By Riley Manning
Sex education is sometimes a tough subject to broach in the country’s most religious state.
But as the state also boasted the second-highest teen birthrate in 2011, it is obvious that birds and bees are buzzing in Mississippi.
While initially the two rankings may seem contradictory, some feel because sex is shunned, too inappropriate or awkward to discuss, teens elect to learn about it through experience without knowing the facts.
“You’d be surprised at what they believe to be true,” said the Rev. Jeffery Daniel, pastor of White Hill Missionary Baptist Church. “Like if they use the bathroom right after having sex, they can’t get pregnant. Ignorance is the biggest enemy, and their peers act like they know everything already, and act like a kid who doesn’t know is weird.”
But is the church, with its bent toward abstinence, the best forum to teach kids about sex?
Daniel, along with Tupelo First United Methodist Church youth director Corey Truett and pastor of Red Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church Jeffrey Gladney, agree it is.
Daniel reasoned that churches are the perfect venue for sex education, especially in the South, where the church remains a powerful social institution.
“Parents might avoid the conversation because it’s awkward,” he said. “Or, in a single-parent home where the parent works multiple jobs, they might not have time to talk to their kids.”
Truett and Daniel said both of their churches run specialized programs designed to educate and inform their youth about how sex works and why it’s best to wait.
The First United Methodist Church uses the program “Created by God.” Developed by the FUMC’s board of discipline, the course teaches the clinical, biological mechanics of sex when children reach the sixth grade. From there, as they graduate into the senior youth group, abstinence is reinforced with discussions of love and relationships.
“It takes place at just the right age, when both girls and guys are going through changes,” Truett said. “If you teach too early, it’s suggestive, but if you teach too late, they already know.”
White Hill’s program, “True Love Waits,” is sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Christian Resources, and promotes abstinence not only from intercourse, but from sexual thoughts and pornography as well. Like “Created by God,” it is introduced at the sixth-grade level.
“Once they get to be 12 or 13, sex is all around them,” Daniel said. “We try to get them to understand what having sex is about, and that if you walk with Christian values, or claim to, these are the things you must consider.”
Daniel and Truett both said the fight against an increasingly sexualized media, becoming more available all the time, is an uphill battle, especially when a parent is absent.
“We must be realistic about the influence of Internet and media,” Daniel said. “We might have two hours with them at a time, but they are flooded with the idea that this is OK.”
Truett said the most insidious thing about sex in the media is that it has lost its shock value and simply become the standard.
“You have shows like ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and others that normalize it, but there is a lot of power and attachment to the sexual act,” Truett said. “What they see on TV is the glamorous side, but rarely the repercussions.”
As a consequence, Truett said, girls especially get caught in a Catch-22: If they abstain from sex, they are stuck up, prudish, but if they don’t, they are labeled a slut.
It may seem boys get away with the same behavior and are seen as conquerors. But though the act may be less harsh on their reputation, sex can be just as rough emotionally when boys begin to equate their self-value with notches in their belt.
“The pressure can be devastating, even leading to suicidal thoughts,” Daniel said. “Lessons of self-esteem and self-value must start early, so when they get to that age, they don’t have to prove themselves by having sex.”
Gladney takes the approach of sex education in the context of larger messages to his congregation about family structure and marriage. In his series, he provides ideas how fathers might show daughters what a gentleman should look like by opening doors, dressing nice and taking them to respectable places. In addition, members of his congregation from Tupelo’s Family Resource Center step in to work with youth about what to do and not do on a date, as well as how to keep themselves out of bad situations.
But according to Gladney, the church is more than a common forum to educate teens. While there are plenty of practical, economical reasons to abstain from sex until marriage, Gladney said “The Talk” is a discussion that simply can’t be had without talking about God.
“Secular sex-ed programs aren’t effective because kids still think diseases and pregnancy won’t ever happen to them,” he said. “The reality goes beyond that. You’re messing up your temple.”
Gladney said this mentality must become a culture to work, to build strong families and bridge the generation gap. By constantly staying in a child’s ear, parents can trust those values to kick in when kids are in their own circle of peers.
“If they are firm in who they are, a child of God, it will stick. Keep telling them how important they are,” he said.
The Bible, he said, is the perfect rule book.
Gladney noted in chapter 2 of the book of Genesis, before Adam had anything, he had God. Then he receives a job, to care for the Garden of Eden. Then at the end of chapter two, Adam receives a wife.
“It isn’t until chapter four that Adam and Eve have a child,” Gladney said. “Creation was set up so things are done in a certain order. The world is messed up because people are doing chapter 4 things in chapter 2.”
Gladney said Bible study and youth leaders must meet teens where they are and handle youth issues with soft hands. Equally important, parents and the community must be educated to understand the issues going on with their children.
Daniel agreed communication is the answer. Nothing is worse than when a teen gets trapped in one way or another, and doesn’t want anyone to know.
So in addition to the annual “True Love Waits” program, White Hill periodically holds a panel where youth and adults can air their concerns, issues and questions. In the sanctuary, six adults sit across from six youth, and take turns answering previously submitted, anonymous questions, while the congregation observes from the pews. The forum helps youth see they aren’t the only ones in the dark. In many cases, Daniel said, they are glad to have fellow church members who are just as confused.
They ask, “Why is it so hard to talk to a member of the opposite sex without feeling sexual urges,” and “Why do adults act like they’ve never been young and never done anything wrong?”
“Parents are bad to turn a blind eye to the negative influence,” Daniel said. “We have to get away from Sesame Street-type answers and face the reality that your child is facing a difficult subject.”
Adults responded that they don’t want their kids to think, “They made mistakes and they turned out fine,” but sharing personal experiences is crucial. Not only will doing so allow the child to hear the full consequences of a bad choice, but it also encourages openness and trust between parent and child.
“In the book of Hosea, the Lord says, ‘My people will perish from lack of knowledge,’” Daniel said. “We can’t bury our head. We have to see the reality of what takes place with kids who go to church.”