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Why we need to talk about sex with young people

You may have noticed that we keep talking about talking about this. Mark Oestreicher explains why. 

Since I’ve spent my youth ministry life mostly with younger teens, how I’ve talked about sex with the teenagers in my churches has probably looked a little different than it does for those of you who work with older teens.

For example, knowing that talking about sex with young teens instantly leads to panic or snickering or both, I wanted a way to both normalise the topic and remove the tension. So, I developed The Sex Song. Any time we were going to talk about sex (which we did at least once a year for a couple weeks), we started by singing this song. I can’t share the tune here, but the lyrics were:

Sex, sex, God gave us sex

Sex, sex, God gave us sex

And he made it for two specific purposes

MAKING BABIES! (shouted)

and

SHOWING LOVE AND AFFECTION TO YOUR SPOUSE! (likewise shouted)

Sex, sex, God gave us sex

 

Honestly, the song was a winner. After the first few seconds (which were filled with facial expressions approximating either “What the heck?” or “Are we allowed to sing this in church?”), my 11 to 14s totally got into it. It worked perfectly to disarm and normalise, and we were able to move into whatever specific topic was planned without as much weirdness.

Except, they loved the song so much they wanted to sing it all the time, even when we weren't teaching a sex series. They sang it at the top of their lungs in a McDonalds on a mission trip. They sang it in the hallways of the church. It certainly made me wonder if I’d created a problem for myself!

Null curriculum

Curriculum developers (to be clear: curriculum just means what you teach) talk about a wide variety of curriculums present in any intentional or unintentional teaching time. These include:

  • Formal curriculum (what you intend to teach)
  • Hidden/covert curriculum (all the variables of your learning environment that aren’t openly communicated, but still transmit tons of ‘lessons’, including norms, values, and beliefs)
  • Non-formal/experiential curriculum (learning – hopefully intentionally – that happens when we’re doing things together)
  • Null curriculum (read on…)

This last one – null curriculum – is likely the one you’ve not heard of. It is, quite simply, the topics we do not talk about. Read this carefully, as it’s important: what we avoid talking about teaches just as much as what we choose to talk about.

For example: if you don’t ever talk about sex and sexuality with your teenagers, you’re communicating a bunch of unhelpful, even inaccurate, lessons about sex and sexuality. You’re teaching that God/the Bible/Church don’t have anything to say about this topic; you’re teaching that Christianity is disconnected from the topics that are important to the teenage experience; you’re probably even teaching a subtle “sex is dirty and shouldn’t be talked about” negative message, which is completely out of alignment with God’s desires and intent for creation.

I find that sex is part of the null curriculum in most homes (including Christian homes), and in the majority of youth groups. And that’s a huge problem, particularly since our teenagers are indigenous to a hyper-sexualized culture where they’re receiving massive quantities of harmful messages about sex on a daily basis.

In short: we have to talk about this!

Everything or nothing

A number of years ago I was helping an author develop a youth ministry resource on the topic of sex and he said something that has stuck with me: “Most youth workers talk about sex as if it’s everything, or as if it’s nothing.” Both of these extremes are, really, dishonest.

Sex isn’t everything. When I hear people say that teenagers are a “walking ball of hormones,” I get uncomfortable. In one sense, this is close to accurate, developmentally. Yes, teenagers are being enormously impacted by the (God-given!) hormones that are bringing unprecedented changes to their bodies, minds, emotions, relationships, and faith. But when people make proclamations like that, they are usually implying that teenagers think about nothing but sex, 24/7/365. And it just isn’t true. There’s at least a bit of video games or nail polish colour in there.

Yes, sex and sexuality (those two are not exactly the same thing) are huge issues for teens as, I would suggest, God intended them to be. But they aren’t everything. To say or imply that they are would be misleading.

But sex sure isn’t nothing (apologies for the double-negative). While we shouldn’t obsess over it, we should be committed to making it one of our top five or ten topics we talk about with teenagers.

I hope you’ll spend some time wrestling with how you can step it up in this area, so that teenagers will be helped in this wonderful and amazing and terrifying and potentially damaging area of their lives. Let’s get sex out of our null curriculum.

And feel free to use my sex song.