the need for advanced education as well as by the financial burdens of sustaining a home during this educational phase. This makes heavier moral demands on young people than those experienced by previous generations (CT, March 13, 1981, p. 26).

Moreover, we live in a society that seems hell-bent on stimulating sexual activity by a variety of potent means—TV programs, pornography, advertising, books and magazines preoccupied with illicit sex and scornful of anything smacking of “Puritanism.” (In his Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis noted that the disdain in which the word “Puritan” has come to be held is one of Satan’s “really solid triumphs”.) The arrival of “the Pill” and the ready availability of other birth-control devices have furthered the trend.

Besides all this, moral standards in general have withered in recent years. Among the young, especially, self-discipline has been valued far less than “self-expression” and “self-fulfillment.” As for premarital sex, since “everyone does it,” adolescents who are exposed to powerful societal and peer group pressures, as well as to their insistent glandular urges, fall right and left before the nihilistic onslaughts of our times.

Everyone doesn’t do it, of course. But it must be conceded that unusually unattractive youths and those from conservative Christian homes are about the only ones who don’t. And even among the latter, the number who succumb to the moral erosion of the times is apparently growing. Not a few Christian leaders, moreover, have yielded to the Zeitgeist, and have found traditional Christian teachings too onerous and inflexible for the radically changed circumstances of our day.

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The latter is rather remarkable, considering the ugly social harvest the “sexual revolution” has brought us. If we had only the current statistical consequences of that revolution to rely on, that should be enough to give pause not only to the Phil Donahues, Gore Vidals, and Shere Hites, but to liberal theologians as well.

America now records about 300,000 teen-aged abortions per year, 240,000 illegitimate children, a rapid rise in the number of early teen-aged mothers, growing numbers of high school dropouts because of pregnancies, the proliferation of single-headed families because of premarital and extramarital sex, and an estimated 12 million young Americans with sexual diseases. There is also reliable evidence that early sex increases the incidence of cervical cancer.

But there is even more persuasive empirical evidence that societies that adopt permissive sexual standards are inviting the most serious kind of trouble. Whereas experts disagree endlessly with one another in most areas of social controversy, the most thoughtful and wide-ranging students of this phenomenon are remarkably united in their pessimistic conclusions on the relationship between declining sexual standards and the well-being of society.

Although hostile to Christian beliefs in general, Sigmund Freud advanced the thesis that civilization makes greater progress when sexual energy is restrained and channeled into social energy by social customs and requirements. A respected Cambridge University sociologist, J. D. Unwin, set out to disprove Freud’s contention that there was a relationship between a somewhat restrictive sexual environment and social progress. To his surprise and dismay, however, his study of over 80 ancient, primitive, and more modern societies revealed an unvarying correlation between the degree of sexual restraints and the rate of social progress. Cultures that were more sexually permissive displayed less cultural energy, creativity, intellectual development, individualism, and a slower general cultural ascent. Whenever more sexual freedom appeared, it was invariably followed by a decline in that culture. (He conceded, however, that the adverse effects of greater sexual freedom might not be fully demonstrated for several generations.)

Correlations do not constitute scientific proof of causality. However, the undeviating nature of these correlations in such widely diverse cultures over such long historical periods could hardly be accidental. Yet Professor Unwin’s conclusions received far less attention than they deserved—and far less, we may safely surmise, than if he had come to opposite conclusions.

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Unwin’s findings were supported by Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, whose own studies had reached a roughly similar conclusion. Their judgments were indirectly bolstered when Arnold Toynbee, the most celebrated student of world history, affirmed his belief that a culture that postpones rather than stimulates sexual experience in young adults is a culture most prone to progress. They were further reinforced by the late Will and Ariel Durant. In The Lessons of History, which summarized their principal findings from lifelong research on The Story of Civilization, they declared that sex in the young “is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group.”

In 1971, after studying 90 contemporary primitive or less-advanced cultures, anthropologist William Stephens wrote that the tribes lowest on the scale of cultural evolution have the most sexual freedom. Significantly, he also noted that those with “maximal freedom” showed “little connection between sex and love.”

These facts and findings are not cited because Christian doctrine requires the validation of empirical evidence. Rather, they may bolster the faith of some who wonder if this particular Christian principle needs reinterpretation and modernizing. The evidence strikingly demonstrates its continuing validity in a heedless age.

What can Christian parents do to keep their children from falling victim to today’s standards (or lack of standards)? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Instilling of Christian attitudes toward sex should begin early. Once adolescents have reached puberty it is usually too late. By that time, young people have reached their rebellious years. They tend to resist parental advice and listen sympathetically to their peers. Parents need to teach their children at an earlier age that Christian standards unequivocally forbid premarital sex. They need to understand that this is a matter of major importance, and that they will want to abide by this principle because it is God’s will.

Young people may seem restless and uninterested when this is taught in prepuberty years. But they will be listening, even if they seem uncomfortable and do not know quite how to respond. It is imperative that this principle be implanted when resistance is very low or nonexistent. When adolescence arrives, young people will then be able to draw upon a moral value already solidly established, and one that seems to be their own instead of one suddenly foisted upon them when they least want to hear it.

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This calls for a modest amount of sex education before most parents provide it—though not before children get garbled versions from their friends. Such education includes sexual behavior. This kind of training has been practiced by responsible parents in other areas—the indoctrination of valid, moral principles at an impressionable, early age. It is understandable if parents shrink from doing this, given our customary hesitance to introduce the subject to our children. But the risks of delay are simply too great.

2. When puberty arrives, children should again be reminded that Jesus’ teachings do not approve premarital sex (Matt. 15:19). Loyalty to him leaves no choice in the matter. And if Jesus’ teachings cannot be trusted here, why trust them on anything else?

3. The staggering cost of transgressing the Christian code may be pointed out to young people. The statistics on teen-aged abortion, illegitimacy, and so on should be brought to their attention to reinforce the contemporary relevance of counsel. It will be no exaggeration to tell young people that sexual misconduct brings them more tragedy than any single practice in which they engage. And it will be prudent to remind them that almost all of the young who became statistics were certain it would not happen to them.

4. More thoughtful and inquiring youth can be told what leading historical and sociological studies have concluded about permissive sexual standards and societal well-being. Conscientious young people with probing minds will welcome the intellectual support this provides for the path they plan to follow.

5. Young people should be made to understand why the availability of the Pill and other birth-control devices is irrelevant to the principle of premarital abstinence. As all intelligent Christians know, sexual intercourse is much more than a purely physical act. Under normal circumstances, it involves an intimate wholeness that joins spirit and flesh in sacred union.

There is persuasive evidence that coitus was seen as tantamount to marriage in the earliest period of biblical history. In the eyes of God, sexual union may commit an unwed couple to one another in more binding fashion than the marriage ceremony itself. The formal wedding ceremony was a later social invention signifying the joining of man and woman in permanent union.

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While the nuptial proceedings publicly symbolize the intent to form a lasting marital relationship, they may not represent as profound a commitment as the sexual act itself. Even secular law partially supports this, since a marriage never consummated by sexual relations can be annulled, for it is not regarded as a true marriage. Christian youth who realize the full gravity of the sexual experience are more likely to take it seriously.

If safeguards against conception were sufficient to legitimize sexual adventures by the young, parents could equip their early teen-aged children with the necessary contraceptive advice and equipment and in good conscience bid them embark on the sexual seas. But even teen-agers can see the folly of such a reckless course. For Christians, birth control measures have little to do with the moral and spiritual character of the sexual act. These are only means whereby married couples can control the number and spacing of their offspring.

Young people may argue that while genuine promiscuity is wrong, it is different when one loves someone and intends to marry that person. Again, a few warnings should be passed along.

It is not uncommon for teen-agers to fall madly in love. They may be sure theirs is a deathless romance that can only culminate in marriage, and believe that sex with their beloved falls into an “acceptable” category of premarital relations. Before they finally marry, however, they may become infatuated with a succession of partners, drifting into promiscuity without ever intending to do so.

If the door is opened to sex once a couple has a “meaningful relationship,” it will not take long for teen-agers to interpret any current relationship as one that gives them the green light.

6. Parents ought to be wise in warning their adolescent children that remaining chaste may be exceedingly difficult. It takes courage, self-discipline, and personal conviction to be true to the mark. The Christian way is not the easy way; it is just the best way. Christian youth who are forewarned about the formidable temptations they face and advised to draw back from dating activities that make sexual restraint difficult will have received advice they sorely need. But they should also know that God never asks what is unreasonable, unattainable, or contrary to their long-range best interests.

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They need reassurance, moreover, that the pangs of restraint are vastly relieved once they make a firm, unshakable resolution to go God’s way. Irresolution is not only a certain prescription for defeat. It is psychologically distressing as well. But once made, it is surprising how liberating a deliberate and clear-cut decision to abstain can be.

7. Youth must learn that restraint has its rewards, in both the short and the long run. Dating partners can have a greater measure of personal respect for those who refrain from sex before marriage. Abstainers can have more self-respect as well. They can maintain more open, healthy, and unstrained relations with their parents than those who engage in clandestine sex. They can also have confidence that if their partner forgoes sex before marriage, he or she will almost certainly refrain from extramarital affairs later on. Without the intrusion of sexual relations, the young can better evaluate those qualities that are most important to a lasting marriage.

Moreover, those who have practiced restraint prior to marriage know that this attitude can actually enhance love for one’s partner and heighten the pleasure of the engagement period. Incredible? Not at all.

In the first place, for various reasons initial sexual experiences are often less than satisfying. They may bring more misgivings than elation. Furthermore, the anticipatory pleasures for abstainers of consummating the marriage relationship after the wedding will be belittled only by those who have not known that experience. Indeed, their sneers may overlay a wistful wish that they had done the same.

Those who engage in premarital sex rob the wedding day of much of its mystery, allure, and dignity. In their impatience to taste forbidden fruit, they forfeit that special kind of exhilaration that makes the chaste engagement period one of the most beautiful experiences human beings can ever know.

The divorce rate is so high that prospective marital partners need to know as much as possible about each other before launching out into marriage. They need not only to know the surface attractions of each other, but the ordinary, day-to-day behavioral characteristics as well. How emotionally mature is the prospective mate? How does he or she bear up under adversity? Are faults and idiosyncracies the kind the other can tolerate? Are the couple’s value systems and religious outlooks compatible?

It is supremely important, as most recognize, for parents to teach their adolescent children that sex is not a necessary evil, but one of God’s greatest and most pleasurable gifts to mankind. It is to be viewed with thanksgiving, since it can contribute so much to human happiness and well-being. Adolescents need to know their parents believe this. But they must also know that the One who provided the gift also furnished the rules governing its use.

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The best assurance we can have that our youth will respect God’s will in this area is to help them commit themselves fully to him. If they yield their lives to God, and understand his will on this matter, we can trust the outcome. But full commitment to Christ may come late rather than early. And the subversive influences of our times are so intense and the hazards so formidable that the precautionary measures recommended should be seriously considered by parents and all who work with young people.

Reo M. Christenson is professor of political science at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.

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