Sex Ed: Abstinence, yes, but also compassion

“Don't have sex before marriage! But if you do, you'd better use a condom.” Does this kind of sex education give young people a double message? To some people it sounds like what is said out of one side of the mouth is being taken back by the other. How can sex education advocate abstinence while at the same time preparing young people for safer sex?

Some have used this conundrum to try to undermine any safe-sex education beyond simple abstinence. Others have tried to respond by citing the relative ineffectiveness of simply advocating abstinence. They prefer the goal-oriented perspective that if we are genuinely concerned for the well-being of our young people we'd better prepare them for the reality of pre-marital sex, rather than content ourselves with moralistic posturing. Moralistic posturing sacrifices the well-being of too many young people for the sake of a symbolic value.

Advocates of the “abstinence-only” approach can respond that in the long run sticking to our moralistic guns may be more effective in eliminating dangerous pre-marital sex than sliding along with changing times. Yet it may well be impossible to do adequate empirical research on an issue of this complexity.

If we forsake goal-oriented reasoning, is there any defense against the charge that two-tiered sex education—abstinence plus safer sex—is inherently confusing and self-defeating, since it sends a double message? This is a difficult issue—morally, psychologically, and…theologically.

Oddly enough, two-tiered sex education is not the only scheme vulnerable to this conundrum. Christianity embraces a two-tiered approach to worldly life: “Do not sin! But if you do, be sure to seek forgiveness.” Is Christianity giving us a double message here?

It might be said that there is no double message here because Christianity acknowledges that humans cannot fail to sin. Of course this does not mean that we sin all the time, only that there will be occasions on which we sin—fter all, we are only human. But this general inevitability does not excuse us from sin: “Be ye perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet knowing our imperfection, Christianity prepares us to deal with it. We learn to reestablish our bond with God even after the alienation of sin. Does teaching confession and the need and process for seeking forgiveness undermine the message that sin is wrong? Saint John did not think so: “My children, I am writing this to prevent you from sinning; but if anyone does sin...” (I John 2: 1). The Bible forbids sin, yet prepares us to deal with our own sin. Is this double-talk?

A hard-liner might say that in the long run sticking to our moralistic guns (forbidding sin without offering forgiveness as a means of reconciliation) would be more effective in eliminating sin than offering the alternative of forgiveness. But for reasons that may seem mysterious to some, God insists on offering the means of forgiveness even while forbidding sin.

“What is the implication? That we are free to sin, now that we are not under law but under grace? Of course not!” (Romans 6:15), says Saint Paul.

If young people receiving sex education are deserving of the same grace that God saw fit to provide for all, then the two-tiered approach is not double-talk, but morality with compassion—a time-honored approach to the behavior of imperfect humans.

James C. Klagge
Blacksburg, Virginia