WACO—Teaching young people the importance of sexual abstinence outside of marriage and sharing information about contraception need not be seen as contradictory messages, a Baylor University researcher has concluded.
Michael Sherr, director of doctoral studies at the Baylor School of Social Work, together with Preston Dyer, professor emeritus at the school, evaluated “Project U-Turn,” a nine-week comprehensive sex education program for minority youth in Miami, Fla.
“A key finding is that teaching about abstinence and providing medically accurate information—including an honest discussion about sexually transmitted diseases and about contraception—are not mutually exclusive,” Sherr said.
No evidence indicated comprehensive programs that include messages about both abstinence and contraception result in increased sexual activity, he reported.
Comprehensive sex education can postpone the age at which young people engage in sexual intercourse—potentially until marriage, and it can increase the number of youth who discontinue sexual activity, research showed.
At the same time, among young people who persist in sexual activity, comprehensive sex education can increase their use of contraceptives to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and the potential for unplanned pregnancies.
Sherr and Dyer focused their study on programs involving 620 minority youth in Miami, Fla., because research has shown about two-thirds of African-American teenagers and more than half of Hispanic teens engage in sexual intercourse. Those two ethnic groups also have demonstrated higher incidences of sexually transmitted diseases, sex with multiple partners, unplanned pregnancies and abortions.
When they compared outcomes at church and in public school settings, Sherr and Dyer discovered young people in the church-based program ranked higher on every measure consistent with choosing abstinence until marriage.
“Youth at church reported having stricter rules in place about dating, being around peers that shared similar views on sexuality, and have a better understanding of the risks involved in sex before marriage,” Sherr and Dyer wrote in a recently published journal article in Social Work and Christianity.
“They also reported feeling more in control in sexual situations, reported values and intentions consistent with remaining abstinent, and felt confident in being able to remain abstinent in the future until marriage.”
Churches have the advantage of being able to speak not only about the physical consequences of sexual activity, but also the emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual impact, Sherr noted.
“Contraception provides protection only from the physical consequences,” he said.
Youth ministers and other church leaders should recognize many of the young people in their congregations either are sexually active or face tremendous pressures to become active, Sherr observed. About half of the adolescents—in both the church and the public school programs—reported having sexual intercourse prior to the course, he noted.
“It should serve as another wake-up call, alerting Christians to a crisis at our door—the over-sexualization of young people,” Sherr said. “If you have any doubt about it, just try taking a 12-year-old shopping for clothes.”
To counter unhealthy sexual images in popular culture, churches can help to create a culture within each congregation that enables young people to view human sexuality as a gift from God and sexual intimacy as “a sacred act” within marriage, he said.
Comprehensive church-based teaching on sexuality should include not only sex education courses, but also sermons, Bible lessons and opportunities for open discussion, he added. Key components include emphases on healthy relationships, personal goals, effective communication skill and biblical teachings about sexuality.
Ken Camp is managing editor of the Baptist Standard.