This is the week at General Conference when things start to get really hot, as the controversial votes come to the floor of plenary session. The topic of homosexuality will grab the headlines again and, though I understand why, I wish we were talking about other sexual matters, too.
Anyone working with young adults in the church (and in higher education) should take the time to read Mark Regnerus’ and Jeremy Uecker’s book, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think about Marrying, (Oxford U Press, 2011). The book focuses virtually entirely on heterosexual activity, offering only one page (in the introductory chapter) of reference to same-sex coupling. And this is exactly why I think church leaders should read the book. While same sex activity gets all the attention, really serious problems regarding “straight” sex go virtually unnoticed. Have we bought into culture’s fatalistic norms about sex? Yes.
I won’t take the time to do a full review of the book, but let me make a couple of observations. First, our stereotype of the “hookup culture” needs modification. Most young people having sex are doing so within exclusive relationships. Of course, as the authors show, people do hook up and there is plenty of casual sex going on (more among young people not in college than in college – one of the possible surprises that doesn’t fit the stereotype about college). But, as the book shows, people in romantic relationships have much more sex than people not in a relationship.
The problem is that the relationships don’t last. Hence, the phenomenon known as “serial monogamy.” (Gosh, where did they learn this one?) Emerging adults are postponing marriage precisely because they value it. But they don’t connect sex to marriage any more. So, they get into a romantic relationship and most start having sex early. (Ironically, sexually active young people find it far more easy to engage in sexual intimacy than to have an intimate, non-sexual conversation.) Since most of them are not ready to settle down and commit to one another for life, they fatalistically assume that the relationship will end. There is a psychological, spiritual cost to this practice!
The most important and sobering generalization of Premarital Sex in America shines light on the moral norming that takes place among emerging adults. Although the book makes reference to moral norms, it often describes these norms in terms of “scripts” that young people believe and live.
Precisely here is why the church should start paying more attention. We use words like “peer pressure” and we don’t notice the moral character of peer pressure. We simply do not recognize that college students form moral communities. They learn from each other, often through social networking media, television and the movies. (When was the last time you saw a TV show or movie involving romance that did not have the main characters having sex practically almost to start the relationship?) They learn from these sources and not from their church communities what is expected in romantic relationships. Therefore, their choices are not as free as they think and have been told. They are being shaped by a moral community.
The last chapter of the book summarizes 10 myths about sex. I can’t resist quoting some of them. The first one is “Long-term exclusivity is a fiction.” (Really?) Second, “the introduction of sex is necessary in order to sustain a struggling or fledgling relationship.” Fifth, “It doesn’t matter what other people do sexually; you make your own choices.” Eighth, “Sex need not mean anything.” (Wow, this is a doozy. The book acknowledges that some people seem able to engage in “free love” without any serious side effects, but most people suffer. This is one of the dirty little secrets about the myth of no-cost sexual expression in America.) Finally, “Moving in together is definitely a step toward marriage.” No, it isn’t. This is not the authors’ opinion. It is empirical. People who move in together before they get married do not usually go ahead and get married.
There are bright spots in the book. One of them is that students really value marriage, hold it in high esteem and dream of entering this estate. Someday. The problem is, by the time they get there, most of them will have a sexual history that will include significant amounts of pain and regret.
We’ve been told again and again by a thousand different means that it’s none of our business; that it’s none of the church’s business. How dare we try to impose our Christian morality on the young? But someone’s morality is being imposed. And it is not good. Just open your eyes and look around.
I know General Conference must address the issues that people present to it. I know that various questions related to homosexuality will get the lion’s share of attention this week. I also know that we are entirely failing our young with regard to the kind of sex that most of them are having. I’m not trying to set up a false dichotomy. I’m just begging for us to pay more attention.