My husband runs a dormitory of 30 high-school boys. Recently two of them lounged on our living room floor, asking questions about our faith. It started with theodicy (If God is good, why do bad things happen?). We covered confession and the difference between Protestants and Catholics and heaven and hell. Then we came to the topic of sex.
Two things stood out to me in their questions. One, they longed to hear my husband's and my story, the story of two people who started dating in high school and waited until marriage to have sex—two people who have been together for over a decade and feel grateful for, not constrained by, the protection of marriage. Two, we might as well have been telling a fairy tale: "Once upon a time in a land far, far away." Our story intrigued them. It might have even attracted them. But they had no context for understanding what we were talking about.
The story of sex as told in mainstream Western culture is failing us, and a recent spate of articles from surprising mainstream sources has picked up on this. In a recent article for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan covers the way teenage girls want to reclaim the "boyfriend narrative" rather than settling for "hooking up" with various boys who expect no commitment or ongoing relationship. In Flanagan's words, teenage girls are "designed for closely held, romantic relationships." Flanagan never articulates who is doing the designing, but she argues that sex is not enough for teenage girls. Relationships, in fact, are better.
Then last week, Peggy Orenstein, in "Playing at Sexy" at The New York Times Magazine, argues that the sexualization of young girls (see Her.meneutics' recent post on the topic) is harmful. Neither Flanagan nor Orenstein upholds a conservative view of sexuality. Neither believes that sex belongs exclusively within marriage. Orenstein's concerns ultimately lie with young women's ability to express their sexuality in "healthy" ways. Yet both writers are noting that what we're doing now isn't working.
So what is a Christian to do about all this? First, Jesus calls us to be "salt and light" (Matt. 5:13-16), to present an alternative to the cultural norm when that norm is destructive or dehumanizing. Salt makes food taste better. Light helps people see. Christians need to live in such a way that other people look at our lives and say, "I want that": I want the protection that marriage provides. I want the love that deepens with age. I want the assurance that my spouse will be with me, not only when I'm young and beautiful, but also when I'm old and gray. I want a sex life that gets better with time, as we become more and more comfortable with each other.
Second, we need to introduce people to Jesus. For the teenage boys in our living room, our story was an artifact, a fascinating but inaccessible series of choices. I realized pretty quickly that I wasn't going to convince them of the merits of delaying sexual gratification for when they met the right girl. Instead, I told them that my view of sex only made sense if God is real and God cares about us personally. I told them that I believe God has demonstrated that care in the person of Jesus. And I told them that Jesus invites all of us to live with him, a life that is sometimes hard and yet very good. I told them that before they rejected our antiquated notions, they might spend some time reading one of the Gospels and see what they thought about this Jesus.
Third, we need to tell a different story. Flanagan noted the ways teenage girls are looking again for "the boyfriend story." They want a story of commitment, a story of relationships that go beyond the physical, that include the emotional and spiritual and personal. Christians are equipped to give them that story. The story that humans will fail one another, repeatedly. The the story of Christ and the church, mirrored in marriage. The story of "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." They need the true love story. And we need to tell it, in our words, and in our lives.